Elizabeth Cook shares her best advice.

By Elizabeth W. Cook
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Growing up, I dreamt of being a contestant on the television show Supermarket Sweep. Attending estate sales are only what I can imagine as a similar rush to this. I stumbled across my first estate sale in Atlanta's Tuxedo Park years ago and bought an upholstered club chair in Quadrille's Island Ikat fabric on the spot (photo, HERE). I loved the statement it made, adored the fabric, and relished the deal I got on the chair. It anchored my old living room, and I recently flipped it for a profit when it didn't work in our new home.

Thrifting is my version of "therapy." It brings me joy and is a major stress reliever for me. When my husband and I purchased our first home, it was overwhelming to see the price tag of not only what it would cost to buy an actual home, but even more so, the price tag associated to fill it (especially in a way that would align with my aesthetic). As such, I have become resourceful and creative in finding ways to curate our dream abode (on a budget!) since.

Today, there are so many ways to live well without breaking the budget. Our entire home is a mix of finds from thrift stores, online auctions, and estate and sample sales. With the Internet, you can really find anything, as well as educate yourself, with the click of a button. There is an incredible and undeniable difference in price and quality that can be found online, as opposed to shopping at full-priced retail locations.

If you think upholstered curtains are expensive, you're looking in the wrong places. Fabric curtains are like upholstered sofas—they cost a fortune to make and resell for nothing! You have $100 to your name but want Scalamandré curtains? You are in luck! You can skip the fees associated with auctions and find everything from cars to china to furniture to luggage at estate sales. I have spent countless hours scouring estate sales in person. As such, I have honed in on ways that others can save too.

Happy hunting, and remember: These sales are a treasure trove, but you have to comb through the junk to find the gems.

Elizabeth Cook Estate Sales
Credit: Emmie Ruth Wise

What Is an Estate Sale?

An estate sale is a way to liquidate the belongings of a household when a certain life event warrants it. These sales are open to the public, and attendees are given the chance to buy any items that are marked for sale.   

Tips and Tricks To Navigating Everyday Estate Sales

  • To find estate sales in your area, download the EstateSales.net app on your phone or visit Estatesales.net. Use the “find sales” search box to find relevant events near you. The majority of estate sales are posted to EstateSales.net on Tuesday, addresses are typically available on Thursday mornings, and prices are usually slashed in half (50% off) on Sundays or on the last day of the sale. When playing on EstateSales.net online or via the app, edit your search to show sales within a 15-day time period and be sure your toggles for “estate sales, auctions, and others” are all enabled. You can save this search for weekly updates and save your “favorite” upcoming sales for easy access at a later date. I like to search for sales within a 10-mile radius of the zip code that I am focusing on to help narrow it down.
  • Get to know the people that run the physical estate sales in your city. If you do, they are more likely to keep you posted on sales, select items, news on future sales, and cut you deals for items, especially toward the end of sales.
  • You truly never know what you will find at estate sales, but sometimes, you can get a good idea within the first minute of walking in a home. One of the best houses I hit for an estate sale had beautiful Zubar panels in the entryway, and I instantly knew the owner and I were kindred spirits in style. On the other hand, if you see beat-up boots at the front door or dirty dishes in the kitchen sink, the house may be a short visit!
  • A tape measure is a helpful item to always have on hand while thrifting.
  • Whichever day you decide to visit, go early to be in the first group allowed inside. With the pandemic, most estate sale companies are limiting the number of shoppers inside of a house at any given time.
  • Use the weather and season to your advantage! For example, if it’s off-season in Palm Beach, Florida, or downpouring at your local physical estate sale, the better chance you have to score, because you’ll have less competition. The laws of supply and demand apply to just about everything in life, but especially to thrifting.
  • Do not expect the estate sale organizers to assist you to your car with your finds. You will need to coordinate your own delivery and/or bring your own muscle to move the heavy items. If an item purchased will not fit inside your car, ask the estate sale organizer for a list of their recommended movers. I often travel to estate sales with a car that’s capable of pulling a trailer, in case the need arises to quickly rent one. Renting a trailer is extremely cost-effective. To rent a truck, you are paying for the vehicle plus gas. For anything that is a distance, the latter can cut into your overall savings!
  • Know the market. Never buy china, silver, or crystal from a retail store! If you are like me and appreciate these items, you can find them for a steal at estate sales or in droves across the Internet. If you are curious about the make or brand, look for a brand name etched (usually at the bottom). Do a quick Google search to have a better idea of the going rate.
  • To negotiate on the price for items, I would recommend waiting until the last two hours of the sale on the last day and throw out a number that you feel the most comfortable with. You have to be prepared to let the item go, but more often than not, the person who is throwing the sale will be ready for the show to be over and will be flexible on pricing. If you don’t ask for what you want in life, it’s unlikely to ever happen. The same applies for estate sales—the worst someone can say is no.
  • To find out if the items at your local estate sale are fairly priced, do a quick Google search of any seen name brands and/or distinguishing features. You should not be paying anywhere close to a price you see listed online. The priced listed online will reflect a retail price either from an online store or secondhand site. You are skipping the middleman and trade show, so you should take off an extra 50% to 70% whatever price you see online. If an item you find is not priced accordingly, you are not getting a deal. However, convenience and no shipping or delay time are all factors to consider when deciding!
  • Bring cash and checks to avoid an extra credit card processing fee. If you are a designer or shop owner with a tax ID number, let them know for a small discount on your overall total.
  • If you pick up the “sold” ticket or write your name on one that is left, you are responsible for paying for that item. This is something I’m more conscious about as I go to more estate sales, as it is a common courtesy to the other shoppers.
  • Half of the fun of attending estate sales is the ability to see inside other people’s home. You get such an idea about the previous homeowner, like how they lived or how they entertained. If you simply enjoy interiors and are fascinated by how people live within a space, estate sales are for you.

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Physical Sales vs. Online Sales

I love physical estate sales because you can snag everything from hardware to miscellaneous helpful objects like cleaning supplies or a Dyson vacuum. You can also find better deals sometimes in-person than when shopping online. Avoiding the associated fees means great savings for you!

Online sales via Live Auctioneers curate items from all physical auctions around the country, allowing you to shop from the comfort of your home. You can expedite the search by plugging in keywords of your favorite designers, furniture styles, etc.

For more savvy shopping advice or to check out her latest finds, follow Elizabeth on Instagram, @Elizabeth.W.Cook.