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Estate Sale Agents Find New Homes for Old Stuff

Maybe you've heard the saying that the last outfit you'll ever wear doesn't need pockets. The reason, of course, is that you can't take your possessions with you. At the end of a person's life, all of their belongings have to go somewhere. That's where estate sale agents come in.

Estate sale agents take entire households full of stuff that's no longer needed or wanted and help turn it into cash. In many cases, one or both of the homeowners has passed away. In other cases, the homeowner is moving into a retirement home or a smaller apartment.

Whatever the reason, most people need help to get a good price for all the stuff that accumulates over the years. As a result, more people are calling on the services of an estate sales agent.

"As long as people die, then there'll be a demand," says Mike Wall. He's an estate sale agent in Washington.

Forecasters tell us that a greater proportion of our society is becoming elderly. As people get older and pass away, they transfer their property to charity and family members.

The group of people known as the baby boom generation is going to have a huge impact on the amount of property that will have to be transferred. In the United States, the boomers will transfer at least $41 trillion by the year 2052, according to the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy.

The executor of an estate is the person named in the will who is responsible for taking care of all of the person's property. The executor, often a family member, will contact an estate sale agent or an auction company to sell the property, including the contents of the house.

Estate sale agents perform a variety of tasks. Their jobs could include helping the client determine the value of the items. They could also determine whether there's enough to justify organizing an estate sale. If there is, then they will put price tags on the items (estate sales are often called "tag sales" for this reason) and make the house presentable for the public.

Then it's a matter of getting the word out. Estate sale agents maintain lists of hundreds or thousands of people who want to be informed of sales. Websites also play a key role in promoting estate sales. Estate sale agents will also advertise in newspapers and magazines.

After the sale, they help to dispose of unsold items or donate the rest to charity.

Like many estate sale agents, Wall is also an antique appraiser. Being able to identify valuable antiques and put a proper price on them is an essential skill for this career. You don't want a $300 vase to be sold for 50 cents at a garage sale. But this happens all the time.

"We recently handled the sale of an estate where the mother was 101 years old and the son had just given away a half-million dollars worth of items without realizing their value," Wall says.

Discovering valuable items is one of the biggest thrills of the job, Wall adds. And helping people get a fair price for their belongings provides job satisfaction. "It's like treasure hunting," Wall says. "You never know what you're going to find when you open a door or look between mattresses. We find some amazing things.

"We get a real kick out of it when the owner or executor calls us in to help make a decision and we see something on the mantle that looks like everything else, but it's worth $5,000."

Wall gives the example of a star ruby with white sapphires. The family member thought it was just cheap costume jewelry, but it was actually worth $2,000.

There are no regional or national associations for this profession, and no restrictions on who can say they are an estate sale agent. "There's no law that requires a special certification or license," Wall says. "It's pretty uncontrolled. Anybody can hang out a shingle and do estate sales.

"The problem with estate sales is that it takes a lot of experience and you make a lot of mistakes. You need to have a good general knowledge of what people own, ranging from cans of consumable items to million-dollar pieces of jewelry. And you need to know how to market all those items."

The lack of structure in the profession means that you have to be proactive to gain the necessary skills and to find clients.

"It's very important to have an appraisal background, simply because it gives you a certain air of authority," says Geoff Adamson. He's a partner in a California estate sale company.

"You need to be highly organized," Adamson adds. "You need to be detail-oriented because you'll be doing a lot of research."

"You need organizational skills," agrees Sari Stenerson. She's an estate sale agent. "It's putting on an event, so you have to whip it into shape pretty quickly. It's a one-shot thing, so there's a bit of stress that way."

Some estate sale agents are also realtors. Darlene McClelland is one example. She says that with so many people walking through the house during the estate sale, there's a good chance someone might be interested in the house itself.

"There are times when we have 10,000 people in three days," she says. "Someone always knows someone looking for a house."

McClelland says the average estate sale sees 2,000 or 3,000 potential customers filing through a house. The typical estate sale lasts for three days, while a smaller sale might last two days.

Adamson says there tend to be two types of people in the estate sale business. One type is more part-time, often a husband and wife team who are retired and handle the occasional estate sale. The other type is like himself, who does it full-time and handles larger estates.

Estate sale agents generally work on commission. They'll give a free estimate upfront as to what the estate sale could take in. The typical commission charged by Stenerson is 25 to 40 percent of total sales, depending on the amount of work involved. Similarly, Wall charges a commission of one-third of total sales.

Wall says his company handles five or six estate sales per year. Each sale takes about three weeks to prepare. In his experience, the contents of the average home will bring in $7,000 to $12,000.

"A weekend will cost up to $1,500 in salaries, meaning we need $4,500 in sales just to cover that [assuming a commission of one-third]."

Estate sale agents tend to fall into the profession after working in a related profession, such as real estate agent or appraiser, antique dealer, senior move manager or auctioneer.

For aspiring estate sale agents, Stenerson has some tips. "They should start by working with packing services and professional organizers, because they deal with people who are downsizing," she says. "Somehow, deal with seniors and then you get your foot in the door."

Stenerson also says that taking an antique appraisal course could be helpful, but such courses can be very expensive.

Perhaps that's why Stenerson started selling a startup kit for estate sale agents on her website. "I sell tons of those, so there are definitely going to be more businesses like this."


Estate Sales Offer Stories
An article about the unique items discovered in this profession

Estate Sales Directory
A directory of estate sales and estate sale agents across the United States

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