The lowdown on yard and estate sales

I've got singles and I'm in the mood to haggle.

9 min read Filed in yardsale tips

It’s been a rather strange spring here in California. Up until the first week of June, it had been raining, cold, and well, just not California weather. Usually in May, Monica and I start the yard and estate sale rounds to see what we can pick up for various projects but we really haven’t even gotten started yet. We hit six solid sales in May, but have spent very little (this last weekend, we spent a mere 10 cents).

Monica and I are no rookies when it comes to sales; we’ve been doing this for as long as we’ve been together. Before that, I learned many a thing from my grandfather on the art of selling, and Monica was no stranger to haggling a deal before I came along. We’re no stranger to flipping items for a profit and we know a scam when we see it. So lets talk sales.

Types of sales

It’s a very important thing to note the type of sale you’re headed to. To make it simple, we boil them down to two types: family and professional sales.

Family sales are those which are just what they’re named: family run sales. Generally these are yard or garage sales with varying selection of wares. Unless something is very specifically specified in the listing, we don’t hit a lot of family yard/garage sales. The values are usually very good mind you, but it’s about find-to-time ratio: you have to hit the sales you know offer the most bang for your time.

Professional sales are generally estate sales or grouped sales (where pro’s buyout smaller estate and yard sale items on the last day, and the hold a larger warehouse style sale). Every town has their estate sale pro’s, and they generally have client lists (which you can get on) that offer you first notice on upcoming sales. The better pro’s know what you’re looking for, and call you letting you know when they have said items. Prices are usually higher unless it’s the last day (and they can’t get rid of stuff).

The type we like? The family run barn/estate sale. Usually a wide selection of everything, cheaper prices, and easier to make a deal.

Timing is everything

Estate sales are generally what Monica and I try to hit, mostly because we’re either looking for beat up antiques or old cameras/records/books. Yard sales don’t have as much of this, so we rarely go unless listings are specific. Otherwise it’s down to an educated guess as to what sales to hit when. The key is timing.

Start days are usually hectic at the larger sales. Often this is on a Friday, which is what we call “fight with the dealers” day. You can guarantee that if it’s a pro run estate sale, you’re going to see dealers from the bay area trying to meet orders or client needs, or folks looking to fill their store. We expect no fantastic deals. The dealers will either outpay you, or the people running the estate sale won’t give you the time of day if you try to price it down. This is also a good time to possibly see an argument/fight between dealers. We’ve seen them (over some 1850’s tack, over art work…) and we’re always amused.

If it’s a family run estate sale, the dealers can be just mean. We were at a barn sale, where they had a number of pieces of old furniture in this barn. The grandson running the sale was very nice (we bought radio parts from him), and told us about some dealers that tried to bully him into selling “junk” dressers for $20 a pop. They were worth the $200 easy. Trust us, we hear this story a lot.

Second day sales generally offer a lesser selection (things go fast), but since it is a weekend expect a crowd at the larger sales. Second day sales often better value, as the seller is trying to get rid of things quicker. Even pro’s will start to work with you, unless they have a buyer in mind.

The last day of a given sale is usually lets-make-a-deal day regardless of type. Items will be half off. Pro’s will push for that sale. We’re scored massive deals on everything from art supplies to furniture.

Let’s make a deal tips

So you’ve lined out what sales to hit. Let’s talk strategy.

  • Know your stuff. Single most important thing you can do and oddly, some people don’t plan or research ahead. Every time we go out to these things, we see people overpaying in a bidding war and people who think something is valuable because of age. Know what you’re looking for, know what the going rate is, understand the market otherwise you’ll end up burned.

  • Every price is a starting point. When we started out, I remember getting yelled at for asking for to buy a broken light meter for $3 (down from $10). The pro running the sale thought I would cave to the hostility for the smashed item which I wanted for parts. She was incorrect. Every price is a starting point, no matter how cheap. Connected to the above point, know your shit, and don’t overpay. Not working with you? Walk. There are other fish in the sea.

  • Don’t be a super low ball offer person. It’s annoying for sellers. This isn’t haggling or dealing, it’s a bush league move. If you’re looking at a piece of antique furniture that’s priced at $400, don’t offer $10 (seen it happen folks, no joke). You’ll turn the seller off (you’re sort of insulting their intelligence) and then they won’t deal with you at all.

  • Work the chaos to your favor. Often times at the larger sales which are professional run, there are too many items to price, and they don’t do it in advance. This is your chance to score deals on smaller items. Case in point, we found a stack of 1960’s Disney records. The guy working the area wanted $3 a pop firm (way too much…we never pay more than a $1.00 a record unless it’s something really special). We picked them up and wandered for a while, then went to checkout. The person running the checkout didn’t know the price the guy had set, an offered us 40 records for $40 bucks. Done deal, and we didn’t even have to haggle.

  • Be nice. You will meet people who are not nice, either buyers or sellers. We’ve been shoved, yelled at, pushed…don’t let it get to you. Keep a cool head, especially at the family estate sales. It can be very hard for some sellers (estate sales are generally when someone died), and we despise the people who don’t respect that fact. In the end, you’ll get better deals if you’re nice.

  • Some sellers are very attached to things. They will price them to extreme’s and will not haggle. Doesn’t matter if the piece of vintage americana isn’t worth $500…some people can’t let go.

Seller tips

Oh that’s right, I’m giving you sellers some tips, namely because some of you people need it.

  • Don’t follow me around. At one of the worst professional sales ever, we were inundated with sellers trying to get us to literally buy everything. There were five people just following us around on what was the last day of this particular sale. They pushed hard to get us to buy everything from linens to furniture. Do not do this. We finally got fed up, put down the two items we had and said, see ya. Don’t bug your customers.

  • Be nice. Why are sellers sometimes such jerks? Could be because the aforementioned cling factor, or it could be because they’re just a pain in the ass to be around. Pro sellers, this goes out for you too. We understand you get some very unreasonable requests from folks…but that’s no reason to take it out on us common folk.

  • Price your stuff. Spend $4 bucks on stickers that don’t leave a mark. Don’t make me ask every three seconds what something is priced.

  • Have a sell price in mind and then mark it up 20%. Really. This works best often on high ticket items. Someone who really wants it will either pay straight (yippe!) or someone will want to haggle. They’ll offer, you can counter with the sell price you had in mind. Usually works out or you get close to the mark, the person walks away with a “deal”, you end up getting the price you wanted.

Rules, oh the rules

We have very simple rules when it comes to getting ready to rock a weekend and what we’re buying. We stick to them, and it just keeps us generally happier because decisions are easier.

  • Clear the car. Everything in the car but the required seating goes.
  • If it don’t fit in the Prius, we don’t buy it. Unless it’s some really super special (which has only happened once in three years).
  • Wear running shoes. No sandals.
  • Water, GPS, paper, pen, camera.
  • If it’s broke, it must be fixed within a week otherwise it’s resold.
  • For every item we buy, two items must leave the house one way or the other.
  • Don’t get attached to things. They’re things, not love.

Random games

One of the most random games we play is the theme game. Some people will take offense, but the reality is every one had a hobby, and at the estate sales we try to guess what that hobby was. Sometimes it’s rather obvious (dolls) other times not so much (why is there a pile of socks stacked to the ceiling?).

Other games include name that architecture and price that house. We’ve seen some truly stunning houses and some others that left you very creeped out (one house we presumed a giant or Greek god lived in, because the stairs in the house were like a two feet tall and there were columns everywhere).

However, the most fun game we have is something we simply call flip it. It works as such: you can challenge each other to a single item buy of a given amount (say $5 dollar spend) and see who can flip it for more. Or you can play a harder version: each person picks an item for the other, hoping to see who has the harder time selling said item. Play with your spouse, play with friends, the fun never ends!


Yard and estate sales offer endless options for furnishing you awesome pad whatever it may be. See the potential, see the value in reuse, and save some money to boot! Last but not least, have fun. We do, it’s really the only reason we do it.