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10 Best Things to Buy at Estate Sales

Seek out deals on a surprising number of sought-after items, vintage and otherwise

woman browsing home goods at an estate sale

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En español | Estate sales are an expanded version of yard sales — except that virtually everything in the house is for sale. If you're looking for a good secondhand bicycle, lawn mower or toaster, an estate sale is for you.

Of course, some items are hotter than others. China sets? Not so much. “We're more casual in the way we entertain and enjoy friends,” says Jacquie Denny, founder of Everything But the House, an online company that runs estate sales. “My mom would set up china and polish silver, and never enjoy any of it because she was so worried about presentation and cleaning up,” Denny says. “When my friends come over, we're going to sit on the deck, probably have a few beers, and use paper plates."

However, some items are in great demand. And whether you plan to resell the stuff you buy or just pick up good things on the cheap, an estate sale is the place to go. And many times, the things you can buy secondhand are sturdier and better built than the things you can get new at the store. Here are 10 things you should look for when you go to an estate sale.

Art

many colorful paintings hang on and lean against a wall in a living room

Annie Wells/Getty Images

If you have bare walls, estate sales can be a great place to pick up some nicely framed art. “I tend to find a lot of abstract paintings, which I'm interested in just because mid-century Modern is an aesthetic that I like in my own home,” says Kentin Waits, a writer for MoneyTalksNews.com who specializes in second-hand shopping. “Vintage pieces that I find at estate sales are usually signed originals or really nice, low-numbered prints."

Everyone's taste in art varies, but if you find a painting you like, you'll probably also find that the owners put it in a nice frame. You might even dislike the art but like the frame — and repurposing the frame for your own art can save you considerable amounts in framing costs.

Books

Sadly, books are not in demand — unless they're first editions. Is it worth checking? Absolutely. A first edition of The Sun Also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway, is currently on sale for $100,000. A first edition of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, is selling for $85,000.

It's not easy to spot first editions, but if the date on the copyright page matches the date on the title page, you've probably found one. Sometimes the words “first edition” are on the copyright page, though you'll generally need to get that verified by an expert. Even so, taking a flier on a book for a quarter is probably a better bet than the lottery, and you can still read it — even if it's a 10th edition.

Cleaning supplies

Nobody collects boxes of Tide, but if you're looking to get detergent, mops and other cleaning equipment, an estate sale is the place to get it. “It's a convenient way to avoid paying retail,” Waits says. “It's a good way to pick up a lot of stuff I know I'll need at some point for 50 cents or a few dollars."

CorningWare

a shopper holds two vintage pyrex bowls

Baltimore Sun/Getty Images

You may remember CorningWare as the preferred delivery vehicle for your mom's tuna noodle casserole. And you can still buy CorningWare today, including the popular Pyrex brand. But keep an eye out for vintage Pyrex from the 1950s through the 1970s, some of which can sell for thousands of dollars. A rare four-quart “Spice of Life” casserole dish is currently listed on eBay for more than $5,000.

Fashion

Vintage women's clothing is much sought-after at estate sales. It's often well made and trendy. What's more, many younger shoppers are mindful of the huge amount of waste in the clothing industry, says Denny. “People now want to buy sustainably and try to contribute to a better cycle in the fashion world.”

Fashions from the 1950s through the 1970s are particularly popular at estate sales, Denny says, although most people pass on the heavy shoulder pads of the 1980s. Look for luxury labels on dresses and purses.

Estate sales are also a good place to get children's clothing, vintage or not. “Kids outgrow stuff so fast that parents don't want to go out and spend an arm and a leg on it anymore,” Denny says.

Fire-King glassware

set of vintage fire king jade green dishes and a mug

Laurie Reeter / Alamy Stock Photo

Another hot seller is Fire-King glassware, created by Anchor Hocking. “Fire-King was one of the first heat-resistant glasses made for consumer use,” says Waits. “They were used in advertising a lot, so if you went to your favorite restaurant in the ‘60s and were a frequent customer, they might give you a Fire-King coffee cup. A Fire-King coffee cup can go for $100."

Fire-King also made Jadeite glass, an opaque green glass that was manufactured from the 1940s through the 1960s. It's a popular collectible today. Sapphire Blue ovenware, also from Fire-King, is in demand as well.

Furniture

a man peeks under a dining room table to see if there is a label from the furniture maker

MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

If you've tried to order new office furniture during the pandemic, you've probably discovered that there can be long delays before that desk actually makes it into the guest bedroom. Estate sales don't have that problem.

Another advantage: Old furniture is often good furniture. “Typically, the quality of vintage furniture is so much higher than even the mid- to high-end stuff that you can buy today,” Waits says. Look for solid wood, not particleboard, as well as good joinery technique. “Even the stains and finishes are more durable,” he says. One brand to look for is Ethan Allen, which has produced high-quality furniture since the 1930s.

One caveat: Be very wary of upholstered furniture, which can reek of tobacco smoke or have pet hair under the cushions. “I avoid anything upholstered unless I'm really impressed by the cleanliness of the household,” Waits says.


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5 tips for successful estate sale shopping

Knowing the rules will help you get good deals — and keep you out of trouble with the sellers.

  1. Go early. “Usually, in every city, there's a crowd of regular people who are very serious about getting there early,” says Kentin Waits, a writer for MoneyTalksNews.com. Don't let them beat you to the best items.
  2. Bring cash. Lots of smaller bills helps make the transactions go more smoothly.
  3. Haggle within reason. Most estate sellers expect to bargain, and if you bid $75 for a $100 item, you'll probably get it. But bid $10 for a $100 item, and you won't get it.
  4. Go online. Many estate sale companies now let you bid online. Remember, you'll probably pay for shipping, and a teak desk you buy in Ohio is going to cost a lot to ship to Oregon.
  5. Bide your time. Yes, everything will be picked over by the end of an estate sale, but what's left will be marked down. If you saw something that was $50 on the first day, it could well be discounted to $25 the next day.

Kitchen appliances

If you're looking for a slow cooker or a blender, you can save money by shopping at an estate sale — sometimes. “We sell blenders at almost the same retail price they sold at originally,” Denny says. Mixers that cost $299 at Walmart can often sell for $275 at an estate sale, she says.

Given the small price difference — and the lack of a warranty — you'll want to choose carefully. Like vintage furniture, older appliances can be better constructed than newer ones, Waits says. “They may not be exactly what you want aesthetically, but it will last forever,” he says. And you'll want to be sure that the appliances you buy are good brands, well cared for, and run when you plug them in.

Tools

Tools attract two types of buyers. “There's the guy who's looking for the vintage Stanley hand wood planer, and there's the young guy who's got three kids, and is looking for a power tool but doesn't want to go spend $100 at Home Depot,” Denny says. Vintage planers go for several hundred dollars on eBay, and vintage levels can fetch nearly $1,000.

Estate sales are also great places to get lawn tools, such as rakes, fertilizer spreaders and lawn mowers. Unless your idea of a good time is taking apart a lawn mower on a Saturday afternoon, make sure any power tools work when you turn them on.

vintage star wars millenium falcon spaceship toy from the film return of the jedi

Marc Tielemans / Alamy Stock Photo

Toys

Collectible toys tend to appeal to people who played with them when they were little. Star Wars and X-Men figurines are fetching top dollar, as are Pokemon cards. (To get those top dollars, they have to be in pristine, in-the-box condition.) 

Toys also appeal to parents and grandparents who want to save a buck. Lego sets are always popular with kids, for example, and are much cheaper at an estate sale than the local toy store.

John Waggoner covers all things financial for AARP, from budgeting and taxes to retirement planning and Social Security. Previously he was a reporter for Kiplinger's Personal Finance and  USA Today and has written books on investing and the 2008 financial crisis. Waggoner's  USA Today investing column ran in dozens of newspapers for 25 years.

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