Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook urges you to manage your profit expectations. Most items won’t sell for anything close to the prices you or your relatives paid even decades ago.

Share story


Whether because of death, downsizing, divorce, or heck, you want to chuck it all and become a Buddhist monk, sometimes you need to unload a household’s worth of things. Estate sales are the easiest way to do that and also make some money — though not as much as you might want.

Looking for other ideas on how to get rid of your unwanted stuff? Visit checkbook.org/seattletimes/estatesales for dozens of ideas from the nonprofit Puget Sound Consumers’ Checkbook’s full report, plus free access to all its ratings and advice until Aug. 30.

At estate-sale events, over two or three days an estate-sale company presides over a jumbo tag sale with the goal of offloading the home’s entire contents. Furniture, art, clothing, even unused rolls of toilet paper are game.

You want a company that will widely advertise your sale to bring in lots of buyers. The best outfits employ staffers with appraisal skills who can tell whether Uncle Bob’s wingback chair is a valuable antique and determine if those family diamonds are really cubic zirconia.

To find an estate seller, first check with professionals who deal with death and downsizing: realtors, estate attorneys, or assisted-living facilities. Some companies advertise membership in the American Society of Estate Liquidators (aselonline.com) and the National Estate Sales Association (nesa-usa.com). No certification program exists for estate sellers, but membership at least confirms that an outfit sees its work as a profession, not a side business.

Ask companies how long they’ve been operating and how frequently they hosts sales. Long-running, busy outfits seem less likely to rip you off than a new business or an inexperienced individual. Check out how they advertise their sales on sites such as EstateSales.org, EstateSales.net, and Craigslist.com. Do its ads contain lots of good photos of items for sale? Drop by a few sales to see how each estate outfit operates.

Schedule in-person meetings with companies you like. Show prospective sellers which items you want to offload and which you want to keep. (If you’re liquidating an entire household, remove anything you want to keep before the sale.) Then ask each company for a written proposal indicating how it calculates fees and estimating your earnings from the sale.

After you’ve hired an estate sale company it will sort, appraise, and photograph items, arranging everything by room and by type, sometimes on tables or racks they provide. Most estate-sale companies price all items, but a few sell everything on a “make-me-an-offer” basis. To maximize profits, skilled estate-sale companies employ or call in appraisers to value higher-ticket items. Estate sellers sometimes send individual pieces of art, antiques, and other valuable items to auction events or post them on eBay if they think they will net more cash that way.

No matter the selling approach, liquidators take a cut of each item’s selling price. In the Puget Sound area, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found that most companies’ commissions range between 30 and 40 percent. Some companies charge extra for clearing out the property after the sale, which might include housecleaning and junk hauling; others include these tasks in their fees. Get a written contract that includes details on all fees and commissions.

Don’t throw out anything before the liquidator sorts through the estate. Buyers swoop up surprising goods, from unopened bottles of juice to beat-up pans. Estate sellers usually tag and try to sell it all; they don’t want to accidentally dispose of some other guy’s treasure. One pro told us about finding a Louis Vuitton 1920s trunk in a dumpster behind an estate she was offloading. It sold for more than $1,000.

Still, manage your profit expectations. Most items won’t sell for anything close to the prices you or your relatives paid even decades ago. Tastes have shifted away from the stuff your parents and grandparents owned (dark wood furniture, china, silver), and it may no longer be popular or valuable. Still, some furnishings and collectibles have held or greatly increased their value. Estate sellers start prices at close to what they think items are worth. Then, as the weekend (or day) progresses, they slash prices.

If the estate includes valuable jewelry, liquidators should bring locking glass case. Good sellers will merchandise items to make the home look appealing, but don’t expect an HGTV-like makeover.

Steer clear of the house during the sale. Because most sales occur after death or illness, it might be hard to separate your feelings from the mountains of stuff you need to disperse. Sales generally take place on weekends, often starting Thursday and ending Sunday. Buyers often queue up early in the morning; some liquidators hand out numbers, deli-counter style, to manage volume.

After the sale, if you’ve hired a company to completely empty the property, you should return to a broom-clean house. Staffers will dispose of unsold items by donating them to charity, throwing them away, or selling them.

Most companies disperse funds within two to three weeks, but get a payment deadline in your contract.