It took a few years but Rachel Reeves of Long Beach, Calif., found the exact bedside tables she was searching for at an estate sale last month. Made in the 1950s from cherry wood, they had a colonial revival look, with tapered legs and carved ridges in the drawers. And at $20 for the pair, the price was right.
"It’s so exciting to have things that don’t look like what everybody else has," said Reeves, 30, a stay-at-home mom with a 3-year-old and a baby on the way. She has been shopping at estate sales for affordable furnishings since she and her husband bought a house five years ago. "And I like that the tables had a life before I met them," she said. "They had meaning for someone else."
Driven by nostalgia, thrift and the thrill of the hunt, more people like Reeves are shopping at estate or tag sales, lining up before dawn to be the first to rummage through other people’s discards, hoping to find inexpensive and one-of-a-kind items for their homes or to resell online for extra spending money.
As the ranks of these shoppers grow, so does the number of sales, both because so many homes are in foreclosure and because baby boomers are downsizing or perhaps selling off the belongings of their infirm or deceased parents.
Professional organizers of estate sales say they cannot keep up with demand and that they are working year-round rather than just in spring and summer, when sales were traditionally held. And the sales days, previously just on weekends, are now anytime from Wednesday to Sunday.
"I can hardly keep up with the calls," said Denise LoSquadro, owner of Sisters in Charge Tag Sale Professionals, which organizes sales on Long Island. For a commission of 25 to 40 percent, organizers like LoSquadro handle all aspects of a sale, including pricing, staging, crowd control, transactions and cleanup. "We help mostly people going into assisted living or going through foreclosure, but also divorcing people who want to get rid of all the skeletons, if you know what I mean," she said.
Activity on Estatesales.net confirms the rise in both shoppers and sales. The site, which helps people nationwide locate sales in their area, has doubled its business every year over the last five years. It currently lists an average of 75,000 sales a week with more than 150,000 people signed up to receive its e-mail alerts
"The poor economy is primarily what’s driving it," said Dan McQuade, an owner of the site, which is based in Jackson, Mo. "It’s forcing more people to sell their things and making more people unwilling or unable to buy retail."
Deborah McMahon, 59, a retired congressional staffer, started shopping at estate sales eight months ago for items to spruce up her four-story town house in Alexandria, Va. "You can find things that make a room, and at a tolerable price," she said. "You go to a furniture store and the prices are so high, you could save I don’t how many lives in Haiti." Her latest finds are a brass lamp with a black metallic shade and an antique Oriental bowl.
But McMahon said it took her some time to learn the protocol of estate-sale shopping. "It’s like you are breaking into a clique," she said. "There’s this whole subculture with its own set of rules."
For example, the first person to arrive at a sale distributes so-called pre-numbers to others as they drive up and wait in their cars. "You flash your lights to let them know you are there for the sale," said McMahon, who usually shows up well before dawn for sales that typically start around 8 a.m. When the person running the sale arrives, shoppers exchange their pre-numbers for real numbers, which determine the order in which shoppers are admitted.
"Even when I get there early and get a good number, I still get shoe prints on my back," McMahon said. "It’s fun, but it’s like ants all over an anthill when they first open the doors."
Those with the sharpest elbows, according to veterans, tend to be pickers, which in estate-sale argot means dealers who are seeking items to resell in antiques malls or flea markets, or online. Junkers are recreational shoppers who are buying for themselves. And hoarders, of course, are acquiring compulsively and may have to hold their own estate sales to pare down their accumulation.
"I went to a sale that was being held because a hoarder lost her house, and there was an entire semi-trailer full of shoes," said Debra Hogan, 55, a self-described junker who scours estate sales as well as garage sales in Bloomington, Minn. "Too bad they weren’t my size because they were adorable."
With a three-car garage so packed with purchases that only one car fits, Hogan tries to avoid the hoarder label by selling many of her finds at a stall she rents in an antiques mall. "It allows me to shop without the stuff taking over," she said.
"You can also make pretty good money," she added, which is why she quit "various other careers," including selling cosmetics, five years ago to concentrate on buying and reselling.
Similarly, Diane Mars, 56, a real estate agent in Newbury Park, Calif., supports her estate- and garage-sale habit by selling excess items on eBay. "The real estate business is really bad right now so if I get short on money, all I have to do is sell some stuff," she said. She recently sold 10 Coca-Cola serving trays from the 1930s for a total of $5,000. She had bought them all for $30, she said. Also profitable are vintage ballerina cake decorations from the 1950s, which she buys four for a dollar and sells for $25.
Given the rise in estate sales, shoppers like Mars say it is becoming difficult to decide which ones to attend. She scans Craigslist and her local newspaper, and drives around looking for yard signs advertising coming sales.
"I have the advantage of being a Realtor so I can look up the title of the house and tell how long they’ve lived there," Mars said. She and other estate-sale devotees say that, usually, the longer a person has lived in a house, the higher the quality of the merchandise on sale, and the more of it is likely to be vintage.
There are other sites like Estatesales.net that list sales nationwide and offer mapping features to help shoppers pinpoint events near them, including Estatesales.org and WeekendTreasure.com. Professional organizers pay a fee to list sales on the sites and often include pictures of select items. Many organizers also have websites of their own where they advertise events.
In the Internet age, buyers don’t necessarily have to live near the sale. Bryan Davis, whose company, JBD Estate Sales, organizes sales in Houston, said he gets many distant inquiries, often from collectors interested in specifics, like paintings or silver or jewelry. If these parties bid higher than he thinks the local market will bear, Davis said, he will sell to them even before the sale begins. "My job is to get my clients top dollar," he said.
But in these tough economic times, it is not just collectibles and vintage items that shoppers desire. They want cheap household goods like pots and pans, cleaning supplies and paper towels.
"We sell everything from a 50-cent half-used can of WD-40 to a $5,000 dining table," said Daniel Sanders, president of Four Sales, which organizes estate sales in and around Washington, D.C. "Estate sales are becoming a more visible and mainstream way of shopping."
Whether they seek paper towels or Picassos, experienced estate-sale shoppers say it is best not to dither. They advise picking up and holding on to anything that sparks even the slightest interest and making a final decision later.
If the piece is too big to carry, it is acceptable to remove the price tag and take it to the register. But it is considered bad form to bring "sold" stickers and put them on items before they are purchased, as some pickers are known to do.
And finally, said Reeves of Long Beach, "Bring wet wipes
because your hands get filthy going through all that old stuff."