How to Hire a Reputable Estate Sale Company

An estate sale is an efficient way to declutter or dispense of a large quantity of personal effects in short order. Hiring the right professionals to handle the whole kit and caboodle can make the process a lot easier—and more lucrative.

By Nicole Shein | Published Oct 27, 2021 3:28 PM

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By definition, most estate sales are conducted after a death as a way of liquidating the decedent’s personal property and household goods. They’re also held by individuals or couples who are downsizing their too-large family home and moving into a smaller place or an independent living facility. No matter the situation, estate sales are often a monumental undertaking—which is why so many folks outsource this daunting project to professional estate sale agents.

Every transaction in which money changes hands, of course, has the potential for pitfalls. Estate sales are no exception. Especially when the estate is being liquidated after a death, unscrupulous companies can take advantage of grief-stricken and overwhelmed relatives in several ways. Learn what to be on the lookout for and how to hire the best and most scrupulous estate sale agent for your needs.

What Do Estate Sale Companies Do?

Sorting through a lifetime’s worth of purchases and gifts can be an intimidating task, and it’s even more difficult if the items trigger bittersweet memories or have nostalgic value. Hiring a professional estate sale agent eases this burden tremendously. They will remove items from storage, appraise, organize, prepare, and price everything that’s saleable. It’s also their job to schedule and advertise the event.

On the day of the sale, the agents will handle setup and display all items for sale, rope off private areas of the home, interact with shoppers, conduct the transactions, and provide security. Sometimes the company will break down and clean up after the sale’s completion; in other cases, you’ll be left with the mess.

At this point, some agents will remove and donate whatever they can (and discard the rest); others take possession of unsold inventory to do with as they see fit. Pose this crucial question to every liquidator you’re considering. You may want everything over and done with as painlessly as possible, even if it costs a little more. If you prefer to retain control of what happens to unwanted items, communicate that desire from the get-go and be sure it’s addressed in the contract.

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A Cautionary Tale

“When my parents moved to a retirement community in 2015, they needed to empty their huge Queen Anne-style home of more than a half-century’s worth of furnishings,” says Laurie McIntosh-Harper, a teacher from Albany, N.Y. Her elder sister engaged the services of an estate sale agency and, as far as Harper and her siblings knew, everything in the run-up to the sale, as well as the event itself, went smoothly.

Not long afterward, however, they learned of some unsavory behavior on the agency’s part.

“My parents had a sectional sofa—an Ethan Allen behemoth for which they’d paid a fortune decades before and had since reupholstered twice,” explains Harper. “The estate sale people wanted $700 for it and priced it as such. No offers were entertained.”

In fact, the liquidators rejected out of hand the only offer, which was for $600. Harper suspects their motive was mercenary.

“I wasn’t privy to the contract, but apparently it stipulated that anything unsold would become the property of the agency. So instead of that $600, minus the commission, going to fund my folks’ golden years, the agency ‘disposed of’ the sofa for their own benefit,” she says. “I know my parents would rather have seen it go to a local charity.”

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Transparency Is Imperative

Since every company has its own parameters, there’s no standard when it comes to what you’ll pay for or how you’ll pay it. Take as much time as you need and ask as many questions as you can during the interview phase. Some agents charge a flat fee, while others operate on a commission-only basis, and still others opt for a combination of the two.

Don’t assume that fees cover everything, either. Acquiring permits, advertising costs, removal of unsold goods, even leaving the place “broom clean” after the event could all be extra. Here’s where an ounce of prevention can help you avoid an expensive surprise. Should any agency hem and haw when you bring up the matter of money, that’s all the reason you need to cross them off your list and look elsewhere.

Expertise Before Expense

Understandably, a lot of us look for the least expensive option when choosing a service provider. The old adage “you get what you pay for” is particularly true in this industry. Don’t just look at the commission percentage each company quotes you; a better marker of success is the appraiser’s experience level.

No single estate sale liquidator will know the value of every item, of course. But you can expect them to have a solid working knowledge of antiques as well as of ordinary household goods’ value.

Perhaps most important of all, the best estate sale agents acknowledge the limits of their expertise. They know when it’s time to call in a colleague with more chops—unlike their less professional counterparts, who might consider a few minutes spent searching eBay to be sufficient research.



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You Needn’t Keep the Entire Estate Intact

Suspect that your father’s antique German beer steins could be highly collectible? Grandma always said the lamp on her nightstand was legit Tiffany, but is it really? Have any potentially valuable items professionally appraised before you speak to an estate liquidation company. Once you know what price it might fetch, you can decide whether to include it in the sale inventory or to sell it separately, perhaps at auction, to maximize your profit.

Tips for Vetting an Estate Sale Company

Due diligence in choosing an estate sale company is not just important—it’s imperative. The contents of your or your loved one’s home could represent a sizable amount of money, so don’t rush this process or take a coworker’s word for it. In addition to no-brainer steps such as perusing the company’s website and checking reviews on Angi and Yelp, here are a few pro tips for digging a bit deeper:

  • Know your stuff. Learn, or brush up on, the basics of estate sales. A few hours’ research will equip you to ask the right questions and know what responses are reasonable.
  • Be a mystery shopper. Attend one of the company’s sales anonymously so you can see how organized the setup is, the security measures they take, whether the company representative is personable and helpful, and other matters important to you. If you can’t attend a sale in person—because you live elsewhere, for example—look at one of the company’s online estate sales.
  • Rely on references. Ask the company for previous clients’ contact information, and use it.
  • Turn to the BBB. Tame your skepticism with a quick trip to the Better Business Bureau website. You could also refer to the Attorney General of your state or see if the agents you’re considering belong to the National Estate Sales Association, which holds its members to high professional standards.
  • Get it in writing. This ought to go without saying, but do not hire any agent without a rock-solid contract that spells out all aspects of the agreement. Be certain you understand all the fine print, and have your attorney give it a once-over before you sign.

Caveat Venditor

Liquidating an estate, particularly when every knick-knack, candlestick, or battered, beloved Pyrex mixing bowl, brings up bittersweet memories. It can be a time-consuming and stressful venture. Hiring experienced professionals to do the heavy lifting can provide relief and peace of mind at a time when even daily tasks might be taxing. A few hours of research and prep work will serve you well in your search for an estate sale company that will treat you and your loved one’s belongings with the utmost respect.