How to Run an Estate Sale

Selling a loved one’s lifetime belongings or decluttering your own home can be a daunting task, but knowing how to hold an estate sale can significantly simplify the process. An estate sale isn’t just a garage sale; it’s a carefully planned event where valuable items find new homes.

Whether you’re faced with this task due to a life transition or you simply want to downsize, we have you covered.

Let’s unravel the mysteries surrounding estate sales and provide practical tips to ensure your sale is both profitable and stress-free – whether you do it yourself or hire an estate sale company.

What is an Estate Sale? Understanding the Basics

At first glance, estate sales might seem similar to a regular garage sale or yard sale, but it is, in fact, a completely different event.

An estate sale, often called a tag sale in some parts of the country, is a way of liquidating the belongings of a family or estate. They usually occur on a much larger scale than yard or garage sales, and they happen for a variety of reasons, ranging from the passing of a family member to downsizing due to a move or retirement.

While it is possible for a homeowner to hold an estate sale, many people choose to hire a professional estate sale company to manage the event.

A professional estate sale company has the experience and expertise to accurately price items, attract potential buyers through effective marketing, handle negotiations, and ensure that the sale runs smoothly.

To further understand all you need to know about holding an estate sale, let’s delve into its key aspects:

  • Variety of Items: One of the distinguishing features of an estate sale is the variety and volume of items available for purchase.Unlike a typical yard sale which may predominantly feature small household items and clothing, an estate sale is an opportunity to acquire everything from furniture, appliances, and artwork, to clothing, jewelry, books, and sometimes even larger items like cars, boats, or real estate.This wide-ranging selection is a result of an entire household’s worth of items being put up for sale.
  • Pricing Structure: The pricing at an estate sale tends to be more reflective of the item’s value rather than being a platform for extreme bargains.Items are priced based on their current market value or assessed worth, taking into consideration factors such as age, condition, brand, and rarity.In some instances, appraisers may be brought in to ensure accurate pricing of particularly valuable or unique items.
  • Professionally Managed: Estate sales can be complex events to organize and manage. Many people opt to hire professional estate sale companies, who offer end-to-end services from pricing and staging items, to advertising the sale, managing the event, and even cleaning up afterwards.These companies have the knowledge, resources, and network to make the sale successful and more manageable.
  • Time-Sensitive Nature: Unlike retail stores or online marketplaces, estate sales are time-bound events, typically lasting one to three days, often over a weekend.There’s an element of ‘early bird gets the worm’, with the best items to flip often getting picked up on the first day.However, last-minute shoppers may also find great deals, as prices can drop towards the end of the sale in a bid to clear items.
  • Purpose: Beyond simply selling items, estate sales often serve a higher purpose.They may be part of settling an estate after someone’s passing, helping families transition during a move, or aiding individuals in downsizing their belongings.It’s not uncommon for estate sales to also have an emotional element attached, as they can represent significant life changes or the passing of a generation.

Grasping these elements is crucial to understanding how to run an estate sale effectively, ensuring you maximize profits while minimizing stress.

The Differences between Estate Sales, Garage Sales, Yard Sales and Auctions

how to run an estate sale

An estate sale is usually much larger than a yard sale or garage sale. There is usually a much wider variety of items. While estate sales are largely cash businesses, the fact that companies instead of individuals often run them means that they can sometimes accept other forms of payment as well.

The estate sale differs from an auction in that items have a set price. At an estate sale, the prices of the items are on the item, using a sticker or a tag.

At an auction, Items are brought out, and buyers bid on items. There is no set price, although there may be an “opening bid” amount.

AspectEstate SalesGarage SalesAuctions
PurposeSell entire contents of a home, often due to death, moving, or downsizingSell unneeded or unwanted personal itemsSell items to the highest bidder; often used for valuable or unique items
ScaleUsually large, entire household contentsSmaller, personal itemsVaries; can be small collections to entire estates
PricingFixed but may be negotiatedUsually fixed, often negotiableStarting bid, prices determined by bidding
LocationInside the home or estateHome's yard or garagePhysical auction house or online
Time FrameTypically multi-dayOften one or two daysSpecific time for bidding; may last minutes to weeks online
OrganizationOften run by professionals; carefully stagedUsually casual, run by homeownersConducted by auctioneers; formal process
MarketingAdvertising in local media, online, signsLocal ads, signs, word of mouthSpecialized marketing, catalogs, online listings
Target AudienceGeneral public; collectors; dealersNeighbors, local communityCollectors, dealers, general public
Legal ConsiderationsMay require permits, adherence to local lawsMay require permits; local regulationsLicenses for auctioneers; specific legal procedures
FeesCommission to estate sale company; potential entry feesUsually none; potential permit costBuyer's premium; seller's commission; listing fees
Item TypesFull range of household items, antiques, collectiblesHousehold goods, clothing, toys, toolsArt, antiques, collectibles, real estate, cars
Payment MethodsCash, credit cards, checksOften cash onlyVaries; often includes cash, card, online payments

How to Start an Estate Sale Business

Once you’ve hosted a successful estate sale, you may become interested in running more estate sales – as a business.

One of your first steps is to write a business plan. In your plan, you’ll choose a name for your business and also the business structure.

Many entrepreneurs choose the Limited Liability Company, or LLC, as the business structure. An LLC protects the LLC owner’s personal assets.

Your business name must be registered with your state and also local governing entities. You’ll need business insurance. If you have employees, you’ll also need worker’s compensation insurance.

Depending on the type of estate sale business you want to run, you may need commercial vehicle insurance for vehicles such as vans and trucks (If you want to offer delivery services or removal of unsold items).

Many first-time business owners hire an attorney and an accountant to guide them through the early stages of the business.

What does a Professional Estate Sale Company do?

how to run an estate sale

A professional estate sale company, also known as an estate liquidator or estate sale service, is a business that specializes in helping individuals or families manage and conduct the sale of personal belongings and household items from an estate.

This service is often used when someone passes away, moves to a smaller home, or needs to downsize their possessions for various reasons.

Here’s what a professional estate sale company typically does:

  1. Estate Evaluation: The estate sale company will assess the entire contents of the property, including furniture, antiques, collectibles, jewelry, artwork, household items, and more. They will determine the potential value of the items based on their knowledge and experience.
  2. Pricing and Appraisal: The estate sale company will appraise and price the items to be sold. They use their expertise to assign fair market values to each item, considering factors like age, condition, rarity, and market demand.
  3. Organizing and Staging: The company will organize and set up the estate sale, often transforming the home into a retail-like environment. They will appealingly stage the items to attract potential buyers and encourage sales.
  4. Advertising and Marketing: Professional estate sales companies utilize various marketing channels, such as online platforms, local newspapers, social media, and their customer database, to promote the sale and attract many potential buyers.
  5. Sale Management: During the sale, the company will manage the entire process, including handling sales transactions, providing customer assistance, answering questions, and ensuring a smooth and efficient buyer experience.
  6. Security and Crowd Control: Estate sales can attract many visitors. A professional estate sale company will implement measures to maintain security and manage the crowd, ensuring that everyone has a safe and positive shopping experience.
  7. Negotiation and Discounts: Estate sale companies are skilled in negotiation. They may negotiate prices with potential buyers to ensure a higher rate of sales. Towards the end of the sale, they might offer discounts on remaining items to clear the inventory.
  8. Donation and Disposal: After the estate sale, the company may help the client with arranging donations for unsold items to charities or facilitate the proper disposal of any remaining items.
  9. Post-Sale Cleanup: Once the sale is complete, the company will help clean up and restore the property to its original condition, if necessary.

It’s important to note that each estate sale company might have slightly different procedures and services.

But for estate sale companies, the overall goal is to efficiently and effectively sell the estate’s contents while maximizing profits for the client.

Legal Requirements of Estate Sales

how to run an estate sale

The legal requirements for holding an estate sale can vary depending on your location (country, state, or province) and local regulations.

Researching and complying with your area’s specific laws and guidelines is crucial. Below are some common legal considerations that you should be aware of when holding an estate sale:

  1. Permits and Licenses: In some areas, you may need to obtain permits or licenses to conduct an estate sale. Check with your local government or municipality to determine whether such requirements apply to your situation.
  2. Sales Tax: Find out whether you are required to collect and remit sales tax on the items sold during the estate sale. Sales tax regulations vary depending on the jurisdiction.
  3. Zoning and HOA Rules: Check if any zoning restrictions or rules set by the Homeowners’ Association (HOA) could impact your ability to hold an estate sale at a particular location.

Registrations and Business Requirements for Estate Sales

how to run an estate sale

  1. Business Registration: If you plan to run an estate sale business regularly, you may need to register the business and obtain any necessary business permits.
  2. Insurance: Consider obtaining liability insurance to protect yourself from any accidents or damages that may occur during the estate sale.
  3. Contracts and Agreements: It’s a good practice to have a written contract or agreement among the estate’s owner or owners outlining the terms and conditions of the estate sale, including the commission structure, responsibilities, and expectations. In other words, how will the proceeds be distributed amongst family members or associated parties?
  4. Prohibited Items: Be aware of any laws or regulations regarding the sale of certain items, such as firearms, hazardous materials, or counterfeit goods.
  5. Privacy and Data Protection: Ensure that you handle any personal information or sensitive data from the estate in compliance with privacy laws.
  6. Accessibility and Safety: Take measures to make the estate sale accessible to people with disabilities and ensure that the sale environment is safe for visitors.

To ensure you are meeting all legal requirements, it is advisable to consult with a local attorney or a professional estate sale company that is familiar with the regulations in your area.

They can guide and help you navigate the legal aspects of holding an estate sale.

How to Hold an Estate Sale

Once you’ve done your pre-sale research, take the next steps:

Planning Your Estate Sale

how to run an estate sale

Remember that most sales last three days and typically start on a Friday.

Look ahead on the local calendar to see which dates would work best and not be in competition with other local events.

The weather is always a gamble. Do your best to investigate long-range weather predictions.

Sorting and Organizing Items

how to run an estate sale

Group similar items together, such as furniture, clothing, kitchenware and artwork.

Clearly label each item with price and description. Use stickers or price tags.

Arrange items neatly and in such a way that they can be easily viewed.

Appraising and Pricing Items

how to run an estate sale

Appraising items for an estate sale requires a systematic approach and a good understanding of the market value of different items. Here are the steps you can follow to appraise items for an estate sale:

  1. Categorize the Items: Group the items into categories such as furniture, antiques, jewelry, collectibles, artwork, electronics, household items, and so on. This will help you focus on one category at a time and streamline the appraisal process.
  2. Research Market Value: Use various resources to research the market value of items in each category. Online auction sites, antique dealers, estate sale companies, and price guidebooks can be valuable sources of information. Look for similar recently sold items and compare their prices to get an idea of the fair market value.
  3. Condition Assessment: Evaluate the condition of each item. The condition of an item can significantly impact its value. Items in excellent condition generally fetch higher prices than those in poor condition.
  4. Determine Appropriate Pricing: Set realistic prices for each item based on your research and expert opinions. Consider the current market demand, historical value trends, and the item’s condition. Don’t price too high; instead, price items competitively to attract potential buyers.
  5. Be Transparent: Clearly label or tag each item with its price. If you have certain items that may need more explanation or background information, provide clear descriptions and provenance, if available.
  6. Be Open to Negotiation: Estate sales often involve negotiation with buyers. Be prepared to negotiate on prices, especially towards the end of the sale when you want to clear out the remaining items.
  7. Document the Process: Keep a detailed record of the appraisal process, including your research sources, expert consultations, and the reasoning behind the price assignments. This documentation can be useful if any questions arise about the valuation process.

Remember that appraising items for an estate sale can be challenging, especially if you are not familiar with specific items’ values.

Consider a using a professional appraiser for high value items

how to run an estate sale

Consider consulting experts or appraisers specialized in the respective fields for rare or valuable items. They can provide more accurate and detailed valuations based on their knowledge and experience.

Consider Online Appraisal Tools: Some online platforms offer appraisal tools that can help you estimate the value of certain items.

While not as precise as expert appraisals, these tools can give you a general idea and a good starting point of discussion on setting a price.

Cleaning and Repairing Items

how to run an estate sale

Cleaning and repairing items before an estate sale is generally a good idea, as it can significantly enhance their appeal to potential buyers and increase their value.

Clean items that are dirty and dusty, and make minor repairs.

Minor repairs could be actions such as tightening a loose furniture leg or waxing a sticky bureau drawer.

Staging the Sale

how to run an estate sale

Sections: Create separate sections for different categories of items. Design a logical flow for shoppers to navigate the sale easily.

Protect valuables. Keep high-dollar items in a secure, monitored area.

Use signs to direct shoppers and highlight key items or sections.

Marketing and Advertising Your Estate Sale

how to run an estate sale

Traditional marketing strategies include abundant signage at the location. You can also advertise online using local FB groups to spread the word.

Signage can also be posted at businesses like antique stores and consignment stores.

Hosting the Estate Sale

how to run an estate sale

You’ll need helpers to assist potential buyers. Transactions should be handled at one location.

You may have to arrange/schedule pickup times post-sale if there are large items.

Post-Sale Activities

how to run an estate sale

Unsold items can be donated to charities or thrift stores. However, many items such as mattresses and cloth-covered furniture are no longer accepted, due to post-Covid best management practices.

How Much Does It Cost to Have an Estate Sale?

If you use an estate sale company, the fees charged are typically a commission based on total sales (20% to 50% or more). If you run your own sale, there will be costs associated with the sale:

  • Advertising and Marketing: Online listings, signage, and promotional materials costs.
  • Staffing: Expenses related to hiring additional staff for assistance.
  • Permits and Licenses: Fees for required permits or licenses in some areas.
  • Insurance: Consider liability insurance for protection during the sale.
  • Clean-up and Disposal: Costs for post-sale property cleanup and item disposal.
  • Miscellaneous Expenses: Pricing tags, display materials, and special services for valuable items.

Tips for Running a Successful Estate Sale

Before the sale begins, meet with those involved and discuss strategies. Who will greet and direct customers?

Who has the final word on negotiations? Does this change on the final day of the sale?

How will pickups of large items be handled?

Dealing with Leftover Items after the Sale

When organizing an estate sale, there’s a good chance that some items won’t be sold. These leftovers can still be useful and valuable to others, so exploring various alternatives is essential to make the most out of them. Here are several options for what to do with leftover estate sale items:

  1. Donate to Local Charities
    • Benefits: Donation is a generous way to provide items to those who might need them while supporting a good cause.
    • Considerations: Make sure the items are in good condition and meet the specific requirements of the charity.
    • Example Charities: Goodwill, Salvation Army, local shelters, schools, etc.
  2. Sell on Facebook Marketplace
    • Benefits: A quick and convenient way to sell items locally online.
    • Considerations: Be honest in your descriptions, include clear photos, and follow safety precautions when meeting buyers.
    • Tips: You can bundle similar items to encourage bulk purchases.
  3. Advertise in Local Newspaper Sales
    • Benefits: Targeting local readers who might not use online platforms.
    • Considerations: Cost for advertising, effective description within the word limit, including contact information.
    • Tips: Consider posting during weekends when readership might be higher.
  4. Auction Houses
    • Benefits: Auction houses may be willing to take high-value items that didn’t sell and auction them off.
    • Considerations: This often involves consignment fees and other charges.
    • Examples: Local or specialized auction houses that deal with antiques, art, etc.
  5. Garage or Yard Sale
    • Benefits: This allows you to reach neighbors and local community members.
    • Considerations: Pricing, signage, and local regulations about yard sales.
    • Tips: Group items by category to make shopping easier, and be willing to negotiate on prices.
  6. Recycling Centers
    • Benefits: Environmentally friendly disposal of items that cannot be sold or donated.
    • Considerations: Find local recycling centers that accept the materials you have.
    • Tips: Consider separating metals, plastics, etc., for easier processing.
  7. Online Auction Sites (e.g., eBay)
    • Benefits: Reach a broader audience beyond your local area.
    • Considerations: Shipping costs, listing fees, descriptions, and pictures.
    • Tips: Offer combined shipping for multiple items, and provide accurate descriptions.
  8. Give Items to Family or Friends
    • Benefits: Share cherished items with loved ones.
    • Considerations: Determine the interest and needs of family and friends.
    • Tips: It can be sentimental to keep items within the family.
  9. Offer to Local Schools or Community Centers
    • Benefits: Supporting education or community activities.
    • Considerations: Ensure the items are suitable and meet the requirements of the institutions.
    • Examples: Art supplies to schools, furniture to community centers.
  10. Hire a Removal Service
    • Benefits: Quick and hassle-free disposal of unwanted items.
    • Considerations: Cost and finding a reputable service.
    • Tips: Some services specialize in responsible disposal and may recycle or donate items as appropriate.

In conclusion, leftover estate sale items need not go to waste. By exploring these options, you can find new homes for unsold items, support charitable causes, and even make some additional money. Always consider the nature and condition of the items and choose the option that best fits your situation.

Donate to Local CharitiesSupport good causes; help those in needMust meet charity's requirements; good conditionGoodwill, Salvation Army, local shelters
Facebook MarketplaceQuick, convenient online local salesHonesty in descriptions; safety precautionsBundle similar items; clear photos
Local Newspaper SalesTarget local non-online readersCost; effective description; contact infoPost during weekends; be concise
Auction HousesSell high-value itemsConsignment fees; other chargesSpecialized auction houses for antiques, art
Garage or Yard SaleReach local communityPricing; signage; local regulationsGroup items by category; negotiate prices
Recycling CentersEnvironmentally friendly disposalLocal recycling centers; material separationSeparate metals, plastics for easier processing
Online Auction SitesBroad audience; potential higher priceShipping costs; listing feeseBay; offer combined shipping; accurate descriptions
Give to Family or FriendsSentimental value; keep in familyDetermine interest and needsKeepsakes, family heirlooms
Local Schools/Community CentersSupport education/communitySuitability; requirementsArt supplies to schools; furniture to community centers
Hire a Removal ServiceQuick, hassle-free disposalCost; find a reputable serviceServices specializing in responsible disposal/recycling

FAQs: How to Run an Estate Sale

Here are some answers to frequently asked questions about running estate sales.

How long does holding an estate sale usually last?

Holding an estate sale typically lasts between one to three days, usually over a weekend. This allows for a greater number of potential buyers to visit the sale.

What is the best day to hold an estate sale?

To hold an estate sale, the best day to start an estate sale is often a Friday, as this allows for a three-day sale period over the weekend, maximizing the number of potential customers who can attend.

How does an estate sale company differ from a garage or yard sale service?

Estate sale companies offer comprehensive services, including pricing items, advertising the sale, handling negotiations, and managing the event.

On the other hand, garage or yard sale services usually involve only basic assistance like setting up tables and pricing items. Estate sale companies also have professional knowledge to accurately price valuable or antique items.

What benefits can an estate sale service provide when holding an estate sale?

Estate sale services can provide several benefits including accurate item valuation, effective marketing, crowd management, and transaction handling. They also have the experience to anticipate and tackle problems that can arise during the sale.

Their professional approach can help maximize the profits from the sale while minimizing the stress and workload on the homeowner.

Is it better to host your own estate sale or hire an estate sale company?

The answer largely depends on the size of the estate, value of the items, and the time and effort the homeowner can afford to invest.

If the estate is large or contains many valuable items, hiring an estate sale company could lead to better profits and less hassle.

However, for smaller estates or for homeowners who are comfortable with the effort, hosting your own estate sale may be more cost-effective.

How can real estate agents help in running an estate sale?

Real estate agents can play a crucial role in advertising the sale to a wider audience. They can use their extensive networks to spread the word about the estate sale.

If the house is also for sale, the agent can coordinate the estate sale and open house together, attracting potential buyers for both the property and the items in the sale.

Image: Depositphotos

Lisa Price Lisa Price is a staff writer for Small Business Trends and has been a member of the team for 4 years. She has a B.A. in English with a minor in journalism from Shippensburg State College (Pennsylvania). She is also a freelance writer and previously worked as a newspaper circulation district manager and radio station commercial writer. In 2019, Lisa received the (Pennsylvania) Keystone Award.