5 Secrets to Sourcing at Estate Sales to Know Before You Go — ‘Never Say No to Something Weird’

Shopping other people's stuff has become its own subculture these days. Here's how to find the treasure hidden among the trash

timber coffee table with antiques on top, olive green sofa and fur throw
(Image credit: Emmanuelle Yang. Design: Button Atelier)

I have a particular penchant for the slightly weird and wonderful when it comes to styling my home. I love things that spark conversation. A ceramic figurine I found at a thrift store. A chair that looks uncomfortable to sit in, but is exceptionally stylish; a bowl shaped like a cabbage. But being from Australia, I've never been to an estate sale before.

Standing in line to shift through people's old stuff seems to have become somewhat of a subculture in America, not just for the sustainable living crowd, with even some of the best interior designers sourcing unique and time-worn pieces found at these sales for their projects. No longer do we need to wait for someone to pass. A divorce, a downsize, change of address or the simple desire to redecorate can now be the catalyst for an estate sale. Especially when it comes to celebrities.

I reached out to two experts for their best estate sale tips. Virginia Chamlee has an Instagram following of over 90,000 (yes, I'm one) and regularly shares reels of her best tips and tricks for shopping vintage. She knows so much she's even written a book on it. And then there's Los Angeles-based interior designer Brittny Button, founder of Button Interiors, advocate for the beauty of 'old' things, and regular restorer.

Here's the best estate sale tips they shared.

1. TURN UP TO AN ESTATE SALE AT THE RIGHT TIME

dining room with antique dining chairs and open shelving filled with ceramics, sculptures and books

(Image credit: Jessica Alexander. Design: Button Interiors)

Like most things in life, it's all about timing. 'If the sale runs for four days [like Thursday to Sunday], going on the first two days will be less busy as most people are at work,' says Brittny. 'Plus arriving early usually means you'll have the full range of items to select from.'

But if you can't make it during the week, don't fret. 'By the final day of the sale, pieces that are still left can be marked at 50% to 70% off, or practically free,' she adds. So there are benefits to both.

2. LEARN HOW TO SCOUT OUT POTENTIAL

dining room filled with antique furniture and timber ceiling

(Image credit: Jessica Alexander. Design: Button Interiors)

Chances are a lot of the things you find are going to look...well, well-loved. There may be scratches, stains or signs of wear and tear, but the key is to be able to see past it. 'Search for the item's potential, rather than how it looks in its current state,' says Brittny. 'Ask yourself, with small cosmetic changes such as an upgrade of upholstery or if you refinished the wood, could this piece have real aesthetic impact?' Just know your limits — do you know how to refinish wood furniture, or upholster, or can you find someone to do it for you?

Virginia seems to have a particular knack for finding pieces with significant value, hidden among the stacks of stuff. 'I think first and foremost, use sensory clues — is the item heavy? Is it made out of an expensive material, like marble and brass? Does it have any markings or a brand name or a hand-drawn signature? Those things all signal an item is of higher value and not made in a factory and mass-produced,' she says.

And my own estate sale tip: whatever you do, don't forget the magic that is Google's reverse image search feature.

3. CHECK THE UNEXPECTED ROOMS

living room filled with vintage furniture, organic shaped rug, wavy bench seat and fireplace

(Image credit: Jessica Alexander. Design: Button Interiors)

While most people will head straight to the larger rooms where you'd expect to find the most valuable pieces, Virginia recommends widening your search. 'I always advise checking the garage and also laundry rooms and bathrooms,' she says. 'The thing about estate sales is that generally everything is on sale — even things like bathroom vanities and light fixtures.' So don't forget to look up.

'My favorite estate sale buy in recent months was a pair of wall coat racks that look very similar to pieces made by the artist Frederick Weinberg,' she continues. 'They were hanging in someone's closet and I think I got both for $40.'

4. KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE PRIZE

If I thought scrolling through estate sale listings was overwhelming, I can only imagine what it's like stepping into an actual sale. Another valuable estate sale tip: preparation is key.

'Going into a sale with a checklist can focus your 'buys' and help block out the noise,' says Brittny, who tends to stick to home accessories, decorative objects and clothing (unless she happens to find a pair of early Dutch wooden-framed chairs for just $200).

As an artist herself, Virginia is always on the hunt for both vintage and modern art, as well as beautiful vintage coffee table books. 'Boxes and catch-alls are also something I reach for,' she adds. 'A beautiful box can be such a useful way to hide TV remotes, store ear-buds and other tech accessories.'

It's also important to have a spending limit, which will help you when it comes to haggling on prices (yes, this is all a part of estate sale etiquette). Pick a budget and stick to it.

'Estate sales range so much in price. I have purchased fabulous, oversized portraits for $10, and light fixtures for closer to $1,000,' says Virginia. 'The downside of an estate sale is you don't know the prices ahead of time, and there's a lot of adrenaline involved, so it's easy to go over your budget.'

5. NEVER SAY NO TO 'SOMETHING SO-WEIRD-I-DON'T-EVEN-UNDERSTAND-IT'

shelves styled with quirky thrift store finds, a unique shaped mirror and table with palm tree lamp

(Image credit: Cole LoCurto for Virginia Chamlee)

This estate sale tip is a personal favorite of mine. When you see something so strange you can't help but smile — buy it. 'I never say no to something so-weird-I-don't-even-understand-it,' says Virginia. 'In the past, this has meant leaving sales with four-feet-tall papier mache frogs, or plaster-sculpted dragons. Things that are somehow nonsensical but also artful and bring me joy.'


HOW DO YOU FIND ESTATE SALES?

So, how do you actually find out about estate sales to go to? Virginia says her 'go-to' is estatesales.net, because you can narrow your search down by town or zip code. 'They also usually include photos from the sale so you have a general idea of what to expect,' she adds.

Brittny also frequents the same site, and recommends following the estate sale providers on Instagram as they may 'allow you to preview the collection of items' and even put a hold on any you like — if you're lucky. She also uses handledestatesales.com but notes that they can be slightly more expensive.

And then, of course, there is Facebook Marketplace. 'Sometimes smaller sales — especially those hosted by a homeowner and not by an estate sale company — will be advertised only by a sign, or on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist,' says Virginia.

'Facebook Marketplace is easier to source from my mobile phone and fresh inventory is added daily,' adds Brittny. 'Searching by zip code, furniture type or color can help to find treasures close by.'

HOW TO KNOW IF AN ESTATE SALE IS WORTH GOING TO?

After a quick scroll on these sites, I'm quickly overwhelmed. Most of the images are far from what you'd see on the best home decor websites; they look like, well...trash. So how do you know whether it's worth going and waiting in line for? Because, yes, you often have to wait for hours.

'I look for pieces that seem to mimic my aesthetic — bright, abstract art, interesting pieces of furniture,' says Virginia. 'Even if I don't necessarily see something I have to have in an estate sale listing, I will go if it looks like the homeowner shares a similar sensibility.'

She also looks out for key phrases: 'home of an artist', 'mid-century furniture', 'folk art'.

GET THE 'ESTATE SALE' EXPERIENCE ONLINE

Can't make it to an estate sale? I know the feeling. Luckily there are some ways to satiate the craving online. Of course, there's Facebook Marketplace, but there are also a number of retailers that sell a curated edit of thrifted pieces from all over the world.

Emma Breislin
Interiors Editor

Emma is Livingetc's Interiors Editor. She formerly worked on Homes To Love, one of Australia's leading interiors websites, where she wrote for some of the country's top titles including Australian House & Garden and Belle magazine. Before that she was the Content Producer for luxury linen brand, CULTIVER, where she nurtured a true appreciation for filling your home with high-quality and beautiful things. Outside of work hours, Emma can often be found elbow-deep at an antique store, moving her sofa for the 70th time or mentally renovating every room she walks into. Having just moved to London, she's currently starting from scratch when it comes to styling her home, which, while to many may sound daunting, to her, is invigorating.