Forget everything you think you know about estate sales. The priceless antiques left by some deceased rich person and carefully curated; the haggling.
The truth is, lots of people have estate sales while they’re still alive, and antiques are falling out of favor. And as for the curating, estate sales specialists tell you the biggest rule: Don’t throw anything — that means anything — out.
“I cannot tell you how many times you walk into a place and you see remnants falling out of trash bags at the street,” says Lee Lazarus, owner of Total Estate Sales of Mount Pleasant. “The number one rule is don’t throw anything out. For instance, costume jewelry sells better than real jewelry sometimes, and we had one woman throw it all out because it was just costume jewelry. It was very frustrating to us.”
“Nothing’s junk,” agrees Debra Orsini, owner of Calibrie Lowcountry Estate Sales of Summerville. “There is somebody out there who will buy everything.”
For those squeamish about buying something from the recently deceased, Lazarus says that about half of estate sales are actually moving sales.
“The biggest myth is people think estate sales mean
someone’s passed away. But one of the biggest markets out there is baby boomers,” Lazarus says. “They have large homes and no more children at home. They want to be footloose and fancy free, they want to simplify their lives, they want to downsize.”
Estate sales start with a visit by an estate sales specialist who will evaluate what you have to sell. This can be the first difficulty, when an owner’s sentiment confronts market realities.
“We always determine the price. There’s a lot of research involved. You can’t just wing it and throw a price on it,” Orsini says. “But you have to be blunt. Sometimes you go in and people think things are worth a fortune and they are not.”
“It happens all the time that people get a sentimental attachment to things because they have been in the family,” Lazarus says. “But I think anybody in the retail business will tell you, antiques sell, but they are not bringing in great money for anybody. What’s really selling is transitional and designer furniture, even just Pier One and Pottery Barn stuff. That stuff is what people want. People are moving away from formality and they tell us, ‘My kids don’t want this crystal, they don’t want to polish this silver, they’re just not interested in it.’ I’ll tell someone, ‘I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your sideboard is probably not going to sell for more than $400.’ And in my head, I’m thinking they’ll be lucky to get that.”
If there are not enough items for an estate sale, Lazarus says his company can bring the sale items to a warehouse it owns in West Ashley where it is sold with items from other homes. But, assuming there is enough for an estate sale, every item gets a price.
“Everything gets a physical price, down to the Tupperware,” Lazarus says.
Once all items are tagged, an estate sale company will either clean up or hire a service to do so.
“The level of setup we do is unparalleled, “ Lazarus says. “When somebody walks into the house, we want it to be as clean as possible. You won’t see glasses sitting in a cabinet that haven’t been rinsed in the dishwasher.”
The company then advertises and reaches out to its contacts to tell them about the upcoming sale, usually during a weekend.
Estate sales attract all types.
“There’s no specific age group. Everybody comes out,” Orsini says. “There’s older people who are retired and like to come. You get a lot of people who come who resell and they bring it to auction or to the flea market. You get a good percentage of people who know antiques. You get people who come in just to buy linens and kitchen items and scrap things, and then you get people who buy antiques or high-end jewelry. There’s somebody out there for everything.”
Part of the estate sale company’s job is to play traffic cop at the sale.
“The key to an estate sale is you want controlled chaos,” Lazarus says. “You want some emotional purchases, you want people to know that there are 10 people behind you who may buy if you don’t make a decision. We’re trying to create excitement.”
“There are hundreds (of buyers),” Orsini says. “Everybody doesn’t get allowed in at once. You let 20 people in and then two people will leave and you let two more in. The first two hours are always ridiculously busy. People get there at least an hour before the sale starts. They line up.
“Everybody has to go through one door, single file. People know the drill. The owner has to take out everything that they want to keep. Everything. Because, people go through everything. They (the owners) can’t be living there. “
Lazarus agrees that the owners need to leave during the sale, although they certainly aren’t forced to leave.
“Occasionally, there is an owner still living in the house. If that’s the case, it’s easier and more comfortable for them not to be there,” Lazarus says. “And I especially don’t recommend family be around if the sale is for a family member who has passed. It’s too emotionally stressful.”
A household can bring in anywhere from $5,000 to tens of thousands of dollars for large houses with many high-end items and, although they are reticent to share specifics about fees, the estate sales companies all make their profit from a percentage of those sales. Because of this, the estate sales companies are motivated to sell everything they possibly can.
Lazarus says his company once sold a hand-built pipe organ for a former Catholic priest. And Orsini says she once sold a headhunter sword.
“It had human hair and teeth on it. You have to call a lot of people to place a value on something like that,” she says.