Chicago Antiques Guide

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Finding and Choosing an Estate Sale Company

Posted Thursday, December 29 by Brian

Jeannie at emailed to get information for a friend about how to locate and select an estate sale conductor, from across the country. I thought I would share my response here for everyone.

In addition to the information here, there are almost 20 pages of information on my other web site for Somerset Estate Sales

Here are a few tips on:

How to Find an Estate Sale Conductor

First, when searching with Google you can eliminate many of the real estate companies by searching on "estate sales -real". The minus sign before the word "real" tells Google to exclude sites that have the word real. You can also use the local yellow pages (either on line or someone local can look in the book for you) under estate sales. Also many realtors know of companies who do estate sales. If you already have a realtor, ask them. If you are interviewing realtors, tell them to recommend estate sale people as part of their proposal. You can also check the local newspaper's classified section for advertised estate sales or call the classified department and ask what businesses advertise with them when they conduct estate sales.

What to Do Before Calling

Before, you start calling, make sure you know what will be sold and what will not. All estate sale conductors have their own idea of how much stuff and dollars is enough. They will want to know if the dining room set will be sold, the good china and silver, etc. If the family has not yet decided what they will be keeping, the conductor will not know if you will have enough left to do a sale. Be able to answer their questions about the age, style and condition of the major pieces as well. Sometimes, even a full house doesn't add up to enough dollars for some conductors. A modest house full of 70's furniture and used household goods may only add up to $4,000. That may be fine for some smaller conductors, but would eliminate many of the larger ones. Don't forget to mention any antiques, collections, or anything of special value.

How to Pick the Best Company for Your Needs

When you call an estate sale conductor the first time, give them a brief overview including general location of the house (not the address), your timeframe (ASAP, within a month, after the house sells), let them know if you think it is a large or small sale, general age of major furniture (newer, older, antique), and mention specialty items and collections. Then let them ask you some questions to see if they are interested, before you grill them about their qualifications.

If they are interested in looking at the sale, find out how long they have been doing estate sales, roughly how many they have done, and let them know that if you select them you will want to check their references. I carry copies of reference and thank you letters with me on appointments. I would also look for someone with business liability insurance, not just homeowners or a personal umbrella policy.

Finally, pick the company that is the best fit, both to the items you are selling, and for your comfort factor with the person. Select the person or company that is most knowledgable about what you are selling. If you don't have antiques, you don't need an antiques expert at all. If you have oriental antiques, you need someone who has the knowledge or access to someone else who does. If you have a small estate sale less than $3,000 you may not be able to find anyone will take the sale, from $4,000 to $10,000 you may or may not be able to get a top line company because it may not profitable enough for them, but you should be able to find someone competent. Over $10,000 you should have a few well qualified companies to choose from.

Estate Sale vs. Auction

As a follow up, the issue of auction houses as an alternative to an estate sale was raised. In my experience the only time an auction house is a better alternative is for very expensive antiques. By very expensive I mean over $4,000-5,000. In general, used furniture and household items will not be taken by most good auction houses. Antiques in the $100-$,000 range will sell will sell as well at an estate sale as at auction on average. But lower priced antiques and collectibles (under $100) will be put into box lots at auction and sold at deep discounts compared to the prices realized by selling them individually at an estate sale.

Another issue is the sales percentage. Auction houses divide their commissions between the buyer and seller by charging the buyers a "buyer's premium" of 10-20% of the hammer price (10-15% is common). They then charge the seller a lower commission then they would without the buyer's premium. The combined commissions are usually equal to or higher than estate sale fees. Auction houses customarily charge an insurance fee (about 1 1/2%) and sometimes a catalog or photo fee, usually a fixed price when charged. Buyer's in general are not stupid and usually subtract the buyer's premium from the maximum bid.

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