Sell This, Not That: How to Manage an Estate Sale

If you suspect the vintage furniture or other items may be worth more than a few bucks, consider hiring a professional to help with appraising.

This article was originally published on US News World Report.

Getting top dollar for a family member’s belongings can be a difficult and emotionally challenging task.

It’s a situation many of us will face one day, if we haven’t already: A relative dies or goes into a nursing home, leaving the survivors to figure out what to do with all the nice things left behind. Or, before you arrive at that point, you or your parents may decide to dispose of most of their belongings and downsize in a big way.

Most people expect to see some financial return when they sell off belongings they’ve accumulated over a lifetime, but not all will. The challenge is figuring out which belongings have value and where to sell them.

“I’m in the middle of it,” says BJ Gallagher, who is liquidating the belongings of her 87-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s and had to move into a care home. “It’s an emotional experience as well as a business experience.”

Gallagher has chosen to do the work on her own, educating herself as she goes about the value of items.

“I want to use this experience as an opportunity to process my feelings as well as be a good steward of my mother’s stuff,” says Gallagher, an author in Los Angeles. “It may be the hardest business you ever do, but it’s a lucrative business.”

She has sold furniture on Craigslist, is selling collectibles and other items on eBay and plans to take a few things to an auction house. Even eBay, she has discovered, is no gold mine. To list an item, you have to photograph it from multiple angles, upload the photos and write descriptions.

“I had hoped that I could just sell everything on eBay, but that hasn’t worked out,” she says. “People who are buying on eBay are looking for bargains.”

For many, finding a way to sell the items isn’t the most difficult part. Belongings are tied to memories, which makes it harder to let go and harder to arrive at an object’s value. Fights over belongings can also lead to family rifts, which is why it is important to figure out a fair system of dividing things among family members.

For most families, the dilemma is how to dispose of belongings most efficiently without inadvertently discarding something of significant value.

“We’ve all read the stories of the pieces that got away for $1,” says Helaine Fendelman, an appraiser of fine arts, collectibles and antiques in New York who writes the syndicated “Treasures in Your Attic” column, was co-author of the book of the same title and was a co-host of the syndicated PBS TV show.

If the estate may include valuable items, she advises calling in a professional. For $75 to $500 an hour, you can pay an appraiser to walk through the house and advise you on the value of artwork, antiques, jewelry, glassware and other items.

“Any good appraiser with experience can walk through a house unless it’s chockablock full,” Fendelman says. “You can tell in a fairly short time whether there’s anything valuable or not.”

While you can look to eBay and other online sites for guidance on what some pieces are worth, remember that a listing price isn’t necessarily a sale price.

Older people and those on a deadline may prefer to hire a company to come in and dispose of most of the estate, selling the items of value and donating the rest. But, experts warn, while this may be the quickest way to liquidate an estate, it is unlikely to be the most lucrative. Estate sale companies take 20 to 50 percent of the proceeds of the sale, and some may charge an upfront fee for the service. Plus, if your belongings aren’t worth much, you may find it hard to find a company to handle the sale.

If you choose to go this route, ask your lawyer, banker, insurance company and friends for referrals. Ask the companies for credentials and areas of expertise, and hammer out a written contract. “There’s money involved. There’s trust involved,” Fendelman says. “You’d better know who you’re hiring.”

Another option is to seek buyers for valuable items such as antiques, jewelry, signed paintings and furniture, both real and costume jewelry and midcentury modern items, which are popular now. You can consign those items or hire an auction company if the item has enough value. Or you may be able to sell an entire collection to a vintage store or auction house.

Many people vastly overestimate the value of their furniture and collections. Antique furniture and collectibles that were highly desirable 20 years ago may not be worth what you paid for them today. “Just because it’s old doesn’t mean it’s valuable,” Fendelman says. “Those collectors have moved on or they’ve got all they want. The young kids – they’re not really interested in old things.”

Most families, she says, will find that their most logical option is to throw a yard sale or donate everything the family doesn’t want to charity.

“Price things to sell because the object is to get rid of them, not to get rich,” says Lauri Ward, a home design expert in New York and Boca Raton, Florida, and author of several books, including “Downsizing Your Home With Style.” Upholstered furniture, armoires and wall units, once expensive, are now out of fashion. “These are not valuable any more,” she says. “You can’t sell them today.”

Here are five tips for selling off an estate:

Identify items that may be valuable. Do some research to discover what those items may sell for and where you can sell them. This could include online research, visiting antique stores and calling auction houses and vintage stores.

Bring in a professional if you need help. If you can’t value items yourself, hire an expert. An appraiser can give you a realistic view of what items might sell for and which items are worth your time to market.

Make sure family members get a chance to take mementos. This could involve drawing lots, a family meeting or inviting family and friends to take items from those you don’t plan to sell. Determining which items should be should be sold will vary according to the preferences and needs of the family. A simple discussion among family members often helps make this decision.

Decide whether a yard sale is worth the work. People who go to yard sales expect to get rock-bottom prices. If you have enough good items, you may recoup several hundred or even several thousand dollars. But if you don’t have much to sell, you might be better off donating and taking a tax deduction.

Do your due diligence before hiring a company to handle the sale. Get referrals from trusted professionals, check credentials and make sure you outline everything in a written contract, including what percentage the company will take and how much prices on the items will be lowered from what has been originally discussed. Understand that this option, while the quickest, is likely to yield you the smallest amount of money.