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The Agony and the Ecstasy of Estate Sales


At an estate sale recently, a large baggie filled with yellow corn-on-the-cob holders caught my eye. The price was $1 and out of curiosity, I opened the baggie to see exactly how many corn picks you got for that kind of money.

There were 66 pair of corn-on-the-cob holders, and I admit being surprised. Why so many? I mean, they come in packs of eight or twelve. So twelve times, these corn fiends plunked down money at the store for a gadget that gets used four months of the year. Are they Rotarians in charge of the annual Pig Roast? Do their grandchildren use them as swords in Barbie doll wars? Do they have acreage in Iowa?

I’m not the only one wondering. The woman behind me watches as I count and we share a convivial laugh. “People save the weirdest things, don’t they?” she says.

This is how an estate sale rolls. The doors, drawers, and cupboards of your home are thrown open to the proletariat and we rifle through your possessions, assessing your housekeeping, questioning your behavior, and often, pitying you for letting things get out of hand.

So why do it?

Sometimes it isn’t your decision because you are dead and your surviving relatives, tasked with the burden of emptying your home, turn to professionals. But more and more, families downsize or move overseas, necessitating a shedding of possessions.

Plus there’s something to be said for the lightening speed efficiency of a two-day estate sale. Professionals inventory and price your possessions, market the sale, run it, and when it ends, donate the rest to charity or haul it to a shop.

And while the term “estate sale” conjures up a chateau in the country, in truth, any homeowner or condo dweller can host one.

Before you do, ask yourself this essential question: Do you care who ends up with your stuff? With an estate sale, you are relinquishing control of how your things will be distributed. Some people are not comfortable with that. They like “gifting” their heirloom box of mittens to a special niece or nephew.

If you’re okay with selling your things to the person most likely to use them and give them a second life, then find an estate sale company and fling open your doors.

Here are questions to pose to the professionals:

  • How much input does the family have on pricing?
  • Exactly how is the estate sale advertised; where is it advertised and for how long?
  • What percentage of proceeds goes to the family?
  • Are valuables like fine antiques, art, or jewelry treated differently?
  • What safeguards are in place to minimize damage to the home during the sale?
  • If damage occurs, who is responsible?
  • What happens to furnishings that don’t sell?
  • If furnishings end up at a shop, do the terms and conditions change?
  • Who cleans up afterwards?

Best of luck to you in this most difficult task, and if you do host an estate sale, save the weird stuff for me.

Photo collage by Nicholas Ballesteros

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Mithra Ballesteros sells vignettes of art and antiques at Her one-of-a-kind collections have been featured on Apartment Therapy, Anthropologie, Huffington Post U.K., and Uppercase Magazine. She pens a popular weekly blog, The Bubble Joy, and her readers liken her to Nora Ephron but with a lesser-developed vocabulary. On weekends, Ballesteros scours the Wisconsin countryside for antiques in a ’53 Ford pick-up named Betty.

14 thoughts on “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Estate Sales”

  1. I had to laugh as I thought of moms thirty-something corn cob picks strung throughout my kitchen, or her thirty-seven salt and pepper shakers that never get used! I’ve never really gotten attached to “things”. I sold everything six years ago except what would fit into our car and after that process, I only buy things that I absolutely love or have to have. It’s a lot less stressful, but I love a good estate sale! These are great tips! Is there a market for mismatched placemats?

    • Rena, I can’t imagine streamlining my life to the point that it would fit into a car. Wow! Maybe a moving van… .

  2. I love estate sales because they show the flotsam and jetsam of people’s lives. I remember one at a huge estate, with everything from sterling silver samovars to half-used tubes of polysporin. It’s fascinating!

    • Jen, you may have just inspired another post: “The Top Ten Grossest Items for Sale at an Estate Sale”. Thank you!

  3. They usually feel a little sad to me as people pick through their personal items, even photographs are up for grabs. Those are someone’s heritage and they just don’t care. But, I have picked up some nice antiques through estate sales.

    • The stacks of old photos always hurt me in the solar plexus. Honestly! It seems preferable to burn them than to just send them out unattached out into the world.

  4. We held such a sale after my grandparents passed. It was weirdly interesting to see their lifes spread out in the yard and divided up in boxes. (This was after everyone got dibs on the special things we each wished to keep).
    It was a life saver for my Dad who was in charge of their estate.

  5. I recently purchased an adorable handbag that originated from an estate sale. I like to think the owner was a grand old woman who lives in a mansion in Beverly Hills and who loved everything fashion.

  6. I’ve culled four storage units down to two and hope to have none by late spring. I’m a collector, but a minimalist, so no one’s more surprised than I am that I have this much stuff! I learned something valuable, however. Out of sight, out of mind. For the most part, I’d forgotten I even owned these things! The real question becomes, how do I rid myself of the other two storage units? xoxox, Brenda

  7. My brother was a hoarder in Boston. Never married he still had our father and mothers clothes in the dressers and closets. Upon his death I had one week off work to get the nine room house emptied and ready for sale. I hired a company that used 16 inch cardboard tubes to slide things from the second floor right into the 3 roll off dumpsters. They broke up cabinets and tables and off they slid along with magazines and other junk he had collected. I saved what I thought was good and got 4 hundred dollars for it. I saved a pickup load of what was important to me and til this day I wonder if there was something valuable I might have overlooked.

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