Are you new to estate sales and want to learn the ins and outs of vintage treasure hunting? Or maybe you have been around the world of antiques and vintage sales for a while, but you need to know if anyone else thinks the nervous chitter-chatter in the estate sale line sounds strange. Either way, I have all the estate sale etiquette tips you need to know so you can avoid being the crazy person at the next sale.
Let me preface my tips with a warning: estate sales attract interesting characters. Smart and eccentric folks mixed in with some crazies. If you are looking for a peaceful Saturday morning adventure and don’t feel like listening to collectors rant about how unfair it is that antique dealers get all the good stuff, then estate sales are probably not for you. It takes all kinds to make the world go around, especially in the ranks of the world’s vintage treasure hunters.
Here’s the lowdown if you have never been to an estate sale. Typically, estate sales occur after someone has died or had a big life event, such as moving into a home. Estate sales are typically run by companies that are paid a percentage of the proceeds. Or they are run by the family of a deceased person. Either way, if you attend an estate sale, you will likely be inside someone’s home.
As you may imagine, estate sales are more than just sales. They signify huge life changes and often represent the liquidation of a lifetime of collections. Sales can be fun, and they can also be fraught with emotion. Thus, you may need some estate sale etiquette tips. This goes for the newbies as well as you folks who have been to hundreds of sales and need to brush up on your manners. Yes, you too!
For those of you guys and gals who are new to vintage shopping, here are a few tips about how to find estate sales and get in line:
1. Find an estate sale.
There are many places to find estate sales, including apps and websites. Once you make a list of next weekend’s estate sales, go through each listing and check out the pictures. Then, order your list according to which estate sale you want to visit first. The one with the best stuff should be the first on your list because you’ll need to get there early to get the good estate sale finds.
2. I already said it, but I’ll say it again – get there early!
The early bird gets the midcentury modern credenza. Just sayin’.
3. When you get to the estate sale, stand in line until you figure out how the line works.
All estate sale companies organize their lines differently. At some sales, you must stand in line the entire time to hold your place. At others, you’ll see people putting down boxes and baskets to hold their places in line. Some estate sale companies post instructions on the listing app or website. They often say things like, “We will start a list at 8:00 AM.” If the estate sale company starts a list, sign it, and it will hold your place in line. If a random person starts a list, sign it, and continue to stand in line. Some estate sale companies do not honor lists made by random folks.
OK. So now you know how to get in line at an estate sale. Congratulations on embarking on a new vintage obsession! Now, for estate sale etiquette. These tips begin with suggestions for making it through the line in one piece and tell you how to behave while in the sale.
Rule #1: Don’t ask the other shoppers what they are there to buy.
You better believe that every shopper in the long line looked at the pictures of the sale and knows exactly what they want to grab first. If you ask them what they want to buy, you put them on the spot to give away their knowledge and guide you to a good deal. Nobody wants to tell you about the treasure they are hoping to score. So please, don’t ask.
Rule #2: Don’t tell the people in line that you are putting dibs on items in the sale.
First of all, this isn’t a thing. You can’t put dibs on anything while you are in line. Estate sales don’t work that way. Secondly, I guarantee the person next to you in line has not revealed what they are really there to buy. You both may have been enticed to crawl into the line at an ungodly hour by the same picture of Pyrex bowls. (I see you, Pyrex collectors!) Save yourself and the people around you the awkwardness, and don’t lay claim to any Pyrex bowls…I mean…treasures…until you have them in your hands.
Rule #3: Don’t save places for your mom, dad, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, and second cousin once removed.
If your entire clan wants to attend the estate sale, they need to be there at the crack of dawn to sign the list or stand in line to hold their spot. There is nothing worse in the world of estate sales than standing in line for three hours, thinking you are the third person in line, only to have the person in front of you show up with ten family members and knock you out of contention for the first round of buying. The people who run estate sales typically let in a limited number of people at a time, making it an unforgivable crime to save places for your family and friends. No cutsies!
Rule #4: Be kind to everyone, even dealers!
When you are in line for an estate sale, you are surrounded by antique dealers, whether you know it or not. They probably aren’t going to admit their secret to you, especially if you are openly hostile toward vintage and antique sellers. For those of you who feel superior to dealers, let us consider, for a moment, what a world without antique dealers would look like. No eBay vintage hunting. No Etsy vintage hunting. No antique shows. It would be a sad, sad world! We love dealers! They are the ones who get up at the crack of dawn when we can’t justify leaving our cozy beds, and they get the vintage goods for us to find online or at our favorite local show.
Additionally, antique dealers are small business owners. Perhaps I am biased, having been raised by an antique-dealer mom with an antique-dealer grandma, aunts, and uncles, but dealers are people who run businesses to support their families. They spend their money and time finding the goods to sell to everyone else – and they make it easy to find the treasures that would take us years of dedicated treasure hunting to find in the wild. Being a collector does not make you more noble than a dealer. Coexist!
Rule #5: Be cool, Honey Bunny.
Some of the best advice I can offer you is – chill, dude! I know you saw that Pyrex bowl in the sale listing, and I know it’s the rarest-most-desirable-beautiful-bowl-you’ve-ever-seen. But really, it is an object—a thing. And I know it doesn’t feel like it at the moment, but if someone gets that Pyrex bowl before you do, you will find another one. There will always be another one. Don’t fight. Don’t be envious. Treasure-hunting will cease to be fun if you freak out. So again, just chill!
Rule #6: Be a good treasure-hunter, and follow the rules.
All estate sale companies have rules of conduct. Some let a few people enter in a single file line. Others say, “Go!” and allow a veritable stampede. Some allow kids, and some do not. Some allow line lists; some make you stand in line for hours. No matter the company’s style, they are in charge, and you are at their mercy. Follow their rules and don’t argue with them. The same companies run estate sales week after week, so unless you want to be banned from the current and future sales, be a rule-follower.
Rule #7: Show respect to the house and family.
Remember what I told you earlier about estate sales and emotions? The occurrence of an estate sale is typically due to a death in the family. Please keep this in mind as you browse the home and belongings of the deceased person. Also, remember that family members may be present at the sale, so it’s probably not a good idea to talk trash about the dirty mustard shag carpet or the picture of Aunt Dorothy in the horn-rimmed glasses. Be respectful and understanding of the emotions involved. The golden rule, you know?
Rule #8: Don’t try to haggle on the first day of the sale.
Most companies have rules against wheeling and dealing on the first day of the sale. The deals typically start on Sundays. So, if a sale begins on a Friday, you’ll need to wait until the third day of the estate sale to get a better deal. If you see something you want on the first day of the sale, you’ll have to pay the price.
Rule #9: Don’t raid the hold table.
Often, an estate sale company will set up a hold table on which buyers can set their already-claimed treasures while they continue to shop. It is bad form to shop the hold table, and you will get called on it. You better believe that someone is peeping around the corner to make sure you don’t grab that Pyrex bowl and make a run for it!
Rule #10: Be easy.
When I was a little girl, my grandma Lois used to tell me to “be easy” when I touched antique breakables. At five years old, I understood. Still, exciting estate sales inevitably attract fully-grown adults who sprint into the house and frantically pile all the teacups and saucers into a cardboard box. Clink! Clunk! Clack! And it is seriously cringeworthy. Don’t be that dude or dudette, as the case may be. Seriously. It all comes down to being respectful. Be easy!
If you are new to estate sales – congratulations! You are now part of the in-crowd! Although I cannot prepare you for the intensity of serious Pyrex collectors at 5:00 AM, if you follow these rules, you will be able to successfully navigate an estate sale. As with most things in life, remember that kindness and respect are key in the world of vintage hunting. Happy estate sale hunting, my dears!
If you have tips for navigating the sometimes tricky world of estate sales and vintage treasure hunting, tell me about them in the comments section below!