The Sales of a Lifetime
photos by carli wentworth
Call them “Garage Sales on Steroids.” Sure, you’re still browsing through other people’s stuff, but unlike their garage-based counterparts, estate sales are becoming big business.
On any given weekend an estate sale can pop up anywhere – cars and customers lined up for blocks, clogging normally quiet streets. The antique dealers, racing in to see what they can scoop up to re-sell at their shops. The bargain hunters, searching for that $1 treasure they can take on “Antiques Roadshow” in the hopes of finding out it’s worth millions. And then there are the simply curious, out to see what kinds of interesting or hideous artifacts a person has collected throughout his or her life.
“The estate sale business has grown tremendously,” said Martha Gragg, proprietor of M&J Estate Sales in Oklahoma City. “I have been doing this for 46 years. I joined my mother, who has been doing it for 60 years. We have definitely seen a lot of changes.”
An estate sale is just that: liquidating the contents of a person’s home. It doesn’t always revolve around someone’s death – sometimes the seller simply wants to downsize – but often does; many times survivors find it easier to sell a loved one’s belongings after they pass on rather than have family squabbles over who gets what.
“It really makes sense for a family to hire a company to liquidate their loved one’s home, because we do not have the sentimental attachment to certain items they may have,” Gragg explains. “We price things according to what they are worth, and we price them to sell, whereas a family might over-price some things simply because of sentimental value.”
But there’s often plenty of genuine financial value to be had; a crucial way in which estate sales differ from their lower-rent garage sale cousins is in the type of merchandise that’s available.
“Essentially the entire house is on sale,” Gragg says. “Many customers come to estate sales because of the quality of furniture that can be found. For example, furniture from years ago is constructed of solid wood, where a lot of today’s furniture may be mostly pre-fabricated.”
The hot ticket items these days are “mid-century” classics from the 1950s (think “Ozzie and Harriet”) all the way to the more garish, polyester-laden “Brady Bunch” era of the ’70s.
“It’s amazing to see what people will buy,” Gragg laughed.
High quality generates high levels of interest, which can create its own problems: parking is often limited, navigating neighborhood streets can be tricky as shoppers rush home with their treasures – and it’s important to remember to be polite to the neighbors who live nearby. Matt McNeil, owner of OKC Estate Sales, says he typically employs a police officer to help keep the crowd’s roar to a minimum.
Organizing an event like this might give some of us pause, whether because of feeling like an intruder or simply not knowing where to begin; but McNeil says going into a person’s home for the first time is just another day on the job. “I am a professional,” he explains, “and the first thing I normally take note of is the floor plan of the house, rather than the contents. I will look at where to put my police officer, where I will set up the cash register and also see what the parking situation will be like for my customers. The contents of the house are secondary.”
Keeping a good attitude is important, he adds, because quite often customers will be up close and personal. Estate sales take place in the home of the stuff’s previous owner, so it’s usually very tight quarters with a lot of people packed into a very small space.
“Most customers are very courteous,” McNeil said. “Then there are others who would rather quibble over the price of a ten-cent item.”
So is it worth braving the crowds and possible contentiousness? That’s up to you, but bear in mind that these events have become increasingly popular for a reason: the thrill of the hunt and the exhilaration of finding beautiful bargain pieces are very real.
McNeil offers these final words of advice: “Know the method of payment; some estate sales are limited on their use of credit cards and will only accept cash or checks. Remember to lighten up and have fun. And probably most importantly, be aware that we don’t take returns. After all, you’re not shopping at John A. Brown.”