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Thread: What I've learned from estate sales

  1. #1
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    What I've learned from estate sales

    Being a city with a shrinking but aging population, it's quite difficult to drive more than a mile or two on the weekend in the Buffalo area without seeing a cluster of signs pointing to various estate sales. One of my good friends has been an enthusiastic estate sale fan for the past decade or so, scoring literally tons of high-end tools and Craftsman-style furniture and accessories through the years. Now, whenever I see a sign advertising a sale, I'm tempted to turn the car and check it out.

    Here's what I've learned by visiting several estate sales in the Buffalo area.

    1) As people get older, their tastes grow more ornate. Or maybe, people in Buffalo just like tacky furniture. Here's the interior of a typical house in Buffalo.







    People who are in their 70s and 80s now were in their 20s and 30s in the late 1940s through the 1960s, when clean, modern design predominated.



    Yet, at area estate sales, the vast majority of the furnishings being sold tends to be over-the-top Rococo and French Provincial style. I've seldom seen cool mid-century furniture. My friend says it's now almost impossible to find any Craftsman furniture, except in old money neighborhoods in the City of Buffalo proper, and the nicer pre-WWII suburban neighborhoods (e.g. Snyder and Eggertsville in Amherst, Deerhurst in Tonawanda, incorporated villages).

    2) Buffalonians aren't very Catholic. They're very, very, very Catholic.



    At almost every sale I've gone to, there's been a huge selection of Catholic religious paraphernalia. Brightly painted statues of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, the Sacred Heart, Infant Jesus in a gown, St, Francis, and so on. Paintings of religious scenes. Piles of gory crucifixes. Religious books. Row upon row of Rosary beads. I'm told religious items move fast, and I've seen a couple of people with armloads of it

    3) People have too much crap. At almost every estate sale I've been to, the number of tchotchkes on display is unreal. People seem to have enough china and flatware to serve a visiting Army battalion. There's not much more I can say about this.

    4) Estate sales drive home the fact that there was a time when everything was made in the United States. The items I tend to gravitate to at estate sales tend to be practical. At the last sale I went to, I bought a 1950s-era stapler in its original box, a small but sturdy and heavy beast that looked like it would survive a few hundred years of regular use. It was made in Brooklyn. Manufacturing in New York City? Would would have thought such a thing happened? Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Ohio, all states that frequently appeared on items as the place of manufacture. Imported goods from the 1960s and earlier were usually made in the UK or "West Germany".

    If an older item was made in Japan, it was usually cheap, at least until the mid-1970s. Taiwan and Hong Kong seemed to overtake Japan as the place of origin for cheap crap in the 1970s, with China becoming dominant in the mid-1990s.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

  2. #2
    OH....IO Hink's avatar
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    I have had some pretty good luck at estate sales. Honestly, if you get the right person, sometimes everything that is on the block would work for you. And most the time at half the price.

    I have found though that since Antiques Roadshow, people are willing to pay more for junk because they think it might be somehow worth way more. I tried to get an old table a couple months ago, and was outbid by over $1,000. For an old table. I am sure the lady thought it was somehow an antique. It wasn't.

    They are fun though. Maybe it is the gambler in me
    A common mistake people make when trying to design something completely foolproof is to underestimate the ingenuity of complete fools. -Douglas Adams

  3. #3
    Chairman of the bored Maister's avatar
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    As a general rule the older the occupants the more dust-collecting tchotchkes and crap they'll have: commemorative bicentennial coffee mugs, cactus shaped salt and pepper shakers, bamboo tiki glasses from some cocktail lounge that closed 35 years ago, souvenir ashtrays from some family trip to Washington DC long ago.....

    Suggestions for doing well at estate sales include the following:
    1. get there early. I mean as soon as they open so you get the best shot at buying something decent before it's gone.
    2. dress not just down but downright sloppy. Don't give anyone reason to suspect you'd have more than $50 to your name.
    3. if it's getting later in the day don't be afraid to make an insultingly lowball offer, you can always go up but many times folks are eager just to unload whatever they can for next to nothing can so they don't have to spend the time and energy putting it into storage

  4. #4
    Cyburbian WSU MUP Student's avatar
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    Thanks to the recent decline in the housing market, my wife and I were able to make our first home purchase last year in a neighborhood that is full of old money and old people. Moving from an 800 apartment into a home a few times larger than that, we naturally had a lot of empty space that we wanted to fill up with furniture. After we moved in I noticed that every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday throughout May, June, July, August, and September there were probably anywhere from 5 to 20 estate sales within about a 3 mile radius of our house.

    My wife and I thought these estate sales might be a good way to find a few pieces that we were looking for but were in no real hurry to get, so we went out to probably 20 - 30 estate sales over the course of the summer. We had some pretty specific items we were looking for: a table for the foyer, a couple very large area rugs, a very long runner (or a couple shorter matching ones), a heavy duty coffee table (I really wanted to find a map table). And I am also always on the look out for small things like old maps or library quality atlases, old records, a quality turntable, a tube amplifier, posters or prints from music festivals, etc. (I constantly stop at just about every garage sale I see with hopes of finding some of these items worthy of my low-budget spending habits)

    Anyway, we learned a few things pretty quickly:
    1. Estate sales that are run by actual auctioneers, consignment companies, and estate sale firms are much better organized and better advertised and (unfortunately) can attract some pretty large crowds
    2. Get there early on the first day if you think it will be a good sale with something that you specifically want
    3. At these large estate sales, 90% of the folks in the crowd don't seem to have any goal other than just pawing through somebody else's belongings and never buy a thing (I may secretly be in this cohort )
    4. You see a lot of the same people at estate sales in a given neighborhood
    5. There are better deals at estate sales of old people that are still living. Children of the dead seem to confuse sentimental value with monetary or intrinsic value
    6. Bigger houses just mean that people can amass more junk over the course of a lifetime (but man is it fun to explore through somebody's 8,000, 1927 Tudor style home!)
    7. The estate sales where EVERYTHING in the house is for sale including the kitchen sink (and the house itself!) are much more fun than estate sales with just a few rooms worth of stuff to look at

    We also discovered that not all sales that claim to be Estate Sales really are (this may be tied in with my last point above). After going to a few sales that were nothing but glorified garage sales, I discovered that there is an ordinance in our neighborhood and the entirety of at least one neighboring city that forbids garage sales or yard sales so folks get around this by hosting estate sales but limiting the shopping to putting a bunch of items in a front room or two. If I'm coming to your estate sale, I want to be able to nose through your closet for old hats and handkerchiefs, offer to buy the leaded glass door knobs off of all your doors, and find out what sort of cleaning products you store under your kitchen sink. Don't limit my shopping to a few boxes of junk brought up from the basement and stacked onto a card table and call it an estate sale!
    "Where free unions and collective bargaining are forbidden, freedom is lost." - 1980 Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan

  5. #5
    Cyburbian jsk1983's avatar
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    I've been going to estate sales regularly for probably the past five years. First in Buffalo and now in Chicago. To find out about sales I check estatesales.net which lists most of the area sales. Very few are advertised in the papers anymore. Just about every ad will have dozens of pictures of the stuff for sale so its pretty easy to get a good idea of what the sale will have to offer and whether it is worth the effort. Unfortunately for me a disproportionate number of these sales are in the suburbs, and the ones in the city tend to be in the bungalow belt. Despite being in one of the largest cities in the country I still seem to see the same people at a lot of the sales. If its a good sale, or looks to be a good sale people line up early, I've even heard of people camping out overnight to be the first in. May seem a bit ridiculous but I'm sure its worth it sometimes. Not something I ever see myself doing. Personally I'll just get there before it opens and then wait my turn. I look for books and ephemera and there isn't all that much competition, though inevitably I'll see people walking out with stuff I would of purchased myself.

  6. #6
    Cyburbia Administrator Dan's avatar
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    Another thing after exploring estate sales around the Buffalo area: just as I've seen on real estate Web sites, I've seen very few houses with updated interiors, except maybe the criminal act of painting over natural woodwork. Go to a house that was built in the 1950s or 1960s, when suburban Buffalo boomed, and you'll usually see all-original kitchens and bathrooms. I was at one sale in a large 1920s four-square in the city, and it had the original 1920s kitchen.

    At one sale this week, I saw a one gallon container of old Black Flag insecticide, with DDT and other now-banned chemicals! Should have bought it, in case I ever get bedbugs.
    Growth for growth's sake is the ideology of the cancer cell. -- Edward Abbey

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