Estate sale.

Estate Sale: What It Is And How To Organize A Successful One

Rachel Burris7-Minute Read
April 08, 2020

In the midst of a major life change, it can be difficult to move on. Ridding yourself of the possessions you’ve accumulated over the years is even more challenging in the face of life’s hardships. But after the death of a loved one, the end of a significant relationship or severe financial misfortunes, letting go is sometimes your only option. Organizing an estate sale can be the best way to get a fresh start if you find yourself weighed down by your belongings.

Estate Sale Definition

An estate sale, sometimes referred to as a “tag sale,” is a method of liquidating the possessions of a property owner after they have passed away, undergone divorce or bankruptcy or have chosen to downsize a significant quantity of their belongings for other reasons. Estate sales typically involve a much larger inventory than a garage or yard sale and, therefore, require far more planning and organization to execute properly.

How Do Estate Sales Work?

During an estate sale, items are priced and displayed within the home, and shoppers are welcomed inside to peruse. As they find items they’re interested in, sale attendees generally pick them up and carry them around the house until they’re ready to check out. For oversized items that are too cumbersome to carry, shoppers are provided with “Sold” tags, which they place on the pieces they wish to buy once they’ve finished browsing.

Estate sales generally take place over the weekend and may last 2 or 3 days if the owner has many belongings they’re trying to unload. Since these sales tend to attract quite a few shoppers, there are several ways sellers typically control the crowds. The most popular is the first-come, first-served policy in which shoppers form a line outside of the home in the hours before the sale is scheduled to begin. However, some choose to determine the entry order through a number system, where everyone takes a number upon arrival, or they may use a sign-up sheet.

Tips For Estate Sale Success

The thought of planning an estate sale can be overwhelming, as there is so much that needs to be done before you open your doors to the public. However, there are several things you can do while organizing to ensure your sale runs smoothly.

Consider Hiring A Professional 

An estate sale can be a highly emotional experience for owners, but it’s important to remain unsentimental in the face of your consumers. Hiring a professional can make your life much easier, as there are plenty of companies that specialize in advertising, planning, organizing and operating these sales.

Estate sale companies help you organize the space to ensure that items are suitably displayed, and traffic can flow seamlessly through the house. They also offer to research and price items, as well as discount them as the sale starts to wind-down. These companies are usually paid a commission based on a percentage of the sale proceeds. However, they may charge additional fees for extra help or certain additional tasks, like cleaning up post-sale and organizing the donation of unsold items. 

Make An Estate Inventory List

Before you start to organize and advertise your estate sale, it’s crucial that you get a sense of everything you’ll be selling. Often, it’s easiest to begin by removing the items you wish to keep. Once you’ve done that, you can sort through each room and create a list of your inventory. When you come across an item that is more valuable or likely to be more popular with shoppers, consider taking a photo of it to include in the ad you’ll eventually create to publicize the sale.

Carefully Price And Label Your Items

After you’ve created an inventory list, you should hit the internet and look up the items you’re planning to sell. Spending some time researching the market value of your belongings is especially important if you don’t plan to hire a professional estate sale company. Keep in mind that your pricing should be slightly below what shoppers can find online or in stores.

To minimize confusion, price some items by category and hang price lists by the display. For items that you want to price individually, write your desired price on a tag, and find a place to put it where it is both visible and unlikely to come off. For any items that are not for sale but will remain in the home, do not add a tag. Instead, hang a few signs that clearly state that unmarked items are not for sale. This strategy will also help to prevent shoppers from removing tags in hopes of receiving better prices. Though, you may find it best to just put items that aren’t for sale behind closed doors.

Offer Multiple Purchasing Options

While you may think that only accepting cash will simplify the check-out process, remember most people don’t carry around money like they used to. You want to make sure that you offer a variety of purchasing options so as not to preclude anyone from being able to shop freely. Set up a Venmo account and buy a credit and debit card reader that connects to your phone, so shoppers can make electronic payments. To prepare for cash transactions, be sure to have enough change on hand and a place set up to store the money you receive.

Recruit Volunteers 

If you don’t decide to hire a professional company to run your estate sale, you’re going to need some help. There will be a lot of people rummaging around the house, and you need to make sure there’s someone stationed in each section to reduce the chaos. Recruit your family members and friends as volunteers to make sure you have enough people around to help direct traffic, assist customers, complete transactions, reorganize sale items and prevent theft.


If you want to get a lot of traffic, you must use multiple avenues to advertise your estate sale. You should post listings online, through social media and in your local paper. It’s also helpful to hang signs in your neighborhood with arrows directing drivers to the home, so people find out about it as they pass local intersections.

Your advertisements should include the date, time, address and simple directions to the home. When you advertise the sale on estate sale websites, high-quality photos and descriptions are a must to give potential consumers the ability to browse the sale items in advance. While some ads list prices, most estate sales wait for the day of to reveal how much items cost.

Other Things To Keep In Mind

With the tips listed above, you should be all set to start planning your estate sale. But before you hold your sale, there are several other aspects of the event that require your consideration.

Know Who You Need To Contact In Advance

Before you host your estate sale, you should get in touch with individuals within the community to gain approval. Contact your city official to find out about local sales tax laws and whether you will need to obtain a permit. As a courtesy, you should also inform the local police and your neighbors. If the home is part of a homeowners association, don’t forget to reach out to the board directors to determine if they have their own regulations regarding estate sales.

Plan For A Big Crowd

It’s likely that your estate sale will attract an influx of shoppers, so make sure that you’re prepared for a big crowd. To avoid congestion, be sure to keep walkways clear. Strategically place items in the center and around the perimeter of each room. Try not to overcrowd tables, as you want shoppers to be able to take in items quickly as they move around the house.

Be Prepared To Haggle 

Although you’ve carefully priced items based on market value, shoppers will still try to persuade you to give them a better deal. You don’t want to risk losing out on a sale due to rigid pricing, so it’s wise to consider what discounts you’d ultimately be willing to give.

When items appear not to be selling due to their high price, some estate sales will have shoppers bid on them. By the end of the sale, if these items still haven’t been purchased, the item will go to the highest bidder. This type of auction is also used to quickly sell off any less-desirable pieces that remain at the end of the estate sale.

Figure Out What You’ll Do With Unsold Items 

Regardless of whether you decide to heavily discount items or auction them off, it’s likely that you’ll still have some unsold pieces at the end of the sale. Make sure you have a backup plan for what to do with them. For rare or valuable items, you may want to try selling them online or to a local thrift store. Otherwise, you should reach out to a local charity and determine what their policies and procedures are for donations.

Although it can be an emotional experience, organizing an estate sale can help you begin a new chapter of your life with a clean slate. The key to a successful estate sale is all about the preparation. Begin taking steps to organize the event a month in advance. If you plan to enlist the help of an estate sale company, do your research. Each company will have rules and processes in place, so choose the one that best suits your needs.

Table of Contents

    Rachel Burris

    Rachel Burris is a writer covering topics of interest to present and future homeowners, as well as industry insiders. Prior to joining Quicken Loans, she worked as an English teacher for the New York City Department of Education and a licensed real estate agent for Brown Harris Stevens. She holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Bucknell University, a postbaccalaureate certificate in psychology from Columbia University and a master's degree in English education from Teachers College, Columbia University.