How to ensure a successful estate sale
On any given weekend in the Washington, D.C. area, there are hundreds of estate sales competing with one another, and the market is being flooded with items that people who are cleaning house or downsizing no longer need.
The resulting tsunami of “stuff” has given rise to a virtual explosion of businesses ready to help you sell, donate or dispose of it.
Because of the avalanche of formal dining room and bedroom furniture and “collectibles” now on the market, many beautiful old pieces are truly not drawing buyers’ attention and should probably be appraised and donated for a tax deduction.
On the other hand, don’t think everything you own should go to a thrift shop or the dump. People of all ages are often stunned when I tell them that certain items they assumed to be worthless are actually valuable and will sell for a good price at a properly prepared and presented estate sale.
Dishonest companies exist in every industry, and the estate sales business is no exception. To avoid joining the ranks of those who have been disappointed or ripped off by a firm, you must plan ahead and do thorough research.
Here’s some advice, based on my years in the estate sale business, to minimize your stress and maximize your earnings.
Choose the right company
Do not throw or give anything away before you get expert advice. Most people do not know exactly what they have, the current market value of their possessions, or the many options they have for de-accessioning.
The best advice is to first hire a trusted and knowledgeable expert to take a look and inform you. Word of mouth is often the best way to find expert help. Look everywhere and ask friends for recommendations. You want to find the right match for you, so take as much time as you need in this initial search process.
Feel free to ask many questions when you talk to estate sales firms. Make sure you talk to the person who will be planning, staging, marketing and running your sale. If you talk to the salesperson who only gets contracts signed, your sale might just be one of many they are doing on a given weekend.
Smart questions to ask:
- How long has the company been in business? How was it started and what types of services does it offer?
- Has the same person owned it from the start? If it has a new owner, ask about his or her experience and qualifications, not that of past owners.
- How will the sale be set up? Perhaps they can show you photos from previous sales.
- Who sets the prices? How are price negotiations and reductions handled? What about customer service?
- Where and how will your sale be marketed? Ask to see ads from other sales. If you have not been able to attend any of their sales, ask to speak with some of their past clients and regular customers.
Use the interview to assess the professional’s knowledge. Consider it your own “Antiques Roadshow” — whether you have antique items or not. An experienced and intelligent professional will be able to give you a good idea of a price range. Be suspicious of vague language such as, “Oh, I’m sure someone will like that lamp.”
Find out what all the costs will be, including sales commissions, advertising, security and how what doesn’t sell will be handled. Never make a decision based on the commission percentage alone.
Then, carefully review the contract and ask questions before signing it. One of the big red flags in contracts is a section that says the estate sale company can keep everything that isn’t sold. In many contracts now, the estate sale company declares that at the end of the sale it will pay a small amount (often just $200 or $300) for everything that was not sold. That’s not always a fair agreement.
Especially important: Do not hire anyone to appraise or sell your possessions if they will also be buying from you. As you can imagine, there are many true stories about people being (falsely) told that their items have no value, only to be purchased by the expert.
Designing the sale
If you live in a community governed by an HOA board and/or a management company, get written and verbal confirmation of all rules and procedures: fees, access, parking, restrictions on signs, etc. It’s smart to do this before you talk to estate sale companies.
Don’t forget to consider the challenges of weather, special events and traffic issues. Successful sales often require two weekends, with start and end days just before and after the weekends.
Any de-accessioning plan should be personalized to your situation. If you have time, you are at a great advantage. After all, some unique items might warrant special attention and advance marketing.
Lastly, realize that a good partnership and teamwork mean that you and your estate sale company must work in good faith with each other. Confidence, trust, integrity, ethics, collaboration and hard work get results.
Estate sales and moving sales offer fabulous opportunities to find new owners for everything from fine art and antiques to regular household furnishings and decor. Those who frequent them love the thrill of the hunt.
If you plan carefully and make well-informed and smart decisions, you, the estate sale company and your customers will all be happy.
Belinda Byrd is an art historian, collector and entrepreneur. She consults and conducts business under the name Adams-Byrd Fine Arts & Antiques and can be reached at email@example.com.