Grit Blogs > Confessions of a Cracked Egg

Estate Wars: How to Get Great Deals

The time has come for me to admit I have an addiction. They say that admittance is the first step towards recovery right? Some are addicted to drugs or alcohol, cigarettes, shopping, or even texting. I am addicted to estate sales. In the grand scheme of things I figure this is a pretty safe addiction, as it has paid off pretty well for us this year.

Last fall there was an estate sale at the end of our road. Andrew and I didn’t have any plans for the weekend, and we were curious as to what goes on there since neither of us had ever been to an estate sale before. We are big fans of Auction Kings, Storage Wars, and Pawn Stars on A & E, History and the Discovery channel. It is always amazing to find out that the smallest, and often the ugliest, finds are so valuable. So we headed out with the kids not really knowing what to expect.

Our first auction experience that day taught us a great deal. We didn’t buy much that day. Just two simple lots of glassware. The first lot contained a soup tureen that I fell in love with. The auctioneer lumped it in with what I considered to be an ugly vase and a hand-painted urn. Neither of which caught anyone’s attention. We won the bid at $5.

  Soup Tureen 

Later in the day a lot titled “contents of garage shelf” came up for bid. We had noticed this shelf contained old canned goods. I was desperately needing canning jars, so we bought the lot for $5. Little did we know what our meager $10 investment would be worth.

At the end of the day we had cleared off over 200 pint and quart size canning jars off those shelves. We left at least that many more “off brand” jars on the shelves for the new home owner. Hiding among the regular jars were four blue ball jars, one was a highly collectable #13 with the original zinc lid.

  Blue Ball Jars 

On a lower shelf we found a nice set of 8 dessert bowls and a small tea set. As we looked further, in the very back of the lowest shelf we found a part of history. A 1928 Cory model double boiler percolator sitting next to a brand new similar designed 1931 Pyrex Silex model made famous by Norman Rockwell in the Saturday Evening Post. Now, being big coffee fans this was pretty exciting!

Andrew survived the emptying of all those jars. It was looking pretty doubtful there for a while though. Imagine what 200 jars of 15 yr. old beef stew, canned onions, and other un-identifiable foods smell like on a 100 degree day. After several rounds of alternating hand washing and dish washing they were all finally clean! My tureen was displayed nicely on a shelf, the coffee pots were cleaned and shiny, but what to do with that vase and urn? My sister fell in love with the vase, so guess what she got for her birthday. After only two days of advertising the urn online I sold it to a woman for $50. She was thrilled and so was I! Our $10 investment made us $40 in cash and all of this years canning jars! Not to mention the value of the items we kept.

Shortly after this exciting first experience into the world of estate auctions we had our third child. It wasn’t until late spring that we were able to attend another sale. Our next attempt was on a 105 degree day with all three children in tow. That was another learning experience! Shortly after that I began going to the sales myself to do the bidding and business part of things. Then Andrew comes along with a truck (and trailer when needed) to collect that days finds. This system is working quit well for us lately, and we have been able to get some really good deals on things we otherwise would not be able to afford on our meager budget. Some of our best recent finds are a Craftsman wood chipper ($120), yard sweeper ($70), utility tilt trailer ($75), Woods 5’ bush hog ($30), and a Singer commercial sewing machine ($37.50).

  Tilt Trailer  Woods Bush Hog 

 Singer Sewing Machine 

Some items we have even managed to get for free by selling other items from the lot before we even leave the auction! Andrew now has two sets of saw horses, I have several pieces of carnival glass, and moving boxes full of books, screws, hand tools, and such that were all free after others at the auction purchased things they were combined with.

We haven’t been at this very long, but I am already addicted! The energy level, fast pace, and great deals all add to the excitement. Our goal is to be able to purchase enough “extras” with the things that we need to sell and cover our expenses. We are well on our way to that goal now.

If you are interested in trying your hand, and your luck, at some estate sales in your area there are a few things you should know before you go. Hopefully these tips will save you some time and money!

Is there a buyers premium? Check with the auction company in charge of the sale before the sale begins to make sure there is not a buyers premium. A buyers premium is a fee added to the final sale of an item by the auction group. These fees may only be a few percent, but on large purchases they can add up! You don’t want any surprises when you go to pay.

Get there early! Make sure you arrive in enough time to look over everything up for auction BEFORE the auction starts. Often times personal belongings, small tools, garage items, and such will be boxed together and sold in lots. You will not be able to check the contents of these boxes once the bidding starts. Many of our best finds were purchased in $2.50 lots of several boxes. If you do a lot of yard sales, flea markets, or e-bay sales these are your money makers!

Be prepared. Most auctions occur in the late spring, summer, and early fall. The day can be long, hot, and dry. Take along a folding camping chair since the chairs that are provided usually go quickly. Pack a snack and some bottled water as well. Sometimes a vendor will be there with food, sometimes not. Nothing is worse than being ½ way through an auction with tired feet, a hungry belly, and dry mouth! Check the weather. Be sure to wear appropriate foot wear and take along a rain jacket or umbrella if there is the slightest chance of rain.

Set a budget before you go. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to take cash along instead of a check. When you know exactly how much cash is in your pocket, you are less likely to spend extra on impulse buys. Take a notepad and pen with you. Use your time before the auction begins wisely by writing down the items you are interested in and what you are willing to pay for them. As the auction progresses, be sure to write down what you have spent. That way, if you have come in under budget on some things and you just HAVE to have a special item that has gone above your intended “target” price you will have a little more money to spend on it!

Beware of bidding wars. I am bad for doing this! It is very easy to get caught up in the action and bid higher than you intend to. The pace is so fast, you’re really wanting the item, and that other person just keeps upping the bid on you! Be strong, don’t give in, and stick to the budget!

Be willing to walk away. Even if the item is beautiful, perfect, and one of a kind you have to be willing to walk away. Most likely you will never win every item you are interested in. Just remember your goal is to pick up the steals, not pay retail price for used items!

 SOLD! doesn’t mean it’s over. So you lost the bid. Perhaps you were wanting one item in a grouped lot. Don’t be afraid to seek out the winning bidder and make an offer on that item. We have done this several times, usually paying less to the new owner than what we had been willing to bid to begin with. Only once have we ever been turned down. In most cases they were not even wanting the item we were interested in to begin with, but like us were bidding on the entire lot to get something else. This way, everyone wins!

Protect your new investment. Winning the bid is only ½ the process. Now the auction is over, you have settled your bill and must now face the mountain of new goodies you have acquired and somehow manage to get them home. Many auction groups will have people who can assist you in loading your items. I would recommend you load what ever you can yourself, and then supervise the loading of everything else. I recently left my purchases in the care of two young men to load. Once I arrived home, my beautifully conditioned antique sewing cabinet had a four inch gash in it from resting against a miter saw and four saw blades! My other purchases included a lot of 7 blankets, had I been more active in the loading process that cabinet could have easily been protected with those blankets. An expensive way to learn a lesson!

Make sure you have proper transportation. This is a big one. If you arrive at the auction in a sports car, don’t be buying bush hogs and bedroom furniture if you don’t have a way of moving those items home within a few hours time. Most auction companies will only remain on the auction site for two hours or less after the auction. After that time, if you haven’t taken your items home they will remain on-site outside with you responsible for their safety. It’s a good idea regardless of what you drive to either take a trailer with you, or have one on stand-by. You never know when you’ll luck up on a super cheap piece of equipment!

Estate sales are a great way to spend some time with the family outdoors on the weekends. There is usually something to offer for people of all ages or tastes. There may be some times when you don’t find much at all, or the prices are just simply to high for some reason. Don’t be discouraged! The next one may have everything you have been looking for at insanely low prices.

Now, go on and watch a few episodes of Storage Wars then try out some Auction Kings and Pawn Stars to brush up on hot collectibles and prices. Then look up some local auctions in your area and be prepared to save a bundle! If you need me, I’m headed to another sale!

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suzanne cox
8/5/2012 4:46:39 AM

We have been very fortunate to find some great deals this year. There were just so many things that we needed around here, these sales have been a tremendous help! It sounds like you have had quit a good year as well. Your seed deal was awesome! Hope you enjoy all of those veggies, you will be eating well won't you? :)


nebraska dave
8/4/2012 1:33:30 PM

Suzanne, sounds like you have found your niche in life. This year has been a year of accumulation for me as well. I haven't been to auctions but have been given many things. The list includes two refrigerators, a garden tiller, a lawn mower, a picnic table, steel posts for the garden fence, a roll of weed fabric, tomato cages, a deluxe composter, string for the weed whacker, four 55 gallon barrels for rain water catching, and roll of chain link fence fabric. Then my daughter came home with seeds for the garden. She works for Walgreens. They were getting rid of the left over seed packages for the year. She talked her boss into selling them to her for $2.00. The total count was 270 vegetable seeds packages of every kind of vegetable and herb imaginable. Have a great estate auction day.