New to Online Estate Sale Shopping? Here’s How to Get Started

Do you prefer unique or antique items to mass-market material goods? Online estate sales offer one-of-a-kind opportunities to score cool stuff on the cheap. Check out these savvy secrets for bargain shopping from the comfort of your couch.
online estate sale

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Just like their in-real-life counterparts, online estate sales can be proverbial treasure troves, of both practical items (furniture, appliances, tools, kitchenware, textiles, office supplies, and lawn-and-garden gear) and decorative or collectible pieces (vintage clothing and accessories, jewelry, home decor, art, craft supplies, and assorted tchotchkes).

The thrill of the chase can quickly lead to a case of buyer’s remorse, however. Here’s what you need to know before venturing into the world of bargain hunting at online estate sales.

Set (and Stick To) Some Limits

When it comes to impulse purchases, online auctions can be a gold mine—or a land mine. You know how going grocery shopping when you’re feeling peckish can result in a cart full of junk food and a blown budget? The same is true for estate sales. (Well, not the junk food part.) Be a savvy shopper and set yourself some limits.

First, establish a budget, and don’t forget to factor in shipping costs and buyer’s premiums. If you periodically find yourself emerging from internet rabbit holes in the wee hours, bleary-eyed and blinking, set a timer, too. When your allotted time is up, log off. Remember, there will always be more sales to surf another day.

Resist Deals You Don’t Need

Scoring a steal of a deal is super fun, especially since estate-sale items are often one-of-a-kind. Adding to that appeal is an artificial sense of urgency created by the auction format. The result? A hat trick of temptation that can lead you to spending money you don’t have or can’t spare.

After all, if you’re looking for a green Depression glass sherbet dish to complete your collection, it doesn’t matter how inexpensive those mid-century leather club chairs are. Combat your chances of getting carried away by searching for specific items rather than browsing by category.

online estate sale

Determine Whether You Are Buying or Browsing

Of course, when you’ve got a windfall burning a hole in your pocket or your PayPal, there’s nothing wrong with some virtual window-shopping at an online estate sale site.

“I don’t actually purchase much at online estate sales, but they are fun to browse from the comfort of my home in my PJs,” says Hilary Bluestein-Lyons, a playwright and professional home inspector in Rochester, NY. Her biggest score? A couple of colorful Lily Bloom suitcases that she snapped up for $27—and later learned were worth over $200.

Others turn to these outlets first, before shopping at big-box retailers or Amazon, any time they need new household goods or other necessities. Whichever way you approach online estate sales is fine, of course; just be honest about your intentions for your budget’s sake.

Follow Advice for Online Auctions

While in-person estate sales are similar to yard or garage sales in that prices are set by the sellers, the online versions are akin to auctions. If you’re an eBay aficionado from way back, you’re already familiar with the format. Those who are new to online auctions would do well to conduct a little research. Learn about potential auction scams perpetrated by unscrupulous estate sale companies, and look into the best bidding strategies. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to lose out—or even to get ripped off.

“I usually bid right away on items that I like, so I get notifications if I’m outbid,” says Bluestein-Lyons. “Close to the end of the auction, I’ll set a maximum bid, and then keep an eye on it. Occasionally I’ll up my max bid if it’s something that I really want.”

online estate sale

Stay Local, or Factor in Shipping Costs

One advantage of estate sale-ing online is that you get access to auctions across the country. While you can’t evaluate textiles, jewelry, or vintage kitchen utensils up close with this method, you can shop an infinitely broader marketplace. Locating that one last piece you need to make a collection complete is that much more likely. (Of course, this also means that the competition for those collectibles is greater, too—but that’s all part of the fun.)

If you want to narrow your scope, or if you’re shopping for large, heavy pieces like furniture, check out sites that list local sales, like, even if you’re not planning to attend in person. You can shop and bid online, then pick up your winnings in person. When you do look at far-flung listings, be sure to check shipping costs and build those into your budget.

Above All, Caveat Emptor 

American consumers have gotten spoiled by generous return policies at Costco and elsewhere. But estate sales are old-fashioned in that they’re all sales final.

Don’t forget to check the dimensions of your finds, and whether they’ll actually fit in whatever space they’re intended for. It’s harder to get a sense of size when you’re only seeing a picture. Some sale photographers will add a common household object for scale, and precise measurements should always be specified in the listing copy. Read the entire description of any piece you’re considering. Look at every photograph closely.

Lastly, read the site’s fine print, including the terms and conditions. Most estate auction companies sell their stuff “as is,” so you’ll probably be out of luck if you’re unhappy with a purchase. They also tend to have strict procedures when it comes to payment and pickup.

online estate sale