Estate sales for dummies

Anyone can be a successful ‘Picker’
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by Harold Ratzburg

I would guess that most people who know me, know by now that I am a junkie for estate sales, garage sales, and flea markets. I believe I fall into a “picker” category. In fact, I am probably in the same arena as the “American Pickers,” that TV show on Monday nights that has the two guys, Frank and Mike, who go around to junk yards and junk collectors and buy anything that they think they can make a buck on.

To me it is a hobby, because I sure as hell don’t make enough at it to make a living what with the cost of gasoline and the cost in time and money to sell the stuff I find on eBay, rallies or gun shows. But I love it­­ — as a collector. As I have said before, there doesn’t have to be a rational reason for it, I just love it.

Of the three sources of junk — estate sales, garage sales or flea markets — I like estate sales the best. Over the last 20 years of serious picking since I retired, I have come up with almost all of my best “deals” at estate sales. The price is right because the operator of the sale really doesn’t know the value of the collectibles that she has for sale. (I say “she” because most folks out there running the sales are women, sometimes helped by their male partners or other women).

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It is not really her fault because how in the world can she know the value of all the old stuff that comes up in different sales. Mostly, she, the operator, knows a lot about fancy dishes and old furniture, but she has to guess at the value of old golf clubs, militaria, airplane propellers, medical equipment or uniforms, all of which I have picked and made some pretty good profit on.

One of these days, I am going to do an article about some of those items, and call it my “bragging list.” To be fair, I’ll also have to include some of my “not-so-good-deals” that I thought were going to be good deals and did not turn out that way.

The ladies, or operators who run the sales, come in all different personalities, pretty much a cross section of the general public. Some are grouchy, some are friendly and some are downright impossible. That may come from having to deal with the public, and observing the public in the competition of an estate sale. Well, it gets to be like a shark feeding frenzy sometimes. I can understanding an operator getting very fed up with the public from time to time. After a time, however, if you stick to it like I have, you can tell from the newspaper ad who you will run into at most of the sales.

Sometimes, the kids of the departed parents will run the estate sale by themselves. What you will find then is that the prices of the stuff is too high or maybe even ridiculously low, and then you can make out like a bandit. You never know ahead of time and that is what keeps me going.

Part of the fun of picking comes from the unknown because you are out there looking for pleasant surprises, kind of like panning for gold, as I like to say. The only information that you start with before you get to the door is a short ad in the classified or maybe a longer internet e-mail notice that you get from an estate sale operator that sends you an e-mail with photos after you sign up to receive them from her.

Anyway, you can’t usually tell from the address if the house is old or new, organized or junky, clean or a little bit ragged as far as dirt goes, or of rich or poor owners, or somewhere in between. Personally, I find the sales I like best are the ones from a family that never threw anything away, even if it is disorganized or dirty. After all, it is usually only dust, and I am not going to eat there, just dig around (NOTE: Bring a good flashlight!).

One example was at one house where I dug through and came up with a pair of WWI breeches with a belt that indicated to me that they didn’t clean up or throw away anything in the last 90 years or so. That is my kind of house. Look for the paper ads that say “Diggers Delight” — that is what it usually is!

Another sale that I went to was quite the opposite. It was a really nice house in a high class neighborhood, and would you believe, they had valet parking! They needed the valet it because the house was up on a rise with a very long circular driveway only wide enough to park cars on one side and you know how stupid people can be sometimes and screw things up by parking and blocking people in. To park on the street and walk up the hill was quite a chore for some folks, including me, but I passed up the valet parking, probably because I was too cheap to tip the valet.

After I got into the house, I realized it was a home way out of my class and price range. I don’t go around buying fur coats and fancy furniture. Even the kitchen utensils were too classy. For instance, a dish drying rack of stainless steel which had a price tag of $75.

In a house like this, I don’t expect to find any military stuff that many of us are looking for. If the owner did happen to be in the military in the past, I believe that he quickly dumped the old uniforms and equipment because he couldn’t be bothered have the old junk around. But, to each his own. I’m sure that house owner would certainly not agree with me and my way of living and having fun!

Another interesting part of the estate sale is being able to prowl through a house and peek into every corner of a persons attic, basement, garage and even into the owner’s dresser drawers. It is fascinating to me to try to figure out what the owner and his lifestyle was all about. You are able to tell if the previous owner was in ill health by the medical equipment, like walkers or potties or crutches, that are there for sale The style of the clothes in the closets can tell you if he was a middle class working guy or a professional man. (or woman). The age of the previous owner can be guessed at, and usually, you will find that the owner was part of an older generation. Most frequently, the previous owner has gone to the happy hunting grounds and his kids are selling off the stuff and the house because they are grown and have no use for the house and the house contents. So—up for sale it goes, which gives us pickers something to look into.

And so—enough of my rambling writing for now. If you haven’t tried an estate sale, give it a shot sometime. If you are a little shy about it, take a friend along. Whenever we have visitors who are around on Fridays, I try to take them picking with me, and invariably they think it was a fun day.

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