How to Find Estate Sale Deals (From a Beverly Hills Bargain-Hunter!)

I can’t wait for this COVID thing to be all over … when everyone’s healthy and safe, I can resume one of my guilty pleasures — my Beverly Hills “shopping sprees!”

I’m not talking about the name-brand stores on Rodeo Drive that sell $1,800 sunglasses or $12,000 handbags … The bargains I’m searching for lie within the suburb’s majestic mansions — at private garage sales and estate sales!

Furniture, plants, kitchen knick-knacks, fancy candles and soaps … almost everything in my home once lived at somebody else’s home first. Sounds a little weird and gross, but let me explain my process and share some of the gems I’ve found over the years.

Garage Sale vs. Estate Sale

First, it’s important to know the difference between a garage sale (or yard sale) and an estate sale. This matters because there’s a huge variation between quality, price, bargaining power, and general cleanliness of the items!

Garage sales (aka yard sales aka tag sales)…

  • Are usually held outside
  • Mostly sell household stuff that people don’t want anymore
  • Are usually one-day only
  • Don’t provide photos or good descriptions of the items available before you get there
  • Typically have items sold as-is (they’re not always cleaned very well)

I don’t attend too many garage sales anymore. If I stumble across one when I’m walking or driving around, I’ll stop and have a quick look for hidden treasures, but most of my bargain-hunting is done at estate sales!

Estate sales…

  • Are usually held inside the house (or mansion)
  • Include almost every single item in the house (and sometimes the house itself!)
  • Are typically organized and managed by a professional estate sale company (but not always — here’s a side hustle story about it)
  • Can span multiple days, with most starting on a Thursday or Friday and ending on Sunday. Unsold items get cheaper as the estate sale goes on.
  • Often have well-cleaned, high-quality items, especially when the sale is held in an affluent neighborhood. Think jewelry, antique furniture, artwork and other valuables.

There are two main reasons people hold estate sales. The first is because someone who had been living in the house recently died, and the heirs want to sell everything inside. (If this describes your situation, there are all sorts of legal things you need to know about probate court and the probate process, so PLEASE consult an attorney before you touch any of the items inside the house, let alone try to sell them.) The other reason is because extremely wealthy people want to move and need to clear out all the personal property before selling the house.

A good example … Elon Musk recently announced he is selling all his worldly possessions. This will include several Los Angeles mansions and estates. My guess is he’ll have a professional auctioneer or estate sale company sell his household items — either hosting an online sale or in person at one of his homes!

Inside Scoop: What’s Inside Those Multimillion-Dollar Estates?

The best part about estate sales in fancy neighborhoods is walking through MASSIVE homes!

One estate sale I visited was selling more than 50 chandeliers. I almost laughed when I walked into the “lobby” and realized that the house was connected to an adjacent lot. The estate was so huge I stayed there for hours just walking around and enjoying it. It was like a free museum.

Another house I visited was owned by an old movie director. He had a library, hidden rooms and secret closets. This guy also collected a copy of every Playboy magazine since 1953. Weird! I couldn’t afford to buy anything at that sale, but it was fun to be there and pretend to be a shopper.

Once I went to an estate sale and the whole mansion was giraffe-themed! Everything inside had giraffes on it … kind of like the Carole Baskin of giraffes.

There’s a ton of strange things that wealthy people collect. But for the most part, mansions have regular household items in them. That’s why I’m there. I buy their kitchen items, small appliances, cleaning supplies, or things that I can actually use at home.

The Best Estate Sale Deals I’ve Scored (So Far)

  • One day I left my house yelling, “Be right back, honey, I’m running to a quick garage sale!”  I returned home 4 hours later riding this ‘98 Harley Davidson Sportster. Picked it up for $2k! Sadly, it was a little small for me, so I sold it on Craigslist a week later for a sneaky little profit.

  • This swing bench is the coolest part of my back yard! I think I paid maybe $40 for it at an estate sale in Rancho Palos Verdes about 5-6 years ago.

  • This fountain is one of my latest finds … made out of solid concrete, it’s so heavy I had to pay some local gardeners to help me load it in/out of the car. The Prius almost didn’t make it home that day.

Other Cool Things I’ve Bought at Estate Sales

  • 600 water balloons for $6. The kids in my neighborhood held a massive water fight with these. Cheap fun!
  • Large fancy cigar humidifier, $40. This was the size of a small mini-fridge, and I ended up giving it to a friend for his birthday.
  • Skateboard signed by Tony Hawk! $5. This was an awesome find because I didn’t even know it was signed by anyone until I got home and noticed a little scribble under the back wheels. Sure enough, it was Tony Hawk’s autograph!
  • Shoebox full of exotic soaps, $8.  I actually sold one of them on eBay for $8, which paid for the whole box. Now I’m using the remaining 20 bars myself :)
  • Romertopf clay dutch oven, $10. My wife bakes chicken in this bad boy, and sometimes I make bread in it too!

How to Find an Estate Sale Near You

If you’re in a major metro city in the U.S., the best site for finding nearby estate sales is Search your zip code (or type in the zip of a fancy suburb near you!), and you’ll see upcoming estate sales. You can sign up for email notifications if you want there, too.

For more rural areas, you’ll find sales listed in your local newspaper. Some small or exclusive estate sales companies also have private email lists that — if you ask around — you may be able to join.

Craigslist sometimes has estate sale listings, but it’s hit and miss. Definitely do some research on the sale before you go to make sure it’s not a regular garage sale. You can always contact the owner and confirm what’s going on.

Another way wealthy people sometimes handle estate liquidation is to have an auction. An estate auction is usually reserved for valuable items and is managed offsite by an auction house (as opposed to being held in the house where the items came from). A ritzy one can draw potential buyers who are bidding from all over the world. In an auction, the prices for the valuables end up being set by the bidders (duh), which is way more intense than a little friendly haggling at a flea market! Sometimes you can check out out these auctions in person (you usually have to register beforehand) and they can be fun to watch even if you don’t intend to bid on anything. Again, check your newspaper and You never know what might happen!

Tips for Shopping at Estate Sales and Getting a Good Deal!

Whether you’re shopping for yourself, or trying to resell hidden treasure for a profit, here are some pro tips that will help you as a buyer.

1. Bring and pay in cash

Most estate sales are happy to take your credit card, but almost all charge a % fee to use it, and also add a hefty sales tax depending on your state! Sometimes the estate sale company will hold your item if you don’t have the cash right there, and you can run to the ATM. But it’s best to just bring cash with you for a fast deal.

2. Join private email lists

For each sale that you attend, ask the estate liquidator if they have any other “private sales” going on. Most of them keep their own mailing lists and sometimes they’ll let you know about exclusive sales not publicly advertised (Los Angeles people love their “exclusive” lists).

3. Everything is negotiable

I always ask if they are “selling the house.” Not because I’m interested in buying it, but because I want to find out how urgent it is for them to get rid of all their stuff, including the real estate. The very last day of the sale things can be like 90% off the price (which was probably already below fair market value) just because the owner needs everything gone! 

Everything is negotiable, just like a thrift store. Remember, usually they want to get rid of everything, so estate sales are a great place to practice your negotiation skills and try getting discounts on whatever the asking price is!

4. Get there early

The savvy shopper gets up early! You don’t want to arrive at a sale only to find all the hidden treasure has already been snatched up by a nerdy antique dealer. Try to get to estate sales as early as possible. The best estate sale deals are found on the first day of the sale, first thing in the morning!

5. Examine photos in advance

There’s nothing worse than driving all the way to an estate sale and finding the items are all crap. The more info you know before getting there, the better. Typically before I head to a sale, I look at all the online photos and take note of the items I’m interested in.

Also some estate sale organizers allow you to email them or text in advance. You can shoot them a text like, “is that pocket watch still available or sold already?”. This can save you a trip if the stuff you’re interested in is already gone.

6. Stay within your wheelhouse

Specifically for reselling items, one of the best tips for beginners I can give is to only buy stuff that you are knowledgeable about. This makes it 100 times easier to resell quickly afterwards.

If you buy some oil paintings that you know nothing about, you’ll waste a bunch of time and it’ll be a headache trying to sell them later. If your goal is to resell, go for the easy items you can sell quickly for profit.

**There are also a bunch of courses that teach you how to sell specific items, for example this guide on how to sell used furniture, which can give you a better chance of success!

7. Ask for appraisals on fancy items

Some big-ticket items might have been professionally appraised, like antique clocks and rare art. If you’re not sure, you can always ask if they had an appraiser check it out, and if so, they’ll usually show you the appraisal. I don’t buy this kind of expensive stuff, but it’s nice to know.

8. Don’t forget the golden rule!

Lastly (and this rule goes for any type of shopping), don’t buy stuff you don’t need or can’t give away or re-sell! If you are a shopaholic or can’t control your spending, it’s best to stay away from estate sales completely. 

One Person’s Trash Is Another One’s Treasure!

When you have a spare weekend and you’re up for some exploring, see if there are any sales in the fancy neighborhoods around you. Or if you’re visiting LA, maybe I’ll bump into you at a Beverly Hills sale. It’s fun visiting houses you usually can’t go inside, and everybody loves a bargain!

Are you a garage or estate saler? What cool stuff have you found?

*Top pic by chrissie kremer on Unsplash!

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  1. Dollartrak August 4, 2020 at 12:00 PM

    I’ve never understood the fascination with estate sales. Imho this is just encouraging you to waste money on stuff you didn’t need or want. The fallacy that you saved money by spending less than full retail on an item you didn’t need to buy.

    1. Joel August 4, 2020 at 12:56 PM

      Ha! I find rummaging a fun and cheap activity. If you’re the type of person who’s going to waste money, you will waste it anywhere… in a mall, online, convenience stores, and yes – estate sales. Self control is needed in any shopping environment that offers discounted stuff. :)

    2. JC August 8, 2020 at 6:05 PM

      This implies that you are going to an estate sale just for fun. If that were the case, it is just like shopping at any store just for kicks, you will end up buying stuff you do not need.
      If you happen to be in the need of things, furniture for example, you can do quite well. I have found numerous antique/vintage furnishings for a steal. I would have paid far more at an antique or consignment store.

      1. Joel August 8, 2020 at 6:14 PM

        Sometimes I go for fun – if it’s in a crazy mansion area I’ve never visited before or the house looks like it was lived in by someone interesting. But most of the time there’s a specific item that piques my interest :) Looking at the photos you can usually tell if it’s worthwhile going to. Cheers!

  2. JoshDoesFatFire August 4, 2020 at 3:13 PM

    Great article Joel.
    I’ve never actually been to a garage sale and they don’t seem to be so popular in the UK.

    Over here we have ‘car boot sales’ and they tend to host them in a field or park and they can be pretty big events.

    I used to go to them when I was a lot younger and pick up some good finds!

    All the best!

    1. Joel August 4, 2020 at 6:41 PM

      Boot sales are wicked too!

  3. Kemkem August 11, 2020 at 6:31 AM

    Hancock Park was my go to for estate sales when l lived in L.A. Like you l really enjoyed it and got some great deals. My best one ever was in 1992 when my housemate and l had just pooled our money together (yes, cashing in our 401K for the downpayment :-) ) so we had a gorgeous house in the hills and no furniture. I went to an estate sale of a recently deceased man that was being conducted by some twat company. I somehow ended up speaking to the daughter directly. She sold us a whole bedroom set furniture, an antique rug and some other things for 2500 dollars despite the complaints of the company and them telling her she could get at least 5 times more.. haha! She didn’t care. She even made her husband truck them home for us. We had the furniture till 2013. Shipped them to my sister in Nigeria where they are still going strong.

    1. Joel August 11, 2020 at 11:06 AM

      That’s an awesome story! Hancock Park has some gorgeous homes and a lot of history. My favorite type of bargain is old/durable furniture. Some people don’t realize the gold mine they’re sitting on – or in your case, just want to get rid of it and don’t care what they get for it. Nice deal! Even better that you’re paying it forward to your Sis! :)

  4. Jason Butler August 20, 2020 at 5:50 PM

    I do most of my shopping for my resale business at thrift stores, but I’ve been to a couple of Estate Sales before. One sale was a total dud. The other one was good. I purchased about $20 worth of items and was able to flip that to $150.

    1. Joel August 21, 2020 at 1:09 PM

      Nice profit!! I’ve bought a few old pocket watches and put them up on ebay. Fun way to make a few buck on the weekend! I’m a big thrift store shopper too!

  5. Shaun September 3, 2020 at 2:22 PM

    This is amazing! I could use this idea. I actually buy houses in Denver and too often, since we buy house as-is there are a lot of stuff left by the previous owner. I don’t know maybe they don’t like them anymore but too often most of them are seems to be useful somewhere. I just think that this idea is the quickiest way to have them all out and profit. Thanks again Joel!

    1. Joel September 3, 2020 at 5:27 PM

      Awesome Shaun. I never thought about it from a seller side… But that is a great way to get rid of a problem, and hopefully profit at the same time. Nice!