How Does an Estate Sale Work?

During an estate sale, the house or condo is opened up to the public, who can then purchase items from the sale. It’s most common for estate sales to take place over a weekend, possibly two if it’s a large sale. Estates usually need to be liquidated quickly -- and completely -- due to downsizing, debt, divorce, or in some cases, death.

Many estate sale companies advertise estate sales online, so potential shoppers can see ahead of time which items are for sale. Estate sale listing sites like have big, clear photos and descriptions of items for sale. Sometimes prices are revealed in estate sales’ online ads. But more often than not, you’ll have to call or attend the sale to find out what everything costs.

You come into the home which has been professionally organized and priced and buy items on the spot for cheaper than you can get them anywhere else.
- Elizabeth Robles, Noble Estate Sales

yard sign in lawn advertises an estate sale

Estate sales usually work either on a first-come, first-serve basis or the number system. First come, first serve, means just that. If arriving to an estate sale before it starts, it’s customary to form a line, just as one would for concert tickets or Black Friday deals. Some estate sales may even use a sign-up sheet, where shoppers sign in on a list to save a spot for entry — although forming an actual line is more common.

Another common way for estate sales to operate is under the number system, like at the DMV or deli. When arriving to the estate sale, shoppers take numbers to reserve their order of entry. Both the first-come, first-serve line system and the number system work and are designed to give everyone, dealers and everyday buyers alike, a fair shot at finding something special.

Most estate sales let shoppers carry items they plan to buy while they shop, all the way until check-out, so bring a bag. However, be sure not to “hoard” items or hold onto a bunch of stuff in order to “save” it — only to decide last minute you don’t really want it after all. This isn’t fair to the people holding the estate sale or the other customers.

Our company researches and places a price tag on these treasures and offers them for sale to the public. We discount the prices as the sale progresses. Our goal is to sell everything, leave the house empty with the precious memories intact.
- Rachel Fitch, Fitch Estate Sales

a 'sold' tag on a couch at an estate sale marks that it has been purchased
A "sold" sticker on a couch at an estate sale.

Some estate sale items, like furniture, might be too large to lug around while browsing. In this case, many estate sales let shoppers tag the item with a “Sold” item until check-out. Again, be certain you plan to actually purchase the item(s), as to not eliminate the opportunity for other paying customers and cause a lost sale.

In the event someone doesn’t want to pay an item’s marked price, some estate sales will allow bids to be placed with the person in charge. If the item isn’t sold by the end of the sale, the estate sale company will defer to the highest bidder. In fact, at the end of many estate sales, items are opened up to bidding just to get rid of items quickly. Again, this depends on the estate sale company and how they choose to run their sale.

Estate sales often hold discounts, too, to sell items quickly. While how estate sale companies deal with discounts often varies, generally there’s a pattern: Full price on the first day, quarter off on the second, and half off on the third -- or some variation thereof. Often discounts aren’t advertised, so get there on day two or three to see.

An estate sale, whether on the number system or first-come, first-serve is a great way to find quality items at bargain deals, not old garage sale cast-offs, and offers a inside look into people’s lives, as well as a piece of history as it was actually lived.

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