Estate sales have long been the stamping grounds of the select few — antiques dealers, avid collectors, diehards who line up at 3 a.m. to get first dibs on the best stuff. But the art of sifting through a stranger's home in search of treasure is fast becoming mainstream. "Because of the economy, everybody's looking for a bargain," says Cari Cucksey, estate sale guru and host of the HGTV show Cash & Cari. "It's becoming a hip thing to say 'Guess how much I got this for?' People love to find out what things are worth, and they love digging around and finding treasure." So your heart doesn't go pitter-patter at the sight of crystal and silver? Don't rule out estate sales just yet — you can get deals on everyday items if you know a few tricks of the trade.
First, find a sale
EstateSales.net is the leading online directory; sign up for alerts or search by keywords. Check newspaper classifieds on Thursdays to get a jump on weekend planning. If you're searching Craigslist, use the search term "estate" to rule out garage and yard sales.
Many local estate service companies have mailing lists that often offer details on parking and early-bird entry.
Keep an open mind
"Don't make a snap judgment based on the neighborhood," says Stephanie Rigaux, of D.C. Estates in Kensington, Md. "A lot of estate sales in newer developments . . . are full of chain-store stuff. But the benefit of shopping an estate sale is getting older, better-quality, unique things — so look for older, established neighborhoods ."
If you're hoping to buy something you saw advertised, get there early. "All the good stuff is gone within the first 30 minutes," says Mike Wolfe, creator and host of History Channel's American Pickers.
At most estate sales, prices decrease with time. On Day 2, the discount is usually 25 to 30 percent; on the final day — usually a Sunday — items are half off. "Come back on Saturday, and if there's something you like but think is overpriced, make a bid," Rigaux says. "That enables you to get a discount and get the item before half-price day."
If you're shopping for collectibles, do some homework so you can spot reproductions. "Bring a smart phone to do some very quick research and make sure you don't make a costly mistake," Rigaux adds.
How to get deals
It never hurts to ask for a price break — nicely. "The best thing to ask a dealer or liquidator is, 'What's your best price?' " Cucksey says. "Most people will discount something just because you ask."
Tools are one of the best deals you can get at an estate sale, as they're usually priced between 50 cents and $3. If you're in the market, head to the garage or shed first.
Don't pass up cleaning supplies, paper goods and household items, which are priced at a fraction of retail cost.
Scoop up underused furniture. "For couples on a budget or young people who are trying to furnish an apartment, go to an estate sale and look for a living room set," says Jared Fast, owner of Caring Transitions of Montgomery County, Md. "Chances are it's in good condition because no one sits on their living room furniture — they only use family room furniture."
"Sometimes people feel shy about opening closets, cupboards and drawers, or going in the basement, but everything is usually up for grabs," Rigaux says. "A lot of times, that stuff is unpriced because the agent didn't get to it, and you're more likely to get a good price if you ask."
If there's something you really want, ask for it. "Don't be afraid to ask the people at the door where an item is in the house," Wolfe says. "Don't waste your time looking through the other rooms. And if you find it, grab it — if you don't, the guy behind you will."