If you are a resale junkie, this is that magical time of year when estate sales abound. I am a woman whose business is the hunt and I promise you that finding great stuff is not as simple as being at the right place at the right time. There is skill involved too once you get there. Here are eleven ways to outsmart the competition at estate sales.
No. 1 - Bow Down to the Estate Sale Boss
Behind every estate sale is a boss. They are a tough lot. And for good reason. Can you imagine coming into a house with a lifetime's worth of accumulation and sorting it, researching it, pricing it, and selling it to bargain hunters within a very short period of time? They are the opposite of hoarders. They are purgers. They don't tolerate sentimentality so don't even try. The best of them have precise systems in place to speed up the process. Just find out what they require and do that.
For example, some take cash only. Some require that you remove shoes. Some won't let you carry in a handbag. Some want you to take a number for entry. Some want you to line up for entry. Read their ads carefully and be prepared.
No. 2 - Go Early
Get out of bed! Me and the sunrise -- we are not on a first name basis. But I can't tell you how many times I've watched as earlier birds than me exited an estate sale, arms laden with Saarinen tables or French posters and I hate my sleepy self. So suck it up and go early so you are at the top of the sign-up sheet. If there isn't a sign-up sheet, start one. (If ever you are #1 on a sign-in sheet, email me a photo of the sign-in sheet and a photo of your best find and I'll give you a one-time shopping discount in honor of your get-out-of-bed ability.)
No. 3 - Go Late
If you can't go early, then go late. Most estate sales go to half price for the last few hours on the last day. Amazing bargains. Bottom line is if you can't go early or late, you may as well stay home and shop Craigslist.
No. 4 - Be Prepared and Don't Wear Tory Burch
Once, I overheard the woman ahead of me in line talking about the Hermes scarves she was after. She had on those gorgeous difficult-to-remove Tory Burch riding boots, which the Estate Sale Boss required her to remove. I was wearing clogs. Guess who got to the scarves first.
You may be outside for hours -- in the summer, I keep an umbrella and folding chair in my car, and in the winter, a hat, scarf, mittens, and hand warmers. I carry a portable measuring tape. If you like second-hand fashion, wear a tank top under your clothes in case you need to try something on in a room filled with strangers. And don't wear white. Some of these homes are scary dirty. Keep a few old blankets in the car for cushioning that Salvador Dali.
No. 5 - Have a Plan But Hit the Living Room First
Know what you are after and go to the room most likely to have it first. I'm always after artwork, and home accessories, so I go for the formal areas first. At the same time, know that the valuable stuff will be near the check-out table where the Estate Sale Boss can keep an eye. Don't miss that.
No. 6 - Call of Duty Skills Necessary
This is competitive. I equate it to the video game Call of Duty. To be successful, you must move quickly, watch for heat signatures and campers. If you are with a friend, just nuke that newbie and move along. After you've done the initial pass, go back slowly and do a mine sweep, looking at everything. Everything.
No. 7 - Listen to Your Gut
An estate sale is no place for dithering. You must make snap decision. Listen to your body signals. If you gasp, or find yourself reflexively reaching to touch something, that's a sign. Grab the thing and ponder its merits while you continue to shop. I have seen people hide things in a house so they have time to think. Rookie mistake. Possession is nine tenths and I'm right behind them with my eagle eyes.
No. 8 - When Making Decisions, Consider the Context
Shopping an estate sale is the equivalent of looking in someone's medicine cabinet. You get a very intimate portrait and it enables you to make judgements about the home owner that will aid your decision-making. Did they smoke? Don't buy upholstery or linens. Were they hobbyists? Gear related to their hobby will likely be of a higher quality. Did they collect art seriously? Even unsigned pieces are worth the risk. Did they travel the world? Those houses have one-of-a-kind treasures. Were they meticulous homemakers? Everyday items are fabulous in those houses.
No. 9 - Protect Your Booty
Like I said, these shoppers are cutthroat. If you found something really awesome, hold onto it. If you have a lot of awesomeness, start a pile under the table where you will be checking out. And within your pile, discreetly hide things within things. You are not doing this to scam the seller; you are doing this to protect yourself from other shoppers who are not above sneaking things out of piles not yet rung up. I lost a vintage French seedbag that way once but I remember the culprit's face and I live in a small town. Payback.
No. 10 - Bid on Items Out of Your Price Range
Many estate sale bosses will accept bids on items over a certain dollar amount, like, say $100. Commonly, the bid must be at least half of the original price to be considered. (Like an auction house version of a reserve.) You write your info and the price you bid on a sheet of paper and leave it with the Estate Sale Boss. Then, on the last day, you get a call if you 'win'. Your bid is a binding agreement that legally must be honored within a few hours of the close of the sale.
In making the bid, pretend you're on Jeopardy! and again, consider the competition. Are they well-heeled? Savvy? If so, I usually go a little over half. If the item is Ryan Goslingish, I'll go three-fourths.
No. 11 - Behave Yourself and Enjoy
This is someone's home. Be respectful of the yard, the house, and the contents not included in the sale. And enjoy! I recently attended an estate sale in a lovely ranch home that was a living museum to the 1950s and 60s. I marveled at the lucite banisters, the pickled paneling, the low profile furniture. The homeowner, aged 100, was an amateur artist and art lover who made his fortune from aluminum and spent it pretending he wasn't in manufacturing. His wife, to whom he had been married for seventy-five years, saved everything that ever came through their doors. It was fascinating.
For more shopping secrets, read here.