Estate Sales Booming - Expert Advice on Making the Most at Yours

Old radio - estate sales hot trendIn my neighborhood, word of an estate sale spreads like wildfire, and according to president John Buckles of nationally-franchised senior moving company Caring Transitions, in an interview with SmartMoney we are not alone in our enthusiasm. In fact, he estimates consumers are spending approximately 15% to 25% more at estate sales now than a year ago. More good news: they are also paying more per item. Cha-ching!

Savvy shoppers or re-purpose-recycle-reuse enthusiasts? Either way, if you are one of the 2.1 million baby boomers with a home on the market and looking to downsize, your estate may be worth more than you think. Be cautioned, however, the SmartMoney article How to Find the Hidden Cash in Your Attic clarifies, "more" not, "millions.""Unless your childhood home was a trove of fine art and rare books, this process won't make you rich," writes SmartMoney reporter Catey Hill. However, it could be just the ticket to ease the emotional stress of transitioning, as well as an unexpected silver lining.

Bill Brightenburg, expert appraiser and owner of Bright Estate Sales in Long Beach, Calif. told WalletPop that, "Although the amount an estate brings can vary greatly ... it seems the average home (usually earns) between $5,000 to $8,000." He notes that fine jewelry, artwork, vehicles or the attendance of a serious collector can skew the numbers higher.

Although Brightenburg agrees overall attendance is up ("10%-20%"), he says perhaps more significantly, the crowd has changed. "I am noticing more non-dealers and collectors who are looking for bargains -- especially on everyday items." Unlike Buckles' observation, however, Brightenburg says his customers are increasingly thrifty. "They are buying more stuff, but typically willing to pay less than we used to receive for some items."

"Every customer is there for something different," says Brightenburg, "we have our antiques people, collectors, decorative/design people, kitchen people, arts and crafts people looking for their next project, garage and tools people all the way down to people who just want cleaning supplies or recently-purchased food items. Virtually every item in a house has a potential customer."

Currently, Brightenburg says there is money to be made on Danish, mid-century modern and Eames-style furniture and decorative items. In addition, "The hottest collectibles are ... from the '60s and '70s while the '80s are starting to heat up." Brightenburg says Chinese textiles and antiques are also prized along with muscle cars and vintage gas or oil advertising memorabilia.

On the flip side, he reports that with few exceptions the value of plates, Hummel figurines, depression glass, silver-plate and pop culture collectibles from the '40s and '50s has taken a nose dive.

Brightenburg says it's the fickle, trend-sensitive valuation of what's hot and what's not that presents his least favorite part of the job. Although the team of experts facilitates the sale, Brightenburg says he defers to the family's judgment in cases of heirlooms and prized possessions.

In this instance, Brightenburg says, "I typically advise the family to put the minimum price they are comfortable with on the piece. I try to limit [family input on pricing] though, as in the modern day era of Antique Roadshow, Pawn Stars and American Pickers, too many people have inflated ideas as to what their 'treasures' are worth. In fact, one of the most difficult aspects of this job is disappointing people with what their items will actually sell for."

Look out, Bill, yet another new show is taking aim at the growing interest and audience of estate sales. HGTV's Cash & Cari, featuring antique dealer and appraisal expert Cari Cucksey is based on the premise of finding hidden treasures at estate sales. "You never know what you're going to find," enthuses the host, "one man's junk is another man's treasure."

In the new show, Cucksey appraises an estate on camera and then offers to buy the entire lot from the seller. Once purchased, she walks her viewers through a zippy analysis of the loot and demonstrates the gritty work involved in organizing and operating the estate sale. In the end, viewers compare her initial appraisals with the final sale prices. You know a trend's gone mainstream when it gets its own reality-style show. Grammy's attic and Pop's garage have gone Hollywood.

As an added bonus, the Cash & Cari website will appraise an item for a few lucky viewers for free. Upload a photo of your item (notice I didn't say entire estate), and the team may provide an expert appraisal. If you feel you're developing a bit of a knack for appraisal yourself, the site also hosts a weekly sweepstakes inviting audience members to guess the value of a chosen item. The winner receives a $50 eBay gift certificate.

If you're considering an estate sale of your own, but can't get Cucksey on the phone, Brightenburg says it's worth the expense to hire a pro (even without a team of cameras and a shot at stardom) because it "pays for itself."

"The biggest benefit in my opinion," says Brightenburg, "is that you make more money. Even after they take their percentage (typically 35%-50%) you will usually still end up with more money than if you did it yourself due to their expertise in finding the hidden treasures; knowing what's hot and what's not."

The pros also help get the word out. "Most established estate sale companies have a stable of dealers who attend their sales (Bright Estate Sales has an email following of approximately 1,000 customers) ... It is amazing what some trash or worthless items can actually sell for at an estate sale. We display, staff and research the items insuring top dollar on the majority of the items. So you make more money without doing any of the work."

As WalletPop writer, Kate McCaffrey noted in Why I Love Estate Sales, in addition to realistic pricing, sending newsletters and email notices, professionals will not usually hover over customers or perhaps more disconcerting, "stare blankly at you while you survey their personal belongings."

Creepy at best. To find a service, McCaffrey suggests asking for referrals and references as well as visiting existing sales to see how they are run.

Still, if you find yourself inspired to follow in Cucksey's DIY footsteps, Brightenburg says, "My advice would be to try to eliminate any emotional attachments to the sale items involved. Don't throw anything away because one man's trash can truly be another man's treasure. Do as much research as you can as to what items actually sell for -- not what they are 'valued' or appraised at." Whatever you do, don't stare.

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