Strategies for Shopping: Estate Sales

Blue Ball Mason Jars

There’s nothing like the thrill of a good estate or garage sale. I started going to garage sales with my family many years ago. It was wonderful because for just a few dollars, everyone could find something interesting and it was a great way to convince everyone to get in the car and have a lovely Saturday or Sunday morning. We didn’t do it very often, probably once or twice a month during the summer, but it helped kindle my passion for old things and my love of hunting through other people’s treasures.

My parents each have different strategies for garage sales, and I’ve inherited a little of both their tendencies. My dad is very focused. He knows exactly the kinds of things he’s looking for. He does one circuit, and if he doesn’t find anything, he goes back to the car. Mom couldn’t be more different. She will take her time looking, even if she doesn’t see anything that interests her, will chat with the people running it, and will dig through piles and boxes. Sometimes her searches are rewarded, and sometimes they’re not, but that doesn’t really matter to her.

This came with matching clip on earrings that I converted into posts.
This came with matching clip on earrings that I converted into posts.

My dad taught me how to barter and know what I want, my mom gave me her enthusiasm and her spontaneity when we’d just turn off and follow signs. Sometimes we’d drive miles and miles out of the way for an estate sale or big garage sale. They turned garage sales into an adventure.

Sprinkled through this post are some of my favorite (though by no means all) of my garage sale and estate sale finds. I’m sharing my top ten tips to get the most out of garage sales and estate sales:

1. Go early.

You don’t have to get up at the crack of dawn, but if you want the best stuff, you’ll have to go when the pickings are good. The later in the day you go, especially around brunch/lunch on a Saturday, the more busy a good sale will be. It’s great to grab coffee and head out around 9am, when most sales open. You can hit the early ones and then be there for the ones that open a little later.

Make sure to bring plenty of cash with you. I try to bring 40-100 dollars with me every time I go. I rarely spend it all (and some sales do take debit or credit cards, especially if the sale’s for charity or the estate sale is run by a coordinating company.), but it’s better to be prepared than feel let down.

Silver dish

Love the detail on the bottom.
Love the detail on the bottom.

2. Make a day of it.

Shopping of any kind is more fun with company. Pretty much anyone can find something they like at a sale, so you can bring the whole family, a boyfriend/girlfriend, friends, or anyone really. If the sales are in your neighborhood, you can always hit up the friendly neighbor you go walking with. When you hit several sales in one day, you’re more likely to come across something you like and feel more productive. Taking friends is great because even if you don’t find something, chances are someone will and you’ll still feel good about it. There’s nothing worse than getting discouraged because you’re not finding things. If the day feels like an outing and an adventure, it’ll be much better for everyone.

3. Trust your instincts.

I’ve definitely been to sales that have given me the willies. Things aren’t clean, there’s junk everywhere, it doesn’t smell right, the place has a bad atmosphere, the people running it are hostile/rude/creepy–whatever it is–the place just gives off bad vibes. Especially if you’re going by yourself, but even when your with friends, feeling safe is the most important thing. Even finding the most amazing vintage item worth thousands of dollars that’s being sold for twelve bucks is not worth compromising your safety. You’re going into someone’s home, out of your comfort zone, and if you don’t feel safe, just leave.

1970s Maxi Dress

4. Know when to walk away from a sale.

There are times when it’s better to be like my father and just sit in the car when you’re not finding anything. Not every sale will be your sale, and that’s okay, but it’s important to know when you’ve had enough so that you give other people the space to enjoy themselves too. Hanging around impatiently will just make you feel worse, and the people you’re with will feel guilty and rushed. Better to sit in the car and check your email so that when you find a sale you want to linger at, people will happily wait for you.

5. Know what you’re looking for.

I’m betting that you collect or are interested in something. Let a few ideas guide your way. It’ll keep your hunt more focused, and you’ll be less likely to walk away with something that beautiful old telephone that doesn’t work or that poster you’ll never hang up, or that serving bowl you really don’t need.

Hopefully you’ve done a little research about many of the things you’re interested in and you know what they’re worth. If you’re paying more at a garage or an estate sale for something you’d buy at a thrift or antique store, something’s wrong. Knowing the value of what you’re looking at will help tell you if it’s worth buying.

This cup and saucer started my love affair with Hall China
This cup and saucer started my love affair with Hall China

6. Be open to possibilities.

Just because you’re not looking for it, doesn’t mean something amazing won’t find you. I find that keeping my hunt only loosely structured opens me up to things I wouldn’t normally have looked at. You may be looking for something specific, but don’t let that goal keeping you from looking at everything on display. There might be something that sweeps you away, if you open yourself up to looking.

7. Ask questions and engage with the people in charge of the sale.

If you have a question, ask. The person in charge might not have all the answers, but they may be able to offer insight about why an item was priced the way it was and about its history, story, provenance, what have you. You don’t need to take up a lot of their time, especially if the sale is busy, but people like to engage with other people who are interested. This is less doable if the estate sale is run by an outside company, but even then a smile and a little conversation will heighten the experience for everyone.

With the removal of the sleeves, this dress  went from old and stuffy to modern.
With the removal of the sleeves, this dress went from old and stuffy to modern.

8. Don’t be afraid of something that needs a little elbow grease.

If you are a DIY freak, this probably goes without saying, but even if you’re not the craftiest person on the block, there are still lots of small things that you can do to bring a work-in-progress to life. This is especially true with clothes–don’t be afraid to go to a seamstress to have a vintage dress fit you perfectly or to do a little research and restoration work.

That being said, know what you can and can’t do and what you realistically are able/willing to do. Don’t add another project to a pile that’s already overflowing and don’t choose something that needs so much work that it will become virtually unrecognizable. I cannot tell you how many things I’ve had to walk away from because I realized that to do the item in question justice, I would have to devote skills and time I don’t have to it.

Vintage Milk Bottles. I fill mine with coins and rocks.
Vintage Milk Bottles. I fill mine with coins and rocks.

9. Think of others.

If you’re going with other people, make sure their needs are met and that they’re having a good time. Make sure everyone is fed and watered appropriately, that they have sunblock or raincoats if necessary, and that everyone is on the same page as far as schedules are concerned.

Also, think of others while you’re looking. If a cousin’s just had a baby, and there’s gently used baby clothes at the sale, consider picking out an outfit. You can stock up for birthdays and holidays (hello stocking stuffers!), white elephants, or you can find things that remind you of a friend and give them a just-because present. Thinking of others while you shop allows you to find more potentially and shows you care.

You can also think about the people running the sale. If it’s a young college couple or two elderly people, do you really need to get exact change? If someone could use the extra 30-50 cents more, maybe they should keep it. There might be children selling lemonade or other refreshments. If you buy something, consider leaving them a tip. Even just being polite and courteous (not messing up neat piles of clothing) goes a long way to making the sale successful for everyone.

This Underwood No. 5 from 1919 needed a lot of love, but was well worth the effort.
This Underwood No. 5 from 1919 needed a lot of love, but was well worth the effort.

10. When to buy and when to walk away.

Of course there are many things to consider when purchasing something, but sometimes you just know. In this case if you have the money, you might as well buy it. If you fall in love and don’t get something, you’ll regret it. I know I always do. If you’re interested but think the price is a little high, offer what you consider to be a fair price. You might be surprised by what they’re willing to sell something for, but don’t be offended if they don’t bend on the price. If there’s no wiggle room in the price and you can’t justify spending the money on it, just walk away. Just like when you go to any store, don’t buy something if you’re not sure about it. If it doesn’t feel right, doesn’t fit into your life or quite match your style, there will always be something else that feels better.

I absolutely adore estate sales, and when summer rolls around I can’t wait to get out and go exploring. What I love even more than the things themselves is the picture they create about the person who owned them. No one is defined solely by their possessions, but they do help to paint a portrait of the person, and I find myself making up stories about people–a great creative exercise if you ask me.

What’s been your best garage sale or estate sale find?

One thought on “Strategies for Shopping: Estate Sales

  1. I enjoyed this post, thank you for sharing. My best estate sale purchase to date was a 1930s steel guitar purchased for $75 and sold on eBay $2200. If you get a chance stop by my blog where I post my weekly yard sale treasures.


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