Estate Sale Dangers and Liabilities

Avoid Harming Clients, Customers, and Yourself

An estate liquidator faces numerous liabilities when walking into someone’s home with the intent to open it up to the public. This is one reason why people hire an estate sale company in the first place. A professional knows how to make sure everyone stays protected, bodily, legally and financially. Selling to the public can open up a whole grey area of litigiousness, which can be tricky and expensive to navigate alone or thoughtlessly. With rapid changes in the industry and more people needing liquidation services, estate sale contracts are getting longer and more complex. If anything bad happens, you need to make sure you’re covered.

Estate Sale Contracts Inclement Weather

Proper insurance is key—for both the estate sale company and the homeowner. Did you know most home insurance policies become null and void after a certain period of inoccupancy? This means if the estate owner passed away weeks or even days prior, there could be a lapse in coverage. This is not something you want to find out the day of the sale, or worse, when it’s too late. Make sure the home insurance policies are current and can cover the cost of damage in a worst case scenario.

Insurance is protection in case something happens on the premises. But insurance won’t help if you sell something from the estate that’s illegal or harmful. Depending on the offense, you could get hit with a hefty fine, sued in civil court, or even serve jail time.

Taking the time to get educated before making these mistakes can save money and heartache later. We talked to estate sale veterans, American Society of Estate Liquidators (ASEL’s) Julie Hall and National Estate Sale Association (NESA’s) Martin Codina to get their thoughts on these common dangerous issues often encountered when holding an estate sale.

Items to Think Twice About Selling

1. Discontinued Toys

Tons of toys have been discontinued, especially vintage ones, and sometimes they show up at estate sales. The question is, is it legal to sell dangerous, discontinued toys like Clackers, Cabbage Patch Snacktime dolls, “slap” bracelets, some versions of the Easy Bake oven, or Jarts—to name just a few? Some people might say the toys will just stay in the box as collectibles, or that Jarts don’t kill people. . . people kill people.

There are state laws concerning this. Of course since no one is actively checking up on estate sales, it’s ultimately up to the estate sale company to decide whether or not the risk of breaking state laws or causing possible injury is worth it. (Everyone we talked to agrees: no, it isn’t okay!)

guns on display at an estate sale2. Firearms

Not only is the subject of selling firearms a huge grey area, it’s also a hot political topic. It’s true people have a right to own guns, and when they die, someone has to handle the estate’s firearms. As an estate sale liquidator you have a few options:

a. Suggest your client contact an FFL dealer to handle the sale of all firearms. A word on referrals: some estate sale companies avoid referrals to avoid any possible liabilities. It’s an easy way to avoid any hassles that may arise. Unless you’re super familiar with the company whose services you recommend, it may be safer, to stay general in your recommendations.

b. Let an auctioneer handle the firearms. Auctioneers have licenses and are used to dealing with items that go beyond the normal scope of an estate sale, like firearms. If you don’t know anything about firearms, (or farm equipment or fine art or jewelry, etc.) it’s a good idea to let an expert handle it who does.

c. Handle the sale yourself at your own risk. Consult your state laws regarding selling firearms at private sales or talk to your state official. In general estate sales are treated as “private sales” and private sale gun laws vary per state.

A word on this: Finding the right answers to legal questions can be like searching for a needle in a haystack. In case you haven’t noticed, people in government can be hard to get a hold of, and legalese isn’t often clear. Between outdated website content and infuriating phone trees, finding information can be a chore. Not to mention all the conflicting information out there. Organizations like ASEL and NESA that are made up of living, breathing estate sale veterans can steer you in the right direction.

3. Knives

Like guns, knives are often found in estates across the U.S. and are subject to state laws. Julie Hall points out many states have a “fixed” versus “folded” law, as well as limits on length. Like firearms, knives considered “vintage” or “antique” may be subject to even different laws.

4. Food

It might sound preposterous, but some estate sale companies think it’s okay to sell off someone’s old pantry leftovers because hey, they’re canned. This is not okay! In fact many states have laws requiring special licenses or certifications to sell food to the public—for good reason.

When coming into someone else’s estate, Martin Codina points out, you don’t know anything about that food, how long it’s been there, or how it’s been handled. Selling it to someone who plans to consume it is a risk not worth taking. Throw out all food or donate the canned goods.

Liquor bottles at an estate sale

5. Alcohol

You’re likely to run into alcohol at an estate, and most of the time alcohol keeps for ages. Does this mean you should sell it? Absolutely not. There are probably laws against selling bottles of booze in your state (and definitely concerning selling to minors or criminals), and selling half-used items of anything is pretty tacky.

6. Drugs or Contraband

Just say no. . . to selling drugs that could potentially hurt your customers and get you in trouble. (To be safe, just say no to selling drugs of any kind). It’s not unusual to find over-the-counter medications and prescriptions drugs at an estate. Here are a few items bound to pop up:

a. Over-the-counter medications

We all have these laying around, from innocuous pills like Advil or Tylenol to more regulated o-t-c meds like cough medicines. While most estate sale companies probably wouldn’t sell them, the issue is they’re likely to just throw them away. Don’t do this!

While it might have been okay in the “old days” to just toss old medications, now we know more about what happens to these drugs after they’re trashed – and it’s not pretty. They get into the water system, endanger wildlife, and ultimately affect our delicate eco-system. Sure, it’s much easier to toss it and forget it—especially if you conduct a lot of estate sales. But don’t let this stop you from being diligent. There are proper ways to dispose of medication. Julie Hall suggests techniques like packing pills with coffee grounds or neutralizing meds in white vinegar.

Some cities even have Drug Drives, like Shredding Events, where you can dispose of drugs safely and properly.

medication at an estate sale

b. Prescription medication, including narcotics or opioids

This should be a no-brainer, considering it’s a federal offense to take medicine that’s not prescribed to you. Dispose of them properly, or turn them in to a medical facility. Two things to watch out for around narcotics and opioids especially:

  • Your employees. While we all want to think we hire trustworthy people, there are some out there who may think it’s a good idea to steal someone’s medical stash to take or sell on the street later. Martin Codina suggests keeping an eye out to be safe.
  • The environment. In the case of regulated medications, be mindful of tossing these in the trash where animals or dumpster divers could find it—it could end up in the wrong hands (or paws).

c. Marijuana

Since marijuana has been legalized in some states for medical and/or recreational use, it’s possible you may run across someone’s stash of wacky tobacky. It’s also possible the estate executor doesn’t know about their client’s hidden stash. Use your own judgment in this situation to flush away the evidence. . . or whatever else you may decide.

d. Cocaine, heroine, etc.

Hard drugs should be reported to the local authorities for obvious reasons. Plus, Scarface might be coming to get it. . . or the money for it. Probably not a situation you want to handle yourself. 

7. Pornography / Sex Toys

Pornography isn’t illegal, and different estate sale companies have their own ideas about selling it. Generally, we all know there are different levels and kinds. If it’s cheesecakey vintage photos or celebrity-related, it’s probably fine for an estate sale and likely will sell quickly. Some companies may want to restrict sex-related items to a restricted room in case of children present.

Other liquidators may choose to dispose of the items or let the executor handle the estate. As one liquidator put it: Do you really want to be known as the people who sell porn at estate sales?

Sex toys? Use your good judgment.

As in anything, trust your instincts on this and maybe put it through the “mom test” (which I just made up). Would you feel comfortable selling it to someone’s mother? If not, maybe take a pass.

cans of bug spray and pesticides8. Pesticides and Chemicals

There are no particular regulations concerning this, but some estate sale companies refuse to sell lawn chemicals and other pesticides because they are hazardous to people, pets, and the environment. Again, it’s your call.

Estate Sale Environmental Hazards

Homes can present a lot of other hazards as well—the ones that aren’t for sale. As anyone with homeowners insurance knows, the minute someone gets injured on your property, it can turn into an expensive ordeal. Multiply that risk by a thousand when you open up an estate to the public for a sale.

As mentioned, it’s pertinent the home has a current insurance policy that covers the cost of damage in the event someone has an accident or becomes impaired for some reason in the home. In addition to insurance there are other precautions you can take because all too often a claim ends up being one word against another’s. You can never document too much or take too many photographs of the premises beforehand.

Moldy estate

  1. Mold and Soft Goods

Everyone knows about black mold, that nasty stuff resembling pond scum seen growing on walls and ceilings. But what about the zillion other kinds of mold? These can be dangerous, too, but invisible—and you never know who might have a reaction.

“Soft goods,” porous items like upholstery or things made from paper like books and ephemera, can breed mold just by breathing in a moldy environment. If you walk into someone’s home and smell mold, there’s a reason for that, Martin Codina says. It’s because there’s mold. What kind of mold is much harder to tell—as well as who it might affect—and you don’t have the time or resources to test spores. To be safe, some estate liquidators won’t sell soft goods from an estate with mold – knowing those goods contain mold spores that can be spread to other people and places.

It’s a tough job to have to tell a client their things cannot be sold due to mold, and many won’t like hearing this, but know you’re doing the right thing by keeping it away from the public.

  1. Pests and Their Droppings

When walking into someone’s estate, one thing is certain: you never know what you’re going to find. Julie Hall suggests to train yourself to look in the nooks and crannies where critters might like to congregate. Infestations can occur between walls, so pay attention to scurrying or buzzing sounds. The last thing you want is for a bee attack to happen, where a shopper gets stung and sent into anaphylactic shock. Sure, this is a worst-case scenario, but the point is: bugs are more than just a bother—and if they’re inside somewhere—they can get out!

Droppings are also not okay. They can carry viruses often fatal to humans. Be mindful about vacuuming up droppings and spreading them this way— or vacuuming a rug and then selling the rug—as well as how you dispose of the mess (use biohazard bags).

Common droppings:

  • Mice
  • Rats
  • Roaches
  • Cat or Dog

dangerous old estate

A lot of old homes, especially homes where senior citizens live, haven’t been kept updated. Older people often don’t have the energy to do things like change lightbulbs or other maintenance jobs. These things might seem minor but can turn into a major catastrophe fast! As an estate liquidator you should develop an eye for noticing things – up high, down low, in corners, in the dark. You should also be prepared to do a little maintenance or handiwork yourself, including carrying a flashlight to examine things others might not easily see.

  1. Poor Estate Conditions

Be mindful of the estate sale location’s overall conditions. Of course there are disaster situations, like hoarder households and this is the subject for another blog post. But things like loose railings or broken steps, loose rocks, anything people can trip on can be a real liability. Do whatever you can to secure areas where people might trip like rugs, poorly lit hallways or narrow, steep stairways.

poorly lit estate hallway

  1. Bad Lighting

Homes that haven’t been well maintained could have missing or dimmed bulbs—which can make it hard for people to see in narrow hallways or stairwells. When replacing these lights be sure not to use wattage higher than suggested, warns Julie Hall. Homes built in the early 1900s can’t handle modern bulbs and using higher watts can be an electrical hazard.

  1. Bodies of water

Ponds, fountains, swimming pools, even buckets of water can all be danger zones with small children around. Be wary of any bodies of water that might be unattended and either use signs, caution tape or some other means to create a boundary around them.

Estate Sale Solutions

1. Post Signs

Never underestimate the power of a sign—and if you think you only need one, use two. Signs are very important and can alert people to ramps, steps, dips in structure and anything else a stranger might not be looking for. Remember, when people are shopping they’re engaged in looking— usually eye level, so they won’t think to look up or down when moving around, said Julie Hall. Use bright neon signs that can easily be seen.

2. Use Barriers

Don’t be afraid to block off shady areas, like ponds, fountains, or rickety parts of the estate that could be a danger to shoppers. Bright yellow caution tape works well for this.

3. Be Specific in the Estate Sale Contract

Be sure to go over worst case scenarios with your lawyer so you can cover yourself in the estate sale contract. The more detailed and clear your contract is, the less likely you are to get slapped with a lawsuit in the event something bad happens.

estate sale dangers and liabilities

Thanks again to Julie Hall “The Estate Lady” and Martin Codina of Fine Estate Sales for their help with research!

Visit ASEL and NESA for more industry resources and be sure to join our Facebook Group to meet other estate sale professionals.

What other problems have you encountered when holding an estate sale and how did you solve them? Share your story below!