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Slade column: A flood of heirlooms creates a buyer's market

Antiques Roadshow (copy)

People wait in line to get their items appraised during the 2015 Summer Tour of the Antiques Roadshow at the North Charleston Convention Center. File

If you're a downsizing member of the Greatest Generation or the Baby Boom, you've probably been told again — and again and again — that no one wants your old furniture.

Numerous reports, along with my personal experience and conversations with auctioneers, generally back up that assertion. I'm a Generation X'er myself, but have seen relatives' downsizing efforts and settling of estates, in some cases being one of the people saying "no, thanks" to items that everyone thought someone should have, but no one seemed to have room for.

A combination of a large elderly population that's downsizing to smaller homes or assisted living facilities, younger people who are more mobile and more likely to rent than prior generations, and changing tastes have left the nation seemingly awash in old furniture. Formal dining rooms and living rooms are far less common in today's households, as are the furnishings and table settings that went with them, and often fell into the "heirloom" category eventually.

This is a problem for people who had hoped their children would want the nice things they no longer have room for, and for those dealing with deceased relatives' estates. Once the children and friends say no, it becomes time to decide what to sell, donate or throw away.

Most economic trends create winners and losers, and if there's a silver lining here, it is that people can find quality older furniture now at prices competitive with new but lower-quality items. If your furniture tastes run more toward mahogany and oak than particle-board and veneer, consider looking around.

Here's a key point: One reason good deals can be had on furniture is that online estate-sale buyers will compete for small, expensive items such as jewelry and precious-metal coins. Furniture, on the other hand, is expensive to ship and harder to resell.

Estate sales and auctions can include a very wide variety of items, from shoes to diamond rings. And the sales can take many forms.

There are in-person estate sales, where the contents of a home are up for sale, sort of like a giant garage sale. There are in-person auctions, and there are online sales through estate-sale companies and by private sellers on websites such as eBay.

Want to get a sense of what's out there? For a broad overview check out the online estate sale website ebth.com (everything but the house).

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The trick for furniture shoppers is to focus on cities close enough that you would, and could, pick up the furniture in person. Shipping charges can be quite expensive, but that helps keep the bidding prices down.

For South Carolina residents, the closest ebth.com cities are Charleston, Charlotte and Atlanta. 

In-person sales could offer even better deals, because the potential buyers are limited to those who show up, and you get to see and inspect what's for sale.

Some businesses, such as Roumillat's Antiques and Auctions in the Charleston area, will post photos and descriptions online ahead of an auction. Companies that arrange in-person estate sales at homes often post photos in advance, as well.

If you're on the other end of this situation, trying to downsize or help an aging relative do the same, options for the things loved ones don't want range from hiring a company to sell off many items at once, or trying to sell them one-by-one.

To get an idea about what might be worth your time to try and sell, one option that I've used is looking at completed sales on the online auction site eBay.com. To do this, search for auctions of the same item, and then narrow your search down to see only completed sales. That way, you can find out what people across the country have been willing to pay for the thing you no longer want.

I recently did just that, while selling a few things for my father, who recently downsized, and for myself as I tried to declutter my house. One interesting result was, I learned to my surprise that a car stereo component that was once in my 1972 Buick Skylark, that had been sitting in a box since the 1980s, could fetch some money.

My father's digital camera equipment didn't get much interest — darn cellphones! — but it turned out that an old Jack Kerouac paperback sitting on my bookshelf was a first edition and worth some money. In the end, selling things one at a time online (and then shipping them) was probably not a lucrative use of time, but it was interesting and I was happy to find new homes for things.

Reach David Slade at 843-937-5552. Follow him on Twitter @DSladeNews.

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