11 estate buying and selling tips from an expert

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Exploring real estate sales has been one of my favorite summer activities for over 20 years.

For this professional picker, scouring old houses with the possibility of finding hidden treasure around every corner is an unparalleled pleasure.

But in a world of big box stores and online shopping, navigating the unique world of real estate sales is practically a lost art.

So here’s my top tip to help first-time real estate buyers buy better and enjoy the experience more.

1. Know what to buy

Household items at a garage sale
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Real estate sales can be exciting. It’s easy to get caught up in the moment and make a few buying mistakes. Remember that not all transactions during a real estate sale are good.

Before heading out, check out my article “12 Things I Always Buy At Estate Sales” and research the prices for the specific items you’re looking for.

To avoid buyer’s remorse, ask yourself two clarifying questions before you buy anything:

  1. “Would I buy this item if it was for sale in another context?”
  2. “Am I buying this just so I don’t go home empty-handed?”

If your answer to question #1 is “no” or your answer to question #2 is “yes”, take a deep breath and move on.

2. Arrive early

Woman turned on by her own time
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Well advertised sales can be competitive business. Arrive early on the first day of the sale, claim your place in the queue and savor the anticipation.

Don’t be afraid to strike up a friendly conversation with other early risers. They often have the inside scoop on upcoming sales and can even keep an eye out for items you’re looking for once the doors open.

3. Relax

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While it’s a good idea to be early, don’t rush.

Some aggressive buyers try to pressure organizers into making advance sales, sometimes knocking on their doors the day before the event starts. This kind of tactic is never successful and always offensive.

Relax. You’ll miss out on some great deals; you will do good business. It’s a dance, not a race.

4. Travel light

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Don’t arrive at an estate sale with a large purse, tote bag, or backpack. It’s nearly impossible for auction organizers to keep an eye on the whole house, and big bags only raise suspicion.

Bags and boxes are usually available locally for shoppers purchasing multiple items.

5. Bring cash

Woman with empty wallet
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It’s the question that makes a thousand eye rolls: “Can you hold this for me while I run to the ATM?” Don’t be that guy. While professionally run estate sales often accept credit cards, cash is still king.

Carry cash, including an assortment of small bills, so owners don’t have to struggle to give change. (Ones and fives are especially popular.)

6. Trade strategically

Two pairs of clasped hands on a conference table.
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Although haggling is generally acceptable during real estate sales, it is useful to brush up on the basics of good negotiation before embarking on the real estate sales circuit.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Haggling is less successful on the first day of the sale and much more successful late on the last day, when organizers try to weed out any remaining items.
  • If you are going to haggle, avoid low bids, have cash on hand, and be prepared to take the item with you immediately.

7. Don’t snoop

Hooded woman looking at a computer screen
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Since most real estate sales take place at someone’s home, stick to the boundaries. Resist the urge to enter locked rooms and do not bid on items marked “NFS” (Not For Sale).

Remember, your hosts are probably juggling dozens of estate-settlement tasks — packing, dividing sentimental possessions among friends and family, selling the house.

8. Listen

Deaf man having trouble hearing
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Especially in smaller towns, hosts of estate sales are eager to share the story of the items they are selling.

It is partly informative and partly emotional. In other words, sellers want to know that their precious items are going to a good home where their stories will be appreciated.

Although it may seem strange, leave room for this type of personal exchange. This is part of what makes real estate sales unique and fun.

9. Check upholstered furniture

heavy sofa couch
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Upholstered furniture that has been exposed to cigarette smoke, pets, or moisture can retain these odors for years.

Some less scrupulous estate sales organizers try to mask these noxious odors by burning scented candles or using heavy sprays.

Before buying upholstered furniture, give it a quick smell test – a sniff of the nose on the fabric. If something goes wrong, avoid this piece of furniture or be prepared to invest in reupholstering.

10. Pay attention to your measurements

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Looking for specific dimensions in furniture, draperies or picture frames? Keep these measurements in your wallet or smartphone.

This eliminates some guesswork when buying and helps avoid investing in items that ultimately won’t work in your home.

I also have a small tape measure in my car, as not all salespeople have one handy.

11. Be nice

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And, finally, the most important tip of all: Be nice. Since estate sales are often triggered by a death in the family, be sensitive to the bumpy emotional journey of your hosts.

Stifle critical comments about decor, clutter, or housekeeping practices. Remember that anything you casually read represents the life of a lost loved one.

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