For the past year, I've been going to estate sales almost weekly with my friend, Bargain Hunter. Over that time, I've become (I hope) a more savvy, smarter shopper. I've also learned some some tips and tricks that I wish I could have found beforehand in a post on 'How to Shop at Estate Sales'. I'll share those tips now and, hopefully, they'll help you!
1. Research the sales. There are several good places to find local (and not-so-local) sales. One of my favorites is estatesales.net. Once there, you can sign up for weekly email alerts or just keep checking back to see sales in your area. Many of these sale notices will have photos of items, as well the descriptions of what they have. At estatesales.net you can even 'watch' and map the sales you're interested in. Estatesales.org is another site, though I don't think it's as user-friendly (the same sale will often be listed under multiple cities). Craigslist has estate listings, as well, but there you'll get listings for sales that homeowners call estate sales but are not much more than a few old clothes and vhs tapes on a card table. My friend and I have gone to quite a few of those from Craigslist and we always laugh about the typical listing description "50 years of accumulated stuff . . ." and add these words ". . . on 3 card tables in a garage"!
2. Start early!
Once you decide which sale is your 'A' sale, plan to get there early. Most of them will have dealers and early-birds lined up as much as an hour or two before to get 'street numbers'. Street numbers are just numbers given out on a first come-first serve basis before the sale opens. Since houses are often small, the first 20 or 25 people are the first ones in and everyone else waits outside (in order of their numbers).
3. Dress appropriately.
Speaking of waiting outside, if you live in a cold place, dress warmly! In the past 2 weeks we've had to stand in less-than-20 degree temps and snow for up to a half hour. You can also plan on getting dirty -- basements and attics can have decades of accumulated dust and grime.
4. Come prepared. You'll do better if you come armed with the following:
A flashlight (often, the houses, attics & basements are poorly lit)
A large shopping tote (to carry stuff from room to room)
Cash (some sale dealers won't take credit cards and some take no checks or checks
only for over a certain amount)
Hand sanitizer (you'll probably feel pretty grungy from the dust and dirt of digging
through treasure-troves of stuff
5. Inspect your items carefully.
More than once I've come home with something I thought was great, only to find a scratch, nick or stain that I hadn't noticed. If you find it there and you don't mind it, you won't be in for a bad surprise when you get it home.
6. Don't let dirt discourage you!
There are often real treasures hidden under a layer of dirt -- especially in the case of pottery and metal. Rust won't wash off, but grime will. It isn't a bad idea to take a damp cloth in a baggie to 'test' a spot and see if it will come clean.
7. Don't be in a hurry.
Most sales (especially in the morning of the first day) are really crowded and the lines to checkout are long. Expect to wait.
8. Don't be afraid to dicker.
Often only about 1/3 - 1/2 of the items in a sale will be priced. Some dealers post a general sign for common items (like linens or books) and will only price the larger or big-ticket items. It never hurts to ask if they can go a little lower or to group purchases ("If I take all 5 of these, could I have them for _____"). If there's no price marked, the dealer will give you a price. If it's too much for you, tell him so. Sometimes they'll come down to meet you somewhere and sometimes you'll just walk away.
9. Don't be ashamed to walk away from an item.
If the dealer's price is too high for you, don't be embarrassed about saying that you no longer want it and leaving it there at the checkout table. This happens all the time and they think nothing of it.
10. Go late.
If you don't get to a sale at the moment it begins, still go to it. Because everyone goes focusing on different items, something you really want might not be taken. I'm always surprised at things that are still available at sales I've gone to later in the day. In addition to that, dealers often will make better deals (or have big discounts) on the second or third day of the sale.
I hope these tips are helpful. I wish I'd seen a guide like this when I was starting out -- it would have saved me some 'life lessons'. Maybe the most important piece of advise, though, is to have fun! These sales can really be a blast -- you'll find unusual things, learn a little history and meet some really nice people who enjoy old stuff like you do. You'll probably even see some of the same people over and over and get to know them a little bit.