The Best Things to Buy at Estate Sales

Housewares at a garage sale
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I love a good estate sale. It’s one of the few opportunities in life to walk into someone’s home, look around and snag whatever catches my eye. Who could resist?

My love of estate sales started in Chicago, a city where weekend “estate sale-ing” is practically a contact sport. Twenty years later, it’s still my favorite way to discover new treasures for my own home and for my online resale business.

If you’ve never been to an estate sale, make it part of your summer bucket list. Nearly every town has one or two sales every weekend, and in major cities, there can be dozens.

Find them by scouring ads in your local paper, browsing online classifieds sites like Craigslist, or just keeping an eye peeled for posted signs.

Estate sales are sometimes referred to as “tag sales” because everything that’s for sale is tagged with a price. But some estate sale deals are better than others.

The following are among the things I always buy at estate sales.

1. Furniture

antique dining room table and chairs
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Whether you’re furnishing an entire house or just a guest room, frequenting estate sales is one way to get good furniture cheap. But be choosy.

Look for signs of quality like solid wood construction, dovetail joints and bookmatched veneers, as I detail in “10 Secrets to Finding Quality Secondhand Furniture.”

One word of caution: Never buy upholstered furniture without first giving it a smell test — a nose-to-the-fabric sniff. Some estate sale proprietors attempt to mask cigarette, pet and mold odors by using scented candles and strong aerosol sprays.

2. Tools

tools in a workshop
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A couple of generations ago, folks fixed things instead of simply replacing them. And to keep everything in tip-top shape, homeowners had a small stockpile of tools.

Nearly every estate sale I attend features a little pegboard paradise — a basement workshop or garage filled with essential tools everyone should have.

Though they may need a bit of cleaning and TLC, vintage pieces by Craftsman, Skil and Stanley are exceptionally well-made and likely have years of faithful service left in them. Even better, such tools can be had at an estate sale for a fraction of what new versions would cost.

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3. Vintage toys

Vintage toys
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Everyone gets nostalgic about toys from their childhood, and in the resale business, nostalgia sells. Not convinced? Check out these Lego sets that resell for thousands.

If you’re buying to resell, keep an eye out for classic board games, early electronics and toys that inspire personal creativity (think paint-by-number kits, Lite-Brite and Lincoln Logs). And remember, don’t toss the box! Buyers pay more for toys in their original packaging.

4. Vintage jewelry

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In my resale business, vintage jewelry — both the real stuff and quality costume jewelry — is always a hot seller.

But before you hit the estate sale circuit, invest in a jewelers’ loupe (your eyes will thank you) and brush up on common gold and silver purity marks. Then, buy what you love and try to score complete jewelry suites — matching sets that typically include a necklace, bracelet, brooch and pair of earrings.

Prefer rhinestones over diamonds? Pieces by famous costume jewelry brands such as Miriam Haskell, Eisenberg and Schiaparelli are highly prized by collectors.

5. Flatware

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Whether you’re looking for stainless steel, silver plate or sterling, estate sales are the perfect place to find cutlery.

I gravitate toward well-made stainless steel sets from the 1960s and ’70s. Typically, they’re made of heavier-gauge metal and have more interesting designs than contemporary options.

If you’re buying to resell, look for vintage pieces made by Dansk, Lauffer or Cromargan. I once bought a 45-piece set of flatware by Dansk for $15 at an estate sale. Within a week, I’d flipped it for $147.

6. Barware

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Making cocktails used to be a ritual complete with beautiful decanters, drink-specific glasses and elaborate mixing tools. Those days don’t have to be lost forever. Estate sales are treasure troves of sexy “Mad Men”-era barware.

Move beyond 2-liter plastic bottles and disposable cups. Stock your own bar cart with vintage jiggers, cocktail shakers, mixing beakers and elegant glassware — all for a fraction of retail prices.

If crafted cocktails aren’t your thing, flip your finds for profit. Retro mixology equipment is a consistently hot seller on eBay and Etsy.

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7. Small kitchen appliances

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Again, older often means better-made. If you’ve bought a toaster lately, you know that the life expectancy for many new appliances can be measured in months, not years.

I’d much rather pick up a 1970s-era toaster for $5 at an estate sale than a new one for $30. The used model has proven itself, the price is right, and I can cope with a few avocado-green accents in my kitchen.

The same goes for vintage coffee makers, blenders and slow cookers. These items were built to last and can often be had for next to nothing at estate sales.

8. Original artwork

man looking at artwork
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Tired of mass-produced screen-printed “paintings”? Me too. Though every estate sale doesn’t feature original artwork, those that do usually have high-quality pieces.

Follow your personal taste and look for paintings, pottery, sculptures and glass that match the aesthetic of your home. Not sure how to distinguish an original painting from a mass-produced copy? Start by paying close attention to:

  • Texture: Most original acrylics and oils will show layers of built-up paint. Look for pieces with surface texture and clear, individual brush strokes.
  • Signature: Original art usually includes an original signature. Do asearch for the artist and see what similar works are selling for.
  • Canvas: Check the back of the painting. Original pieces will be on canvas or canvas board — and these materials may have yellowed over time.
  • Frame: Solid wood frames are a good indicator of age and hint at the level of investment and value the original owners put in the piece.
  • Labels: Gallery labels indicate that artwork started life in a studio, not a factory.

9. Towels

Bath towels
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Ever notice that new towels don’t absorb as well as vintage ones? Even after a thorough washing, their material just doesn’t have the same “thirsty” quality that older towels have.

It’s a big pet peeve of mine and one of the reasons towels are always on my estate sale shopping list. If I’m comfortable with the general cleanliness of a home, I beeline to the linen closets and bathrooms.

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Some older folks reserved their “good” towels for visitors and never used them. Not only are big colorful bath sheets and hand towels like these perfectly preserved, they’ll last forever and whole sets can be had for pennies on the dollar.

10. Plants

Chinese evergreen (Aglaonema) houseplant
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I know it sounds strange, but I love buying plants at estate sales! They’re typically more mature and better cared for than the selection at my local nursery.

A few years ago, I bought (adopted?) a 7-foot ficus tree for $40 at a local tag sale. Though getting it home was an adventure, that tree is thriving and it’s the centerpiece of my office.

11. First-edition books

Old books
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I’ve sold a few dozen first-edition books over the years, and most came from estate sales.

Often in a rush to liquidate decades worth of accumulation, families overlook the details. After all, it takes time to examine each book, locate the publication information, and research value.

As a result, most books are sold in bulk (a few dollars per box) or for a flat rate (a dollar or two apiece). Take a few minutes to comb through the selection. You just may stumble on first-edition treasure.

12. Cleaning supplies

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Since many estate sales are wholesale liquidations of everything that’s in a home, you can score great deals on practical items other shoppers may overlook. It may sound odd, but I like to load up on cleaning supplies at estate sales.

Window cleaner, disinfectant, brooms, buckets, squeegees — when these types of items are donated to thrift stores, they usually don’t make it onto the shelves. Instead, stores put them to use internally, which means no bargains for you or me.

Though cleaning supplies may not be the sort of estate sale find you brag to your friends about, paying 95% below retail still feels great.

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