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How to get the best deals at estate sales

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I attended my first estate sale when I was about 7 years old. Our elderly neighbor had passed away, and, peering out the window, I spied the tables set out in her front yard. Intrigued, I set out with a handful of coins and was delighted by the treasures I was able to acquire with my small sum. From that day forward, I was hooked.

As an adult I’ve gone to dozens of sales, where I’ve discovered many gems. I do try to manage my addiction, but lately I’ve allowed myself to fall gleefully off the wagon — and in the process realized I’ve garnered some estate sale shopping wisdom. I share my tips with you in hopes that you will discover your own prized items in your neck of the woods.

First of all, the term “estate sale” can describe a range of events. Many times these sales occur after someone dies or when they transition into assisted living or nursing care. Sometimes sales are held when a family moves and downsizes. Other times, they are put on by a company trying to clear out inventory on behalf of a number of antique dealers. Occasionally, they are really just garage sales. A true estate sale differs from a garage sale in that it involves clearing out an entire household, not just a few items here and there. And often you are allowed to wander throughout the whole house.

1. Know where to look. You’ll luck out on occasion and run across a sign while taking a Sunday drive. But why leave it to chance? There are some great resources to help you plot a course that has a higher probability of leading to treasures that are right up your alley. Online listings can be a great resource, and two reliable sites are Craigslist and EstateSales.org. Both allow you to search regionally and to filter for specific items.

Some estate sale management companies have their own sites that they update whenever a new sale comes along. They may even have a newsletter that will notify you of upcoming sales. Most will have business cards available at the table where you check out, and some have sign-up sheets. Ask if you don’t see them right away.

With all of these resources, however, beware of the oversell. Similar to real estate blurbs, an estate sale description that sounds too good to be true probably is. I had an experience with this just this morning. A sale I’d been looking forward to all week turned out to have mostly clearance items — stuff no one else wanted — from earlier sales handled by the same company. As I began to notice items I’d seen the previous week in a neighboring town, I realized this wasn’t going to be the sale I imagined. On to the next sale!

2. Prioritize wealthier neighborhoods. It stands to reason that more affluent homes will contain more valuable items. There are exceptions, of course. Sales held in nicer homes can turn out to be busts, while some modest homes have wonderful things. But if you only have time to hit one or two sales, go for the tonier addresses.

3. Go early. Set that alarm — even if it’s Saturday — and fortify yourself with breakfast before you head out the door. You are on a serious mission that requires proper fuel. Many estate sales run Friday morning through Sunday afternoon. If you can, go first thing Friday when the professionals go. After that the high-value items tend to be gone, and mere mortals are left with only the odds and ends.

Others subscribe to the strategy of dropping in on a sale at the tail end, when prices are likely to be at their lowest. The only catch is that the quality of the items will also tend to be lower.

4. Don’t overlook less glamorous items. The reality is most of us will leave behind some rather banal objects when we leave this earth, and others might as well make use of them. I recently purchased a brand-new pack of No. 2 pencils, some binder dividers (both still in their packages) and several rolls of wrapping paper — all for a song.

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5. If you love it, buy it. No matter how unusual an item is, if you love something, there’s someone else out there who will appreciate it too. Yes, prices may go down tomorrow, but the risk is too high that if you pass it up, the piece you dreamed about overnight will be gone when you return.

This applies to the period of time you’re at a sale as well. Recently I spied a couple of super-cool shopping totes made of straw. I made a mental note to come back to them after I’d checked out the rest of the house. By the time I returned to the living room, another lady was in the process of paying for both of them. (How could she not leave at least one for me?!) The best way to avoid this is to either pick up the item right away and carry it with you or set it aside. There is usually a table near the register for this purpose. You can always change your mind later.

6. Remember the garage. Frequently I’ll wander into the garage of a home and find only one or two people there, even when the rest of the house is packed. It’s easy to forget this spot. But think about it: Where do you keep the stuff you don’t use every day? Yep, that’s why you want to visit the garage.

My husband and I have found some quality vintage tools over the years that just can’t be purchased new. And there’s something endearing about their time-worn handles, burnished almost to a glow. Those details remind you that your hands are just one pair among many in a long line of appreciative owners.

Usually the garage is part of the sale. If you’re not sure, check with the people running it.

7. The best deals. Some items are pretty universally undervalued, such as vintage linens. Perhaps it’s because few of us embroider, appliqué or tat anymore — or maybe it’s just because the culture’s tastes have changed — but you can still find gorgeous table linens, tea towels, pillowcases and so on for next to nothing. Just today I checked out a sale primarily because of a photo I noticed in the online listing that featured some antique linens. Little did I know the jackpot I was about to hit. The sale turned out to have tables, racks and boxes full of beautiful linens at reasonable prices. I soon learned they were all 60 percent off, so what could I do? I’m now the proud owner of a rather healthy stack of vintage tablecloths.

8. Beware of collections. Inevitably you’ll enter a home in which a former resident assembled a large number of a certain type of item. A couple of weeks ago my husband and I walked into a home containing several such collections, a few of them right in line with our own tastes. The assortment of 50 or so brass doorknobs was especially tempting, each being a true work of art. But where would we put them, and — a tougher question to face — would someone else be buying them at our estate sale down the road?

I ended up selecting just one that had particular meaning for me. Cast with a New York Public Schools logo on it, I imagine it — or one like it — was on the door of one of my dad’s schools. So I snapped it up and reluctantly left the rest.

It seems to me that half the fun of collecting is the search itself, and the pleasure of adding items to your collection over time. I recommend choosing your favorite and moving on.

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9. Know when to walk away; know when to run. About 10 years ago, we stumbled upon a sale in a university town where we discovered a set of Harvard Classics from the 1920s at an outrageously low price. What turned out to be even more outrageous, however, was our apparent inability to set aside the time to read them once home. When I finally forced myself to delve into the set’s copy of Don Quixote, I realized how dated it was. Being an older translation from Spanish, the English felt stilted, and in the end I gave up and decided to read a more current edition. After years of allowing the set to occupy a large portion of our bookshelves, we finally decided it was time to admit defeat and part with the whole caboodle.

It can be challenging to know what will turn out to be a worthwhile buy and what will just take up room until you get rid of it yourself. My advice is to assume you will be the person tomorrow that you are today. So if you’re not as avid a reader as you’d like to be, go to the public library more often rather than acquiring more books. Spy a nearly new elliptical machine at an estate sale? Think about why it’s in such great condition. You got it — because the previous owner didn’t like to exercise any more than you do.

10. Keep your eyes and mind open. You may be in search of specific items when you arrive at a sale. But at least half of what makes these sales fun and worthwhile are the elements of chance and, dare I say, magic. I wasn’t looking for a stocking-mending kit dating from the Depression when I wandered down the driveway of a sale this morning, but I’ll be darned (get it? darned) if I’m not the proud owner of one as I write this.

It’s also helpful to think creatively about how you might use an item for a new purpose. Though you may be browsing kitchen items, imagine alternative uses for the objects in a bedroom or office. For instance, I have a 1930s cookie tin that I keep everyday jewelry in, and a vintage piece of pottery holds receipts until I have time to sort them. Repurposing the things you find is part of the fun.

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