Estate sales can offer bargains as well as fun

Andrew Leckey

January 22, 1993|By Andrew Leckey | Andrew Leckey,Tribune Media Services

The estate sale, which can offer savvy shoppers a shot at buying furniture or diverse accessories at a fraction of their value, is alive and prospering in 1993.

So is its lower-budget cousin, the garage or tag sale, similarly designed to sell off contents of homes to garner profits for their owners.

They can be great fun, but be sure you understand the process and know what you're buying.

"The weak economy turned more people into bargain hunters, with these sales good ways for people to furnish their homes," says Janella Smyth, an appraiser in Raleigh, N.C., who teaches methods of conducting effective house sales. "In addition, more people are aware they can sell their used merchandise effectively and raise money, rather than giving it away or putting it on the curb."

Typically beginning on Friday, Saturday or Sunday mornings, sales are advertised in classified sections of local newspapers. House sale operators also send out announcements using a mailing list of better customers and past attendees.

You needn't spend a fortune.

"I paid $30 for a Wedgwood vase at an estate sale which would go for about $200 new," says Cindy Shaum, a Chicago banker who collects china pieces. "I don't have room in my apartment for too many items, but I love going to estate sales to look."

Those who attend estate sales are advised to get there early, because lines often start forming long before the doors open.

"I get to the estate sale at 6 a.m. even though it doesn't begin until 8 a.m.," says Leslie Holland, a Chicago investment researcher and costume jewelry collector. "I picked up a Boucher brooch from the 1950s for $5 at a very disorganized estate sale and it was later appraised by a local dealer for $500."

Numbers may be given out to those waiting. Prices are marked, though there typically is bargaining. Items aren't returnable, so careful inspection is vital. Cash and sometimes checks are accepted for payment.

"The big difference is that more estate sales are now run by professionals, rather than by the people themselves," observes Fred Iusi, an appraiser from Mt. Kisco, N.Y. "Because these professionals know the pricing of the local market so well, there may not be as many bargains as there used to be."

Learn as much as possible about the type of items that interest you before you hunt for them. Read literature or classified ads and visit local antiques dealers for pricing background.

"If a professional conducts a house sale along ethical guidelines, it actually helps people," says Emyl Jenkins, an editor for Art and Antiques magazine and author of "Emyl Jenkins' Appraisal Book," published by Crown Publishing in New York. "On the other hand, it can give some unethical people in the antique, auction and collectible fields a chance to come in and skim good things off the top."

Not all estate sales are alike.

"If you have antiques, you will draw a larger crowd than if you have very contemporary furniture, and, in general, the more diversified the items, the larger the crowd," says Phyllis Reifman, owner of Trio House Sales, an operator of sales in the Chicago area that typically draw hundreds of bargain hunters.

"About 90 percent of the people come for the 'little things' such as accessories, china, silver or tools."

All these sales are unregulated and the Division of Public and Legislative Affairs of the U.S. Office of Consumer Affairs suggests individuals who may have a complaint notify their local consumer protection agency. If the complaint is against a house sale operator, the local Better Business Bureau may be notified.

The division provides these warnings:

* Inventory at some sales may not be from the home itself, but rather part of a large inventory of items moved from place to place. Consumers should be suspicious if a sale doesn't seem legitimate.

* Some private sales can be dumping grounds for stolen or

illegally acquired goods. Collectibles are prime targets for thieves who pass along the booty through private sales.

* Valuable items such as antiques at estate sales should be properly validated before the consumer pays a high price for them.

;/ * It's important to buy only what you need.

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