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Savvy shoppers inherit bargains at estate sales

Amateurs vie with the pros in the hunt for undervalued household treasures. Doing your homework can help you compete.

May 04, 2008|Leslie Earnest | Times Staff Writer

If you're willing to wade through the remnants of another person's life, you can find bargains at an estate sale. You just may have to knock a dealer out of the way to get to them.
Antique sellers, book collectors and EBay users show up to these events early. Often they're armed, with magnifying loupes to scrutinize figurines, research books on vintage furniture or an iPhone to check price comparisons.
The professionals are looking for the same things you are: deals. These days, estate sales -- and more prosaically named yard and garage sales, along with swap meets, flea markets and auction houses -- seem to be full of them. The slumping economy has pushed prices down, as has competition from Internet sites, a dwindling interest in antiques and furnishing trends that veer toward the sleek and uncluttered.
"It's definitely a buyer's market," says Billy Humphries, the co-owner and main auctioneer at South Coast Auction in Santa Ana. "What we were selling 10 years ago for $500 we're selling for $150 now."
Although the term "estate sale" often is used loosely, it's generally expected to mean that all the contents of a household can be purchased, minus, perhaps, items collected in advance by family members. (In some parts of the country, they're called "tag sales" because items are tagged with prices rather than auctioned off to the highest bidder).

Some people conduct partial estate sales when only some of the furniture is up for grabs. Alternatively, sellers sometimes combine merchandise from several estates in one home.

Death often prompts the estate-sale dispersal of personal possessions, but so can divorce, downsizing and bankruptcy. People empty their homes for a variety of reasons -- maybe because they've fallen in love with Danish Modern and can no longer bear anything Early American.

Then there are foreclosures.

"With the economy being the way it is, people are losing their houses," says Sanford Cohen, owner of Estate Sales Los Angeles. "I'm going in and selling the contents."

In an estate sale, the stuff of day-to-day living is usually laid out in the intimacy of a home. Sheets, skillets and steak knives. Dressers, jewelry and bone china. You might find a sweet surprise. An antique harp, maybe, or a cookie jar like your grandma used to have. Then again, you might find boxes of bras and underpants.

"Sometimes it's really high-end stuff," says Sherry Marks, a Los Angeles bargain hunter who prefers shopping on Craigslist and EBay. "Sometimes it's really garbage."

Everyone hopes for the same thing: a blunder -- a watercolor tagged for $50 but worth $50 million.

"That's the whole game," says Dan McQuade, co-owner of Estatesales.net, an advertising site for estate sellers. Once in a while, a dream comes true. When it does, McQuade says, both the buyers and professional sellers can benefit. "Now there's going to be 10 more people waiting in line, hoping to find that next mistake."

Perhaps that's why estate sales, which sound ever so genteel, can turn nasty.

"You see people fighting over tchotchkes," says Jose Figueroa, a documentary producer from L.A.

Grabbing something out of somebody else's hands can be a losing strategy.

"I've bought stuff I didn't even want a time or two because somebody like that was trying to get it from me," McQuade says.

You increase you odds of winning if you educate yourself. Many of the events are run by estate sale companies that typically charge commissions of 25% to 45% (some charge additional fees as well). The companies, many with websites, make information about their sales available to the general public, so boning up in advance can be fairly easy.

And, of course, you can find information elsewhere on the Internet by plugging the key words "estate sales" into a search engine or site such as Craigslist.com.

Determine if it's a first-come, first-served event. Do you need to get a number showing your place in line?

Then find out when, or if, prices will be negotiable. Some professional estate sellers will consider a counteroffer on the first day, though others won't budge until at least the second, when you may get what you want for half price. On the last day of the sale, try anything.

And if you're after something specific -- say, Reed & Barton sterling silver flatware in a Francis I pattern -- you can get on what sellers call the "want list."

One recent Friday, about a dozen people lined up outside a Pasadena apartment complex waiting for the 8 a.m. opening of a sale.

Almost all of them were men in a hurry because other sales were starting at 9 a.m.

When the complex gate opened, they rushed in, grabbing cardboard boxes set out for their use.

A few were allowed to enter the apartment, which was filled with furniture, china, kitchenware, a tattered lace dress still on a mannequin and a collection of hats capped with feathers, bows and flowers.

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