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Lessons Learned From An Estate Sale

Updated on January 14, 2014

Over the course of our lifetime, we acquire, collect, and surround ourselves with things. Those “things” might be a piece of furniture or some trinket sitting on a shelf, but most will represent a time, a place, or a person from our past that we want to remember. And then, age or declining health sneaks up on us and we find that we have to pack a bag and leave all those memories behind. When that time comes, our family and friends or perhaps even a stranger will face the dilemma of settling our estate. This is the story of my family’s journey through that process and what we learned along the way.

What's in a name?

We called it an estate sale, but it wasn’t, not really. We didn’t own an estate. No, we just had a modest, three bedroom ranch house with a carport converted to a den. We had a basement too, but that’s just what it was, a basement. It was a full basement but not a finished one. There never was enough interest or money to turn it into a real living space, but that old basement got plenty of use. It was the place where Dad tinkered and Mom did the laundry. It was the place where everything was stored and children played when the weather was bad. Memories were made in that basement.

A Little Background

To fully understand the humor of our having an estate sale, you need a bit of background. We weren’t dirt poor, but there wasn’t a lot of excess either. Anything that came into our house got used until it couldn’t be used anymore. Dad worked long hours and Mom kept an immaculate house. That was her job. Cleaning was done on a schedule. Closets were cleaned with the change of every season; windows washed in the Spring and Fall. The bed linens were changed every Friday like clockwork. Visitors to our house were guaranteed two things – cleanliness and good food.

Mom was a terrific cook. All week long she clipped coupons from the newspaper and eagerly waited for the announcement of double coupon day at the grocery store. Then, she shopped. It took all day for Mom to buy groceries and as kids, we hated those days. Mom went from one store to the next grabbing all the bargains. At night, she would sit with her cookbooks and make a meal plan for the week with what she had purchased. Only now can I fully appreciate what went into the delicious meals she served.

Thee are memories in that stuff

You’re probably wondering why any of this is important to writing about an estate sale. I’ll get to that in a few minutes, but for now, close your eyes and picture a full, unfinished basement lined with shelves full of groceries. Now, while your eyes are closed, imagine more shelves. Those shelves contain every pot, pan, or cooking gadget that either stopped working or was replaced by one that did a more efficient job. Add a plethora of Tupperware, Rubbermaid, and other assorted containers. All of that was Mom’s basement collection.

Now, let’s visit the other side of the basement, the place where Dad tinkered. His workbench was built by hand and like Mom, he was an organizer. Every tool had a place and every nut, bolt, or screw was in a labeled container. With materials he salvaged from things that didn’t work anymore, Dad had something to fix almost anything. And, if he didn’t know how to fix it, he figured it out by trial and error. I think he learned by taking things apart and putting them back together, but there was a natural aptitude that contributed to his success. Dad could build or fix anything if he had the parts.

The center of the basement belonged to us, the kids. We roller skated around and around and around in that small space. We built a business out of cardboard boxes and played retailer with empty food containers that Mom saved for us. We played air guitar with brooms and drummed on cake tins and empty cardboard boxes. As long as we didn’t disturb the neighbors, Mom turned a blind eye while we made toys of her treasures.

Where did all that stuff come from?

As years passed and the kids left home, the basement became the graveyard for everything that wasn’t being used anymore. Cards and letters written by friends and family were stored in boxes. Furniture that we acquired when aging relatives gave up their homes or passed away found a home in our basement. As an adult, I never really noticed or cared about that old furniture, at least not until I was tasked with getting rid of it. And that brings me back to the topic of this piece – the estate sale.

When we realized how much old furniture was in that basement, my brother and consulted with an estate specialist. We were advised to have a sale, an estate sale, which would draw collectors of old stuff to our sale. There is a difference in an estate sale and a yard sale. An estate sale brings out people with money in their pockets looking for that special piece. A yard sale brings out the budget minded, looking for almost anything that doesn’t cost very much. We know this now.

Estate Sale Preparation

After weeks of extracting the treasures from my parents' estate and organizing it all according to categories such as electronics, appliances, collectibles, furniture, clothing, etc., We began pricing things. Much of it required some internet research for appropriate pricing. The specialist suggested we set a table with the silver and china for “visual enhancement” and display the collectibles in strategic places too. We ignored that advice. We just wanted to have a sale and be done with it. There was already too much to be done and we (my brother and I) weren’t looking to add more work to this process.

Clothing became our albatross. Best defined by, an albatross is a constant, worrisome burden. There were dozens upon dozens of like new coats, dresses, skirts, suits, shirts, and pants. And, dozens of hours went in to the sorting by gender and size. Once the sheer volume was appreciated, my brother built a display rack that would make it easier for shoppers to find what they were looking for. This estate sale business was starting to feel like real work.

Sale Day Arrives

Finally, the day of the sale came. We advertised it everywhere possible and the crowd arrived early. Friends were recruited to help monitor the crowd since each and every room of that little house was filled with the treasures of a lifetime. There was costume jewelry, trinkets, antiques, books, and music to go with the furniture and clothes and gadgets too. Yes, we were satisfied that there was something for everyone and that at the end of the day, we would have money in our pockets and an empty house. What fools we were.

We accomplished our goal though. By advertising as an estate sale, we did bring out the collectors of old furniture but to our dismay, they weren’t looking for “old furniture”. They wanted old furniture made by the more well known manufacturers of “valuable” old furniture. Ours, was simply – old. All was not lost though. A few bargain shoppers stopped by and bought some of the kitchen goods, tools, books, and gadgets. We made a little money and in hindsight were very happy that we had not pulled everything out into the yard for the sale. In other words, we were glad we didn’t have to put it all back inside the house at the end of the day.

The stuff. Some sold. Some didn't.

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Sold!Some sold, some went to the Estate Specialist.Sold!Donated to charity.Some sold, some didn't.Some sold, some didn't.Sold!Sold!Sold!
Sold! | Source
Some sold, some went to the Estate Specialist.
Some sold, some went to the Estate Specialist. | Source
Sold! | Source
Donated to charity.
Donated to charity. | Source
Some sold, some didn't.
Some sold, some didn't. | Source
Some sold, some didn't.
Some sold, some didn't. | Source
Sold! | Source
Sold! | Source
Sold! | Source

After the sale, what now?

One look at what we didn’t sell was depressing and we wondered if we would ever get that little house empty and on the market for sale. Friends suggested Craigslist and Ebay. Countless hours were spent taking photos and, editing the photos, to be used on Craigslist which proved to be little more than a huge headache. Trust me when I say that for every twenty inquiries on Craigslist, one would actually show up to look at the item. By the time we were ready to turn to Ebay (a last resort), we had had enough.

After a few weeks of frustration, we made our next phone call to the estate specialist who gave us a lump payment to take most of the remaining items. They came, they packed, and they filled two big trucks with the remnants of a modest life. The clothes were donated to a charity and the little grocery store in the basement was shared with friends. The only thing left from our house of treasures was a few ceramic treasures and those were given to Ebay consignment business who did the work of taking photos and writing descriptions for a percentage of the sale. The house was finally EMPTY.

Estate sale items of value that eventually went to the Estate Specialist because they did not sell

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Passed down through three generations but I never knew it and never really looked at it.From my Granny's kitchen.  We never used it for anything but storage.From an estate sale.  Turned out to be quite valuable but not to us.  Our first refrigerator and it still works better than the new ones. Proved to have value but didn't sell.Sold!
Passed down through three generations but I never knew it and never really looked at it.
Passed down through three generations but I never knew it and never really looked at it. | Source
From my Granny's kitchen.  We never used it for anything but storage.
From my Granny's kitchen. We never used it for anything but storage. | Source
From an estate sale.  Turned out to be quite valuable but not to us.
From an estate sale. Turned out to be quite valuable but not to us. | Source
Our first refrigerator and it still works better than the new ones.
Our first refrigerator and it still works better than the new ones. | Source
Proved to have value but didn't sell.
Proved to have value but didn't sell. | Source
Sold! | Source

Lessons Learned

There is a reason for sharing this experience. We, my brother and I, learned so much in this process and we want to share the lessons.

  • There is a difference between an estate sale and a yard sale. If your household income is modest or less, call it a yard sale if you want to sell things.
  • Never put a price on things. Let someone make you an offer and then negotiate.
  • Although difficult, it is a privilege to comb through the contents of your parents treasures. You will learn things about them that you never knew.
  • Old doesn’t mean valuable. The real value is in the memories, not in the age.
  • Things that you think have no value may be the most valuable.
  • Look through those old papers. You may discover hidden love notes or secrets about your family that really matter.
  • As your pack up your family’s home, you will hold and touch things you’ve never seen before. Cherish the moment. To touch is to be touched.
  • One man’s trash is indeed another’s treasure. Find happiness in knowing that those things that no longer served you will bring joy to others.
  • If you can’t sell it, give it away. You’ll be glad you did.

Hindsight is 20/20

No, my childhood home was not an estate. It was a home. It was a home where parents raised their children with values and expectations. We were expected to be honest, to be charitable, and to be responsible. When my Mom and Dad could no longer live in their home, we made a difficult decision. We did the right thing. We found a good place for them to live and promised to take care of their treasures. We understood that those things were kept not for their value but for the memories they held.

Few children can say they have touched every thing their parents owned. When faced with packing up the memories, it may initially seem like a burden. In fact, it may prove to be a real labor of love. As we finalized our sale of my parents home, I realized that each item I had touched held the love and memories of a family whose foundation was love. Although the process was painful and the memories bittersweet, we have closed one door and opened another. A “Sold” sign sits in the yard of that little modest house where an “Estate Sale” sign stood only two months ago. Soon, a young family will move in and begin collecting things in hat old unfinished basement once again. And one day, years from now, their children will have the privilege of packing up the memories. I wish them love in every touch.

© 2014 Linda Crist


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