How to Hold an Estate Sale

Jon Fesmire |

You’ve probably seen signs for estate sales on street corners. So what are they? An estate sale is like a garage sale, except that the majority of a person’s belongings are being sold. This could be because the person is going into an assisted living home and doesn’t need most of their things. It could even be because the person has been a hoarder for years and is now getting help to break that pattern and is downsizing their life.

The most common reason for an estate sale is death. When someone passes away, it falls to the loved ones who inherit the estate to decide what to do with it. This is a rough time for family and friends, but once the funeral is over and the will read, it’s important to figure out what happens with the belongings of the departed loved one. That’s where the estate sale comes in.

If you need to hold an estate sale yourself, keep in mind the following.

Family First

Go through the belongings with family and close friends. There may be things they want, mementos that will remind them of your relative, paintings they loved when they visited, and so on. These considerations can help you, as a group, decide who should take what.

To Run It or Not

You can either run the estate sale yourself, or hire a company. With the former, you, your family, and your friends do all the work. With the later, a company handles it, but you may not make any money. You might even lose money.

If you do decide to hire an estate sale company, check their reviews and credentials, and pick one that seems trustworthy. Find out exactly what they offer. Will they price the items? Will they do all the sales work?

If you want to run it yourself, read on.

Determining Value

Make an inventory of everything you want to sell. Include a column for the asking price, and realize that some customers will want to haggle.

Next, determine the value of things that may be worth a lot. These can include antiques, art, older furniture, and newer electronics. One way to do this is to search for current prices online. Ebay is a good place to do that, with Craigslist coming in second. Remember, too, that the listed price for an item on Ebay isn’t necessarily what it’ll sell for.

Consider hiring a professional appraiser to determine the values of your antiques and art. Appraisers generally charge between $75 to $500 per hour, but a good one shouldn’t have to take long to determine item values. You can then use these values as a basis for the asking prices on these items.


Plan a day for the sale, and then gather your helpers, which will probably be family members and friends.

Most estate sales take place inside the home of the deceased. Once you have your prices, label each item. If you have many items that you will be selling for the same price, put them somewhere together with a price sign. For example, “Clothing Patterns, $3 Each.” You could have your helpers assist with this in the days before the sale.

If anything is not for sale, such as furniture that one of your family members has already claimed, put a “Not For Sale” sign on it. Alternately, you can put items not for sale in a separate room. Keep the door to it closed or locked during the event.


You’ll need to get the word out about your estate sale before it happens. Take pictures of items that you think will attract potential buyers. We recommend opening the curtains for natural lighting and using your best camera, whether that’s your smartphone or a dedicated digital camera. Beautiful furniture and fun collectibles are the sort of items you should select.

About a week before the sale, take out advertisements in the local papers and circulars, and have those adds run until the day of the sale. Also, advertise on Craigslist. Put it into the garage sale category and specify “Estate Sale” in the title and upload your best pictures.

Check with the city and with the local homeowners association if there is one to learn the rules for putting up signs. If you’re allowed to do so, post large signs with big lettering on the day of the sale. They should include arrows pointing toward your location. Something like, “ESTATE SALE! 10 AM - 7 PM. 555 WITCHDOCTOR CT.” would work.

The Sale

On the day of the sale, have your helpers show up an hour or so ahead of time, and provide something for them to eat before customers start to show up. Right before it starts, make sure you have at least one helper in every room, and one at each door to a room that is off limits to the public. Their job is to answer questions and to watch for shoplifters. Put small, expensive items like jewelry near the cashier and cash box.

At the scheduled start time, unlock the door and let people in. Take shifts so each helper can get breaks and lunch, and always have someone making sales and watching the cash box.


Hopefully, you will have sold the majority of the items and made some money. This is about liquidating, not getting rich.

As for the remainder of the items, we recommend giving them to a charity like Goodwill, St. Vincent de Paul, the Salvation Army, or a charity local to you. If some valuable items are left over, consider selling them on eBay or Craigslist.

Most of all, we wish you luck and hope your estate sale goes well so you can get back to your everyday life.