How to Prepare for an Estate Sale

By following this guide you can avoid many of the problems that may overly complicate a process that is both simple and straightforward. It is important to have and follow a considered plan for your estate sale. By having a plan in place, you can share it with others to show that your sales follow an established norm.

Before you have heirs or family members walk through a house for the purposes of choosing items to keep and well before you begin interviewing estate sales professionals to sell a home’s contents, you’ll want to take some preliminary steps.

These initial steps will protect you as the executor or trust officer of the estate, as well as document a home’s contents for heirs. If your estate is a probated one, then this will help the courts, as well.

Steps to Prepare for an Estate Sale

  1. Conduct a Search of the Home
    A thorough search of the home is a great initial step to preparing for an estate sale. People hide things, and valuable items lost long ago have a way of coming to the surface once a home has been gone through item by item. Common places to look include:

    1. Look through clothing, books, drawers, cupboards, boxes and closets.
    2. Look under and behind furniture. Pull drawers out and look behind them.  
    3. Attics, crawlspaces and basements should be searched as well.
  2. Secure or Remove Personal Items
    A good rule of thumb to follow is, if it’s personal or valuable, remove or properly secure the item. This can apply to items that other heirs may have no right to view or know about, so secure diaries and journals. You’ll want to make sure you gather together all financial records and/or other personal papers, and develop a method for determining which of these should be retained for record-keeping purposes. If there are firearms in a home, make sure they have been safely unloaded, and then properly secured. Look for items such as:

    1. Gold, silver, coins and jewelry
    2. Family photos
    3. Personal papers
    4. Firearms or ammunition
    5. Materials of a sexual nature
    6. Opened foodstuffs and alcohol
    7. Items you do not want to sell
  3. Take Pictures of Contents
    A pictorial reference, whether still photos or in video format, will go a long way as documentary evidence of the estate should the need ever arrive. Photos will also help heirs make quick decisions about what can be sold and what they’d like to keep. Tips for taking pictures:

    1. Take these in categorical sequences, ie. Furniture, Art, and China
    2. Upload these to the cloud or download to a portable drive
    3. Use these photos to document a home’s contents and to share with other heirs
  4. Make Lists to Stay Organized
    A very necessary part of preparing for an estate sale is the organizing of your thoughts, tasks and responsibilities. There are many details to manage, and challenges to overcome before calling in heirs or estate liquidators. A binder is the best place to organize your thinking into actionable lists. It will contain, after some effort, your roadmap toward success. Make lists for: 

    1. General inventory
    2. Items bequeathed to heirs
    3. Items thought to be valuable
    4. Professional contacts, realtors, liquidators, contractors.
    5. Tasks

Make House Ready for Heirs

  1. Get Appraisals
    If the personal property is to be divided as equal shares between heirs, you will want to have an appraisal made of the valuable items. This will minimize disputes which could arise, and make the overall process of dispersal more efficient. Get appraisals when:

    1. They are asked for by an attorney, heir, CPA, the courts or a probate referee
    2. You have known items of high value
    3. You have contesting heirs
    4. You want equitable disbursements
  2. Partially Setup or Order the Home
    The greater the established order within a home, the smoother the dispersal process will go. Before family or heirs show up to pick up items which have been bequeathed to them, take steps to have those items ready:

    1. Clear debris
    2. Establish clear paths throughout the home
    3. Post General Inventory sheets.
  3. Display Valuables
    If part of the dispersal plan is to allow heirs free reign of the home, it is a good idea that you have items of prominence on display. Be sure to put items being bequeathed in plain sight.
  4. Administer Dispersal Strategies
    In cases where there are no contesting heirs and there is a clearly written will, your process as an executor is clear: follow the will. If there are contesting heirs or if the will is vaguely written, alternative dispersal strategies will need to be created. These could be as simple as a lottery, the picking of a number out of a hat, or the drawing of straws to establish an order by which items can be selected. Be sure that you:

    1. Consult will or other documentation.
    2. Where a will does not exist, develop alternative strategies
    3. Set dispersal dates.

Should You Give Away or Donate Items?

Before deciding to donate or give items away, it is prudent to have a professional evaluate items for their values. This is a positive way to avoid costly mistakes. People find treasures in thrift stores, and everyone has heard a story of a person who received an item from the estate of a neighbor later determined to be worth a small fortune.   

Then there are the countless little things found in a home that get tossed or donated. It may surprise you to learn that estate sales shoppers are willing buyers of a wide variety of items. They’ll buy the toys, trinkets and dishes you think have no value; or think you are better off throwing away.

The dollar value of the many small, seemingly inconsequential items that every house contains has the potential of creating thousands of dollars of income, so it’s a very good idea to let professionals sell items on behalf of your estate. Resist the temptation to randomly give away items to neighbors or distant relatives before you have had a chance to consult with an estate liquidator. If you keep too much or give too much away, you risk the possibility of not having enough to attract the services of a competent estate sales company.

Here is a list of modestly valued items which are sold every weekend at estate sales across the country. These types of items can actually enhance the sale of items which have a much greater value.

Items of Modest Value Can be Sold

  • Kitchen Items
  • Books
  • Broken Jewelry
  • Outdated Stereo Equipment
  • Tools
  • Old Paper, Magazines, Advertising  
  • Clothing
  • Records
  • Cleaning Supplies
  • Stationery or Office Supplies
  • Bedding and Linen
  • Outdoor or Garden Items
  • Small Decorative Items
  • Craft Supplies

Please, don’t throw anything away!

What makes estate sales so compelling to shoppers – and what gets them up early in the morning to go to a sale – is how items of modest value are offered for sale alongside items of higher value. A successful sale will have all price points represented, and as much variety as possible.

Before you Call an Estate Liquidator

Know What you Want to Sell

When you can explain in clear terms the specific items you and your family are willing to sell, you can better communicate the precise scope of your project to the Estate Sales Professional you are interviewing. This will make the interview process proceed smoothly and eliminate future confusion. This process is easier if the items you and your family want to keep have been entirely removed from the home. If, as is often the case, some of the items are still in the home and waiting to be picked up later, take a little time and mark those items with a post-it note, a piece of blue tape or any other way you think best to visibly mark those items. During the interview process you can point to items which you have marked and let them know those items are not to be sold.

Have Appraisals Ready

If you have had an appraisal made of your household contents, let your estate liquidator know, and ask them if they can generate the values suggested in the appraisal documents.

Ask Family and Friends for References

Great sources of referrals for an estate liquidator are family and friends, as well as realtors, attorneys and CPAs. Ask around; it is always a good idea to use a professional that has been vouched for by a person you trust.

Have Your Questions Ready

Look over our list of questions to ask an estate liquidator, and familiarize yourself with them. The way each company you interview answers these questions will let you know whether there is a good fit or rapport between the two of you. Print out copies and file them in your binder along with the answers each company gives you during your interviews.
Following this guide can help you properly prepare an estate for a sale. You’ll be able to maximize the profits of the sale while eliminating confusion, following the wishes of the heirs, and the instructions left in the will. Working with a professional, experienced estate sale agent can help make the process a satisfying one, as well, and help answer your questions and guide you through the process of preparing an estate for a successful sale.

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