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Estate Sales

by Judy Currier

Your beloved last parent dies. You are in mourning. Yet, there is a house filled with "stuff" - both junk and good, accumulated over a lifetime by your parents. The house must be sold. What do you do? In the Washington area many recommend an estate sale.

Often the parties involved have never been in this situation before, and do not know the "ins and outs" of estate sales, how to choose an agent, and what that agent does for you.

Questions you might want to ask the prospective agent and put into your contract with them are:

How long will the sale be, and on what days and hours?

Estate sale agents actually pick and choose their sales. A large estate may be three days, clearing out a smaller house may take less time. However, you do want the days to be specified, as you will plan your life around it for a while.

How long does it take you to set up for the sale, and when do you need access to the house?

This question avoids misunderstanding and allows you time to perform the necessary chores of going through personal files and other belongings before they start being moved from room to room by the estate sale personnel.Often once the sale is over, you want to move fairly quickly to the sale of the house, so you do not want to be left with many duties to perform, such as waxing the kitchen cabinets, or whatever else you have in mind.

Do you clear the entire house as part of your job, or do you only take care of the saleable items?

Particularly if the consignor is out of town, or one of the consignors is out of town, and the other short on time, this item can be important. Are you going to be left at the end with a house full of things that must be taken care of? If so, you can plan for it, but it should not be a surprise. Remember, it is hard for the consignor to know what is junk, what is not. So, if the consignor "cleans" before the estate sale people arrive to really inventory, sellable things may go out with the bad. It's amazing what are considered treasures nowadays. The objects in the attic may be quite valuable!

Do you allow your employees to "buy" goods before the sale?

Agents differed on this, some said it was "standard practice", others made a definite point that they did not allow it. For the consignor looking into the issue, one needs to consider whether the buyers going to these sales are interested in going to sales where the neat little goodies have already been taken by the staff before the sale. Friends and neighbors, too, go to these sales, remembering particular items they would like. How do they feel when the items are gone? Another issue is whether the pricing, which generally comes after the initial arrangement and the taking of the objects, can be fair to the consignors if the objects are not there before them at the time of the pricing. The same people in effect are pricing and buying - is that what you really want? If you decide to go with an agent that allows the employees to buy before the sale, it seems prudent to protect yourself by having right of first refusal on the items; unfortunately this would add to the time you have to spend on the estate sale yourself.

Do you allow neighbors to come in and buy goods after they are priced?

This can be a courtesy, particularly if the employees get to buy first. However, the same question remains as to whether outsiders want to come to sales where everything has been "picked over" beforehand. If the agent allows their employees to buy, perhaps you should insist that you, your parents' friends, and the neighbors have the right to buy first; these are the people to which the items may mean more than just a good bargain. These people should be able to purchase items at the same price charged to the agent's colleagues.

Does the agent allow the consignor to review the prices before the sale starts?

Some do, some don't. It is interesting, if nothing else, and if one sees what they consider treasures going for a song, they could either have the price raised or buy it out themselves. There is a vast quantity of "stuff" in a house, it is hard for the agent to accurately price every item. Often the agent has various "experts" price the different groups of items in the house. Some of these people may be true experts, others just a person with a catalog; that can make for uneven pricing. The consignor can often spot some of this unevenness, as they know the background of some of the objects, including the original price. People coming to sales can be put off by prices that are clearly unreasonable. If they find them unreasonable on things they know the value of, then they are hesitant about the prices put on things that they do not know.

Does the agent allow the consignor to have any say so in the reduction of prices?

Some agents do. One also allowed the consignor to put minimum prices on particular objects. Another had a set rate that the prices were reduced throughout the course of the sale, so that one could calculate out the minimum price if the first price was known. As certain pieces may have a residual value to you or to the house, this point should be clarified before the contract. It is probably impossible from a logistics point of view to have minimum prices established for all objects in the house, but certainly it is possible for some.

How do you advertise the sale?

Most agents have a "following", they send fliers to these people besides the public offering in the newspaper. What newspapers do they use for advertisement? When will their ads start in relation to the sale? Do they use any targeted ads for special items? Some agents also have websites that their buyers know to check. A related question to this one is whether the advertising is paid for exclusively by the agent, or whether the estate picks up some of the costs. This again differed by agents.

Do you take in outside objects to be sold at the sale?

This does seem to be a standard practice from the agents we interviewed. However for the consignor, are these outside objects going to enhance the sale, or will they detract from the objects the consignor wishes to sell? Does the consignor want to limit the number of objects from outside?

Does your "following" buy the things that we have to sell?

You must insure that the agent you use is either knowledgeable in the goods you have for sale, or has people who are that they call in on the matter. If you have unusual collections, are the people they normally attract to a sale interested in those collections? If not, what special actions would be taken to attract buyers for those items? One agent we interviewed said that the draw to the sale would be the silver and glass collections, plus the good cherry furniture. Another discounted the silver entirely, but was more excited about the hand made furniture than the others. Some knew nothing about the woodworking equipment, others did. If you have unique items, advertising to groups that would buy those items is necessary.

Does the Agent clean the items before sale, do they polish the silver?

Some agents state that this makes little difference, their buyers are educated enough to see how the object will look. Others think it does, and go to great lengths to present the house and the objects attractively. This is a matter of your personal preference and beliefs: do you think that things sell better if they are presented nicely or not? Once the sale gets started how attractive does the house remain?

What precautions does the Agent take to prevent stealing?

Some have glass topped display tables, others don't. Some place people in every room. Check what the prospective agent does to prevent small items from leaving the house.

What is the Agent's commission?

The commissions seem fairly standard with about a 5% difference at most. This would clearly get washed away in the overall sale of the household goods if one agent is better at selling than another.

What happens to the goods left after the sale?

Sometimes they are simply thrown out or given to the staff of the agent. Other times they are given to charity. If you have fine items left after the sale, do you want either of these actions to happen? Include in your timetable planning for an auction house to pick up the remnants of your fine goods if you do not want to see them simply disappear. If you are in a position where you have to pay estate taxes, check with your tax advisor on whether it actually costs you to give to charity. The answer might surprise you, and you may not want what you give to charity valued highly.

All agents that we talked to said that the items were ours, without sales commission, at the end of the sale. If you buy an item while the pricing is going on, in all cases you are expected to pay the commission. It would be a good idea to make this a part of the contract, as some agents act as if what is left is theirs. Not so!

How long does it take you to clear the house after the sale?

Often painters, carpet layers, cleaning people, etc. are needed to fix the house up for the sale. You need a firm commitment as to when the house will be available. From our experience, a plan should be in readiness for what happens at the end of the sale. I personally would advise arranging for an auction house to pick up one day, charity the next, and debris clean-up/emptying the next. If you rely on the estate sale person to totally clear the house, be sure to inspect the house and be prepared with a backup plan, their concept of "clear" may differ from yours.

When will you get your itemized list of objects sold and money?


After finding the answers to these questions, it would be wise to investigate the agent from a buyer's point of view. Are all items priced and clearly labeled at the agent's sales? If you know people, or know people who know people, who go to these sales - talk to them. They have a totally different spin on agents than what you might get as the seller of goods. You need a public that respects the agent. If time permits, check the estate ads and go to a few sales yourself; you will probably find out more than you would from references. Some agents have a bad reputation with the public because of their uneven pricing of objects. Every agent we talked to emphasized how they wanted to get the best price possible, as that was how they make their money. That goes without saying, but if their goods are overpriced, or unevenly priced, perhaps they don't get the volume of buyers necessary. Their business practices might be making it hard for you to make money. Another possibility is that they are pricing some items high so that they will be left at the end of the sale and they can take them - they may be counting on you being too overwhelmed to deal with them yourself, and are hoping for a little add-on to their commission.

Once you have chosen your agent, make sure that the contract you sign reflects your concerns. After the agent has access to your house and starts setting it up, you definitely start losing your bargaining position. Your time schedule for selling the house is generally driving you, not the sale. Ensure your contract reflects the understanding between you and your agent before any work is done on the sale itself. This avoids conflicts in the future. You both know what to expect out of each other. Include in your contract any items not to be sold at the sale that are remaining in the house (washer, dryer, etc.).


How does it all work, once you have your estate sale representative, and actions are proceeding toward the sale? Questions do arise. This is where professionalism and communication is important. If there are multiple heirs, they should have the good sense not to denigrate each other to the employees they hire. However, the agent should also realize that this is an emotional time, and people do odd things when they are emotional. An agent may see this as a perfect opportunity to play the heirs against each other. All parties should be careful to ensure that everyone knows any directions given, or conclusions reached. The agent should never assume the other heirs have been told anything, nor believe what one says about the other as far as their attitudes and concerns. The agent should try to maintain as neutral a position as possible. Something as simple as copying emails to all parties concerned ensures this. The heirs should forward communication from the agent to each other if the agent does not copy the emails. Then, if one heir starts interpreting actions of another, or the agent misreports something that is going on, it is all in the open. As in other parts of life, "sunshine" goes a long way toward stopping rumors, misrepresentation, and gossip.

Santayana said that "those that fail to heed history are doomed to repeat it". I hope this article helps others to not repeat the history of my family, and makes the path to follow in this difficult time easier.

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