“What are those pieces of green paper everyone’s grabbing from that bowl?” I asked the man standing beside me on a recent morning as we stood huddled in line, waiting for an estate sale to kick off. The advertisement on said there would be “enough sewing notions to start your own business,” and I was anxious to get my hands on some much-needed supplies before the other craft fanatics did.

“Those are numbers. They dictate the first 30 people who get in,” he replied as a newcomer rushed to snatch the very last slip.

Drat. I’d only been lurking outside the vacant Nebraska Avenue colonial for five minutes, and already I’d probably blown my shot at scoring that box of pink silk chiffon I spotted on the Internet.

Estate sales usually last three days, and are most often organized by professional liquidation firms that price the merchandise to move quickly. That means Aunt Anne’s flawless midcentury mod dresser or Grandpa Paul’s rare baseball cards are all up for grabs, usually for way below market value.

As are their stained tablecloths, rusty wrenches, half-empty shampoo bottles and burnt cookie pans. “It’s a crapshoot,” says Michel Huebner, who organizes D.C. area estate sales through her company, Sage Consignment ( “You just have to keep your eyes open and hope you spot something [the organizer] has underpriced.”

Yes, there’s something vaguely depressing about estate sales, since they usually occur when someone’s belongings must be cleared from their home due to death or downsizing. But shopping such events can unearth serious deals on previously loved items that might otherwise end up in a dumpster.

dress This sundress I got for $5 will come in handy this summer. Photos by Jason Hornick.

In many ways, estate sales pay tribute to these original owners. “If something makes it to an estate sale, the purchaser is going to appreciate it, whether it’s your aunt’s gold locket or that book your grandfather read to you as a child,” says Huebner.

Because these sales reward treasure seekers, they have long attracted professional antiques dealers and educated collectors who know what to look for. But they also lure amateurs hunting for a piece of nostalgia to incorporate into their pads.

“We’re not seeing people collecting tea cups or buying things to put them in a glass case,” says Matthew Quinn, principle of Partners Estate Sales ( in Fairfax and an appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow.” “People want things they remember from Grandma’s house. They want their places to look like ‘Mad Men’.”

Then there are those savvy shoppers who view estate sales as an alternative to affordable-but-junky home furnishings stores like Ikea and its cousins. “Items you’re purchasing at estate sales are cheap, but they’re also likely to be made of solid wood, they won’t fall apart and you can change their appearance by using paint or reupholstering them,” says Huebner.

If you’re the type who prefers to shop for items in neatly arranged rows or gets put off by the slightest blemish (ew, a scratch!), estate sales may not be for you. But for those who celebrate the eclectic and are willing to do a little digging, going to the right sale can be like hitting the jackpot.

stamp Make your mark with a mid-century custom rubber stamp kit. Mine cost $5.

Take, for example, that Nebraska Avenue sale I finally wiggled my way into. Martha Stewart herself wouldn’t have known what to do with all the spools of thread, balls of yarn and fabric scraps in the plastic tubs I saw in every corner of the house. I was painstakingly picking through a box of bobbins when I made my second big mistake of estate saleing: lollygagging. Another customer made off with the box of silk chiffon I’d come here for in the first place.

In the end, I walked away with some needles for my sewing machine (still in their original casing), a retro rubber stamp kit, a never-worn sundress in vibrant ikat fabric and a set of gold drinking glasses from the ’50s — for a total $30.

That absolutely won’t be my last estate sale, though it will be the last time I dawdle.

How to Shop an Estate Sale Like a Pro


Know What You Want
If there’s something that caught your eye in the estate sale ad, ask the organizer where the item is located in the house so you can get to it first. “The people who know what they’re doing always walk in and ask me, ‘Where is X, Y and Z?’,” says Huebner.

Make an Offer
If you spot a velvet sofa you love but can’t afford the $500 price tag, offer $200 and ask the organizer to call you if anyone else tries to buy it. In the end, some money is better than no money for sellers.

Come on the Last Day
Tensions and prices are highest on the first day of an estate sale when there’s plenty of merchandise. Typically, organizers lower prices as the sale goes on. Pickings may be slim on the last day, but the remaining loot is 50 percent off.

Check Newspapers
Sales on, and Craigslist are often conducted by pros. But some of the best sales are advertised in newspapers. “Someone who’s 60 years old is going to put an ad in the paper,” says Huebner. “And those are the people who probably don’t know the value of what they’re selling.”

Bring Hand Sanitizer
Um, for obvious reasons. Some sales are painstakingly neat, and others look like outtakes from “Hoarders.”