Bill Wolkey of Liberty loves flipping. Rhonda Zella of Shawnee loves designer clothes. Pamela Russell of Westwood likes touring houses but usually walks away with something she can use.
All three shoppers at an estate sale in Sunset Hill West were helping Mark and Colleen Patterson downsize from a home where they raised five children into something smaller for the next stage of life. (Their French provincial home was recently featured as a Million Dollar Mansion in The Star.)
Estate sales have been around for years, but technology and trends are changing the industry. Insiders say there are great reasons for having and shopping estate sales and offer advice for anyone wanting to get a steal or close a deal.
Traditionally estate sales denoted the death of a homeowner and were a part of settling their estate. These days, owners are often involved in the process. For the Pattersons, an estate sale was about ease of transition.
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The couple had big furniture that was not going to fit into their new home, and Colleen Patterson was familiar with Brown Button Estate Sale Services from her work in interior design. She gave them a call.
“It was very seamless,” she says. “They took care of everything. You leave everything you don’t want to take with you. Then they come in, stage it, price it and have a ton of people there. It was very successful.”
Michael Fry, owner of Brown Button Estate Sale Services and vice chair of the National Estate Sales Association, says the Pattersons are typical of a new type of client.
“A lot of people are choosing to take the downsizing reins into their own hands and moving to simpler living,” Fry said.
And those downsizing baby boomer sales don’t look like your grandma’s estate sale. Rather than selling antiques collected over generations, they’re selling practical things that still have useful life.
“No one goes on eBay and sells a set of used sheets, but we sell that every single week,” Fry said.
The internet has also changed the way things are bought and sold. Antiques, glassware and collectibles do not sell the way they used to at estate sales because they are readily available and inexpensive on sites like eBay.
At a recent sale hosted by Brown Button, Russell, who admitted she was there to see the house, walked away with a half bag of charcoal. She could not resist the 75-cent price tag.
“Why buy it at full price when you can get it cheaper?” she said.
Randy Hendricks, owner of Mockingbird Estate Sales & Auctions and Mockingbird Mercantile in the West Bottoms, has been in the business over 40 years. He has seen estate sales ebb and flow and interest in items change dramatically.
“The hottest thing right now is midcentury furniture; a lot of millennials like the clean lines, but they aren’t interested in Grandma’s hand-painted china anymore,” Hendricks said.
In the 1990s, Hendricks’ company opened an auction house because people seemed to like that format better than estate sales. But about 14 years ago customers began returning to estate sales, and he closed the auction house and opened the West Bottoms store.
“I still think estate sales are the best place to buy things in a lot of regards,” Hendricks said.
One of the biggest industry changes Hendricks has seen is showing customers merchandise before the sale.
“We picture everything now. When someone comes in, they kind of already know what they want. Before, we would keep the drapes closed, and when we open we would reveal it all,” Hendricks said.
Mockingbird Estate Sales & Auctions was one of the companies to have a website in the 1990s. Now, most companies previews items online and websites like estatesales.net and estatesales.org. Companies rely on loyal customers. Many have Facebook followings and emailing lists in the thousands or even tens of thousands.
Wolkey goes to Brown Button sales nearly every weekend. He keeps in touch with the company through social media. He has been flipping items for about 20 years, selling on Ebay since its inception.
“So, that’s the main reason I attend estate sales,” he said.
Zella picks estate sales she believes will have nice clothing. She likes designer items and wanted a way to get them cheaper.
“I buy some of my best clothes at estate sales. I wear them for a little while and then I sell them, and they don’t cost me anything,” Zella said.
She likes to attend the first day of a sale to grab items she knows will go quickly. For the other stuff, she’s content to come back on the third day and get a bargain. Most prices at estate sales go down as the sale goes on. On the last day, discounts are often 50 percent off original pricing.
Then there are the lookey loos who attend sales to see the house. It may be in their neighborhood, or they drive by and get curious.
Rachel Birdsell, owner of Birdsell & Co. Estate Sales, says any traffic is good traffic.
“People still buy,” she says. “Just about every sale you have neighbors come in to look in the house they’ve never been in. In the last house I had, there was a tree growing in the middle of the house. That was great, because it gets people in the door.”
Birdsell got into the business about three years ago after 20 years in the antique business. Birdsell’s company relies on appraisers and her experience in antiques for pricing. There are currently 86 estate sale Kansas City area companies listed on estatesales.net. Since owners have so many choices, she advises choosing an estate sale company that feels comfortable.
“Sometimes you click with people and sometimes you don’t,” she says. “When you do click, it works out better for everybody.”
Birdsell, Wolkey and Fry all say experience should be a must when hiring a company.
“The estate sale industry has a really low barrier of entry to participate,” Fry said. “It is completely unlicensed and unregulated. Someone with a few tables can just decide they are in the industry.”
A lot of companies come and go because it is hard work and pricing can be tricky. The good companies price at a level that will sell everything in the house, but also get as much money for the owner as possible.
A successful sale will clear out most of the items. Owners have to consider that sentimental value does not translate to monetary value.
For those who stay in the business, it is fun.
“I get a lot of joy from seeing the collections people have and learning about them,” Birdsell says. “It’s fascinating to me. It’s an adventure, from finding the things in a house and making the sales to dealing with the customers. It’s great.”
Hiring an estate sales company
Thinking about hiring an estate sales company to sell your stuff? Here’s what you need to know:
▪ Commissions in Kansas City range from 20 percent to 40 percent.
▪ Make sure you know what happens to unsold items and if the company will clean your home.
▪ Look for a company that offers buyers the ability to swipe a credit card and “point-of-sale” software to track all transactions
▪ Draw up a contract stating what and when you will be paid. “My recommendation is that you do not work with a company if you have to pay upfront,” says Michael Fry, owner of Brown Button Estate Sale Services and vice chair of the National Estate Sales Association. More than a two-week delay on a check should be cause for concern, he adds.
▪ Look for companies that are bonded, which ensures you will get paid.
▪ Consider the size of the company’s following and where it advertises. Companies with thousands of people on their mailing list are more likely to get people through the door.