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Confessions of an estate sale groupie

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by Lisa Hinton Valdrighi

The fact that I love a good estate sale is ironic because I’ve never been much of a yard-saler. Oh, I’ve been known to host a few but I believe that one man’s junk is another man’s junk. It’s just new junk.

Estate sales, however, are a breed apart from yard sales or auctions. They offer whole houses of treasures. Shoppers can find almost anything, from new Christmas ornaments and toys to priceless antiques and original works of art.

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Anne Kirkup of Richmond shops at an estate sale in White Stone.

“A lot of people, especially heirs who are selling their mom’s and dad’s stuff, don’t like auctions,” said Louise Jessie, owner of Epping Forest Antiques in Lively. “Estate sales are a little more dignified. At an auction, you’re at the whim of the buyers. An auction is a crap shoot.”

An estate sale, for the novice, is the sale of belongings of a homeowner who has recently died or moved. Lots of times, those who inherit the home claim the items they wish to keep and sell the rest of the home’s belongings. The sale is held at the home. 

“As people are moving to retirement homes or dying, the families need to reduce their inventory,” said Henry Lane Hull, owner of Commonwealth Antiques in Wicomico Church. “And in the past year or so as the housing market has suffered, we’ve held sales as a vehicle to get out information on a home that’s for sale. We’ve had some for owners, whose house was on the market, and had brochures prepared to distribute. If 300 to 500 people go through a house in a weekend and each one of those people tells four people about it” that’s quite a marketing tool.

Hull has held over 250 sales in 40 years and last year hosted 16.

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From left, Janice Post and Eileen Sklar try to decide on the purchase of a lamp at a Weems estate sale.

“This year, we already have so many scheduled, we might even have more,” said Hull.

The buyers
Some people attend estate sales with absolutely no idea what price to pay for a particular item, while some have investigated and researched prior to going. Although, advance previews aren’t allowed, most of the items for sale are listed by Hull and Jessie through email notifications and newspaper ads. Jessie, who has been hosting sales for 38 years, has some 800 customers on her mailing list. Hull, along with email notifications, advertises his upcoming sales in about seven papers.

Estate sale shoppers usually fall into one of three categories: collectors, frugal shoppers or re-sellers.

Collectors don’t mind paying more for an item if it is in good shape or adds to their collections, while the frugal shoppers are looking for a bargain and love getting good merchandise for a low price. Re-sellers are looking for an investment, something they can resell at a higher price on the internet or in a store.

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Customers scan a coin collection and pottery.

“You can furnish a house at an estate sale,” said Jessie. “You can find good things for about a third of what you’d pay for it somewhere else and some things are new.”

I fall into the frugal shopper category. I love to browse and usually don’t have my sights set on any particular item. If I find a piece I like, be it a rug or dish or even a barbecue grill, if it’s a good deal, I’ll snatch it up.

Gerald Sellers of Kilmarnock, however, falls into the collector category. Sellers likes antiques and unusual finds.

“I don’t re-sell. I’m kind of a hoarder. My wife usually tells me we don’t need it, we have enough,” said Sellers, who doesn’t miss a local sale unless he’s working.

Sellers enjoys going to the sales of people he knows or knew and finding a keepsake. He loves antiques and “old stuff that I don’t think the younger people want anymore,” he said.

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Gayle Marston of Burgess looks at china at an estate sale near White Stone.

“I’m not that sharp on my antiques,” he said. “If I find something unique I go with the advice of [the seller].”

One of his favorite finds was a cherub-faced Gone With the Wind lamp he purchased for $200 at a Richmond estate sale. The lamp usually sells for about $500, he said. It was his favorite estate sale piece until his dog knocked it off the table and broke it.

“I loved that lamp,” he said.

According to Hull, of the 500 or so people attending a sale only about 50 at each sale are new faces.

“Every sale is different but every sale is the same in that there is a commonality across all sales,” said Hull. “The same people come and there are certain clients that buy the same types of items at each sale.

“We have a standard crowd we can count on,” he added.

The sale
Most estate sales are two-day sales held on Saturdays and Sundays and customers are often waiting in line for the doors to open on the first day.

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At right, Henry Lane Hull, owner of Commonwealth Antiques, greets customers at an estate sale in Weems.

Typically, prices are non-negotiable on Saturday, while most items are reduced or negotiable on Sunday. Often the discount percentage is pre-set by the homeowner.

“It’s not always 50% off on Sunday,” said Jessie. “People think so but that’s not always the case. Things are reduced but it’s usually up to the heir by how much.”

Prep time for each sale also varies greatly, according to both Hull and Jessie.

“I’ve had estates that took me two months to prepare and then some I can get ready in a week,” said Jessie.

Hull likes to space at least two weeks between his sales because he says “a sale never ends on Sunday. There’s always someone who will come by on a bicycle and buy the big Chippendale sofa and that’s the person I have to meet there again on Monday or sometime during the week.”

Hull says he has held as many as four sales in a month.

“It takes a minimum of a week to prepare usually but I prefer at least two weeks because if we’re shutting down a major sale, it’s hard to prepare for the next,” said Hull, whose business is a family affair. His wife, Lisa, daughter Moira and son Henry all help with the preparation, sale and shut down.

I’ve become very familiar with the entire Hull clan. I’m one of their repeat clients.

posted 03.23.2012

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