5 minute read

Estate Sale: How Do Estate Sales Work?

Estate sales are a common way to distribute a loved one's possessions after their death. Here's an in-depth guide to how estate sales work.

Patrick Hicks

Patrick Hicks, @PatrickHicks

Head of Legal, Trust & Will

Imagine that you have a loved one who passed away, and they had a wonderful home filled with memories. You and your family agree that the home should be sold. Moreover, it needs to be sold quickly so that the family can move through the process of handling the estate. Aside from sentimental items that were divided up amongst you, there still remains a vast number of items and belongings in the home. Furniture, cookware, and kitschy décor are just a few examples. You can’t just leave them there, what on earth should you do? 

Here’s a solution: hold an estate sale. Keep reading to find out how estate sales work, and how they are the perfect solution for selling all (or nearly all) of the orphaned contents of a home. Should you choose to hold an estate sale, this will serve as your perfect reference on how to prepare for, hold, and wrap up your event. 

What are Estate Sales?

An estate sale is an event that is held with the objective of liquidating all items held in a home. You’re likely familiar with a yard or garage sale, where you would find a selection of items being sold. Although these are similar, an estate sale is focused on selling nearly everything from the home, not just a selection. Members of the public are often invited to walk through the home to explore all items being sold, including furniture or even used cars. Be sure to check out our article “What is An Estate Sale” for further expansion on this question.

How Does an Estate Sale Work?

Putting an event together can feel overwhelming, so it’s helpful to break them down into chunks to tackle. An estate sale can be broken down into three stages: before the sale, during the sale, and after the sale. Focusing on one stage at a time can help you stay focused and organized. We explain what typically happens in each of the three stages below.

Before the Sale

Before you hold the estate sale, decide whether you will host the sale yourself, or work with a professional estate sale organizer. If you choose the latter, the first step would be to review possible candidates and select the professional organizer you’d like to work with.

Then, it’s time to decide what you will be selling during the estate sale. It’s best to take a thorough inventory of each and every item that you’d like to sell, and then further group them into categories. Next, appraise each item based on the market value. Your organizer can help you with this, or you may have to conduct your own research by visiting websites such as Craigslist or eBay. 

How will shoppers know that you’re hosting an estate sale? This is where marketing and advertising come in. Your sale organizer will typically take care of this in-house. If you’re working solo, you can focus on local marketing. Placing an ad in your local newspaper, publishing a post on sites like Craigslist or Facebook, and putting up signs in the neighborhood are just a few ideas.

Last but not least, prepare for the event itself. Clean up the home and display the sale items in an attractive way. Your estate organizer can help you place price tags on each item.

During the Sale

Before you open the doors to buyers, conduct a final walkthrough to make sure everything is in place. 

Buyers are typically allowed on a first-come, first-served basis, especially if there is a line. If you are expecting a large crowd, consider using a number system so that shoppers are allowed into the home in the order in which they arrived. 

Once entering the property, shoppers are usually permitted to roam about on their own. This allows them to peruse items for sale throughout the home and examine anything they might be interested in buying. Finally, they can pay for any items they want to purchase using cash, check, credit, or debit.

Working with a professional can be helpful because they can help manage crowds and resolve any issues with pricing. Many professionals won’t allow family members to be present at the actual estate sale because it can be hard to watch strangers rifling through your loved one’s belongings. If you would like to be present and participatory throughout the process, you can conduct the sale yourself or work with a professional that allows family member access.

After the Sale

Once the sale has concluded, it’s time to wrap things up! First, review the final report on revenues made from the estate sale. Hopefully, this is a moment where you can feel pleasantly surprised at how much you’ve made.

Then, decide how to dispose of any unsold items in a responsible way. You may be able to consign items with a vintage or antique shop. Otherwise, you could list items for sale online on second hand retail sites such as eBay or Craigslist. Last but not least, consider donating items to charity.

Once you have followed these steps, your estate sale has concluded!

Other Questions About How Estate Sales Work

Now that we’ve gone over the three stages of an estate sale, you likely have some follow-up questions about how estate sales work. Below you will find the answers to some of your most burning estate sale-related questions.

Is Everything For Sale?

Usually, yes, everything is for sale at an estate sale. Although the family members of the deceased may keep some favorite or sentimental items, everything else is fair game. On occasion, if the home has already been sold, the new homeowners may put a few items that they want under contract. An example might be a chandelier, or pieces of furniture that look great in the home.

What is the Role of an Estate Sale Company? 

When you reviewed the three stages of an estate sale earlier, did you get a sense of how much work an estate sale can take? This is why many families opt to work with professionals. The role of an estate sale company is to handle virtually every aspect of an estate sale on the behalf of the family. 

This removes the burden of hard work, plus the emotional toll an estate sale can take. We’re often emotionally tied to sentimental items, and it can be hard to part with them. A professional removes emotion from the process and manages the sale objectively and efficiently from the beginning to the end. 

What Percentage Do Estate Sales Take?

Estate sale companies generally charge a standard commission rate between 30 to 40 percent of sales. Before they agree to take on a client, they’ll typically provide a gross sales minimum. This means that the total value of all the items to be sold must meet or exceed that value. 

Some estate sale companies may charge commission on a sliding scale. They’ll gauge how much effort would be required, plus the projected total sales. Smaller estates typically cost more, while larger estates often benefit from a lower commission rate. 

What Happens to Estate Sale Leftovers?

Poof! Estate Services explains that you should expect for anywhere between 5 to 25 percent of your items to be left over after your estate sale. It’s important to determine what you want to do with these items. 

Professional estate sale companies often provide the option of disposing left-over items for you, for an additional fee. Alternatively, you can hire a clean-out service that will haul any remaining items for an hourly rate. 

If you prefer to have more control, you could also opt to handle any left-over items yourself. That way, you could list items for consignment or put them up for sale on sites like eBay or Craigslist. Finally, you could also have the items donated to charity or a family in need.

How Are Estate Sale Prices Determined?

One thing we have yet to touch on: pricing. Determining the proper pricing for items included in your estate is an important step that can make or break your sale. 

Another reason to consider hiring a professional estate sale company is their expertise in properly pricing items. It takes a ton of market research to determine fair market value. However, this gets tricky for the untrained eye, especially when it comes to antiques and collectibles. 

If you prefer to price items yourself, Google and eBay will be your best friend. You can find your item, or similar items, for sale and find out what they are selling for in the resale space. Luckily, your estate sale provides a little bit of room for error. Because they typically span over two to three days, you can always reduce prices if you think you’ve priced them too high.

For those determined to conduct their own estate sale, consider hiring a professional appraiser as a compromise. Getting professional help on even just one aspect of your sale could make a world of difference.

Create Your Estate Plan Today to Ensure Your Assets Are Property Distributed 

Preparing for the estate sale of a loved one can serve as a great reminder for how imperative it is to get our own assets in order. For some of us, the idea of having our belongings auctioned or sold off to strangers is unimaginable. Unfortunately, this is often the outcome when an estate goes through the probate process, or the deceased person’s Will did not properly designate how their property should be distributed.

Establishing your own Estate Plan is an empowering process. By setting up a Will, and possibly a Trust, you can gain control over how your assets will be distributed. This includes financial assets, but you can most certainly include an inventory of your personal belongings and sentimental items. That way, your life-long memories will be distributed in the way you would have wanted. Get started by putting together your Estate Plan with Trust & Will today! 

Is there a question here we didn’t answer? Reach out to us today or chat with a live member support representative!