Estate Sale Psychology

Step right up…It’s only a dollar (…song byTom Waits)

”I have this fabulous antique steamer trunk and it is selling for only $50!”, exclaimed the seller.

The buyer raised his brow and put out his hand and threw a single bill on the table, “I’ll take it, but I will only give you $20 for it!!”

“But it came from the estate of a passenger who survived the Titanic disaster in 1912” said the seller.

“Oh, so it has water damage then… Well in that case, I’m changing my offer to $10”.

A bit of retail humor aside (from the seller’s perspective), the coming of the New Year is a time for renewal, trying to honor resolutions made for bettering oneself, facing the future and shedding the baggage of the past.   Many have a goal of unloading some of that baggage by literally selling it, baggage included…

The next time you stop by an estate sale managed by a broker on behalf of a family or directly from the family themselves, you might want to think twice about bargaining in order to save yourself some money. For most people put in a position to have to sell their property, finding a good home for a possession often outweighs the economic benefits that can be obtained from selling it.  Sellers tend to believe that buyers who extend a common interest and reveal a passion and knowledge about a particular item will continue the possession’s meaningful legacy. Items that might not be sold under normal circumstances are easier to part with, often at  very favorable prices, when an empathetic connection is attained.

Every year, more than nine million estate and garage sales take place in the United States, and $19 billion worth of consumer-to-consumer online auctions occur. Many of the sold items have personal stories and private meanings attached to them.  Studies have actually been conducted about the behavior of placing personal items for sale, in and of itself, a ritual of renewal, so common when entering a New Year.

One study was published by Lastovicka & Fernandez,  Extending Generalizations About the Disposition of Meaningful Possession to Buyers With a Shared Self,  that analyzed seller motivations in the conduct of garage /estate sales and online auctions.  The primary focus of the study was to discover how possessions migrate across seller-buyer boundaries. Their research revealed three paths of disposition that meaningful possessions take as they change hands.

  1. Common identity facilitates a sense of shared self between the two parties. The buyer is able to depart with an important possession knowing that it can still maintain its positive meaning with someone else.
  2. Sellers are eager to get rid of a possession in order to forget negatively charged private meanings associated with it. Items acquired with a former spouse might fall into this category.
  3. Sellers employ a wide range of divestment rituals to manipulate the meaning of a possession. Without performing this process, shedding the item is emotionally difficult.

Most of the motivation for the seller, who owns the goods being offered, is to purge them from their lives.  There is revenue to be made, but mostly it is really only profitable for the broker.  The broker represents the seller and that brokerage position requires logistical skill and knowledge and the service befits the fees charged.   Truth be told, the point of the sale is not personal revenue for the seller. The profit from an estate sale does not really change one’s life, unless said estate is owned by J. Paul Getty (I am sure you are not going to find the complete retrospective collection of Abba cassette tapes that can be had for $2 at that estate sale).

Don’t try to run estate sales yourself.  Unless, of course, you enjoy the feel of a handful of crumpled one dollar bills or all stuffed into that fanny-pack you bought in the ‘80s.   If you end up doing that yourself, just bring your stash of one dollar bills to your local strip club and help pay for a young woman’s college education.  And by the way, you should have sold that vintage fanny pack at your sale.

From our observation, it often takes professionals a few weeks to a month of preparation to research, categorize, price and post items.  Many items are often sold prior to the actual “public” sales event and are bought by dealers such as ourselves.  The estate sales manager often knows what dealers are looking for in advance and the wants of other individual collectors they have worked with over the years.  You can’t expect to gain this experience overnight and, as much as I love eBay and Craigslist; Caveat Emptor! applies in both sides of the transaction.  Theses estate sales managers know how to deal with the hordes of people who pass through a well-advertised estate sale and know how to deal with questions from buyers like:

Good estate sales companies are often web and eCommerce savvy and will often post what they are offering from your estate on popular estate sales website such as http://www.estatesales.net and may even post some offerings on Craisglist to broaden the audience and attract buyers form outside the neighborhood.  Let the pros handle the on-line sales.  How many of us have dealt with the aliens that come to us through Craigslist (I am not talking about the illegal kind we may find in California but more like the kind from space – also as we have here in California).

One important overlooked aspect of estate sales is the Cleanout and Closeout of the sale.  This is an important function of the estate sale management business and should be done as quickly and efficiently as possible.  If a company does not have sufficient staff to guarantee when they will complete the Cleanout portion of the sale, be very cautious.  If the estate is your parents’ California home or you are moving across country and you live (or will be living) in Virginia, you need to be sure the estate has been properly closed out, almost all goods sold and the house cleaned for the next step in the estate liquidation closeout.

“Is this furniture used?” , asked the bemused customer. 
“No, it is brand new and has been stored in the original crate it came in from 1895”, replied the seller through a thick accent of sarcasm.

Most good estate sale managers have come to their position due to natural sales skills and the ability to provide the sensitivity and understanding related to a family’s position. They may be called upon to help an aging parent with a transition into assisted living or downsizing or a family member with a foreclosure or move due to divorce or death of a partner. Some cases can be less traumatic including helping a seller consolidate their holdings prior to selling and buying their next home. Good estate sales managers are known in the community and are often referred by estate attorneys and real estate agents.

As we mentioned earlier in this article, we are one of the dealers that contact estate sale managers to provide us with excellent treasures and rare finds. As a reseller, we look for the quality of construction, period, condition of the finish and structural integrity of the piece. We often look for the hidden gem that needs just that extra bit of work that is beyond the skill or desire of the casual consumer.

So why would we be writing a blog article about estate sale managers when we do not provide that service today? We are considering launching an Estate Sale business as an off-shoot of our standard online and antique business and we have years of experience running estate sales and will consider a request on an individual basis if you are interested.  The answer is because we see our business as providing a community service for our customers offering a collection of treasures that we have selected from estate sale managers. We often know the stories behind the pieces we acquire, perform expert restoration to help return them to excellent condition and offer our customers superior furnishings and home accents that cannot be found at the “big box” retailers. In a way, our retail business follows the new green model, recycled lifestyle accouterments from a different generation. We are here to offer you someone’s family treasure that may very well become your new prized possession.

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