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What to look for in an estate-sale company

Before selecting a company, check it out first. Do its ads contain catchy verbiage and lots of good photos of items for sale? It's important to get a sense for how each estate outfit operates. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)

Whether because of death, downsizing, divorce, or, heck, you just want to live a more simplistic lifestyle, sometimes you need to unload a household’s worth of things. Estate sales are the easiest way to do that and make some money — though not as much as you might want.

Looking for other ways to get rid of your unwanted stuff? Visit for dozens of ideas from the nonprofit Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and reviews of local estate-sale companies until Aug. 15.

At estate-sale events, over two or three days an estate-sale company presides over a jumbo tag sale with the goal of offloading the home’s entire contents. Furniture, art, clothing, even unused rolls of toilet paper are game.

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You want a company that will widely advertise your sale to bring in lots of buyers. The best outfits employ staffers with appraisal skills who can tell whether Uncle Bob’s wingback chair is a valuable antique and determine if those family diamonds are really cubic zirconias.

To find an estate seller, first check with professionals who deal with death and downsizing: real estate agents, estate attorneys or assisted-living facilities. Some companies advertise membership in the American Society of Estate Liquidators and the National Estate Sales Association. No certification program exists for estate sellers, but membership at least confirms that an outfit sees its work as a profession, not a side business.

Ask companies how long they’ve been operating and how frequently they host sales. Long-running, busy outfits seem less likely to rip you off than a new business or an inexperienced individual. Check out how they advertise their sales on sites such as, and Craigslist. Do their ads contain catchy verbiage and lots of good photos of items for sale? It’s important to get a sense of how each estate outfit operates.

Schedule meetings with companies you like. Show prospective sellers which items you want to offload and which you want to keep. (If you’re liquidating an entire household, remove anything you want to keep before the sale.) Then ask each company for a written proposal indicating how it calculates fees and estimating your earnings from the sale.

After you’ve hired an estate-sale company, it will sort, appraise and photograph items, arranging everything by room and by type, sometimes on tables or racks it provides. Most estate-sale companies price all items, but a few sell everything on a make-me-an-offer basis. To maximize profits, skilled estate-sale companies employ or call in appraisers to value higher-ticket items. Estate sellers sometimes send individual pieces of art, antiques and other valuable items to auction events or post them on eBay if they will sell for a higher price that way.

No matter the selling approach, liquidators take a cut of each item’s selling price. In the Washington area, Checkbook’s undercover shoppers found that most companies’ commissions were between 30 percent and 40 percent. Some companies charge extra for clearing out the property after the sale, which might include housecleaning and junk hauling; others include these tasks in their fees. Get a written contract that includes details on all fees and commissions.

Don’t throw out anything before the liquidator sorts through the estate. Buyers swoop up surprising goods, from unopened bottles of juice to beat-up pans. Estate sellers usually tag and try to sell it all; they don’t want to accidentally dispose of some other guy’s treasure. One pro told us about finding a Louis Vuitton 1920s trunk in a dumpster behind an estate she was offloading. It sold for more than $1,000.

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Still, manage your profit expectations. Most items won’t sell for anything close to the prices you or your relatives paid even decades ago. Tastes have shifted away from the stuff your parents and grandparents owned (dark wood furniture, china, silver), and it may no longer be popular or valuable. Some furnishings and collectibles, though, have held or greatly increased their value. Estate sellers start prices close to what they think items are worth. Then, as the weekend (or day) progresses, they slash prices.

If the estate includes valuable jewelry, liquidators should bring a locking glass case. Good sellers will merchandise items to make the home look appealing, but don’t expect an HGTV-like makeover.

Because most sales occur after death or illness, it might be hard to separate your feelings from the mountains of stuff you need to disperse. Sales generally take place on weekends, often starting Thursday and ending Sunday. Buyers may queue up early in the morning; some liquidators give out numbers, deli-counter style, to manage volume.

After the sale, if you’ve hired a company to completely empty the property, you should return to a broom-clean house. Staffers will dispose of unsold items by donating them to charity, throwing them away, or selling them.

Most companies disburse funds within two to three weeks, but you should get a payment deadline in your contract.

Jennifer Barger is a contributor to Washington Consumers’ Checkbook and, a nonprofit organization that rates service providers to help consumers get the best service and lowest prices. It is supported by individual members and takes no money from the service providers it evaluates. You can access Checkbook’s estate sales report, including ratings of local companies, free of charge until Aug. 15 at

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