Goodwill Hunting

More people shop estate sales for items for their homes or to resell online.

Diane Mars, a real estate agent, holds vintage cake toppers she purchased from an estate sale at four for $1, in Newbury Park, Calif. (The New York Times)

Published: Saturday, January 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 at 8:58 p.m.

It took a few years but Rachel Reeves of Long Beach, Calif., found the exact bedside tables she was searching for at an estate sale last month. Made in the 1950s from cherry wood, they had a colonial revival look, with tapered legs and carved ridges in the drawers. And at $20 for the pair, the price was right.

“It's so exciting to have things that don't look like what everybody else has,” said Reeves, 30, a stay-at-home mom with a 3-year-old and a baby on the way. She has been shopping at estate sales for affordable furnishings since she and her husband bought a house five years ago.

Driven by nostalgia, thrift and the thrill of the hunt, more people like Reeves are shopping at estate or tag sales, lining up before dawn to be the first to rummage through other people's discards, hoping to find inexpensive and one-of-a-kind items for their homes or to resell online for extra spending money.

As the ranks of these shoppers grow, so does the number of sales, both because so many homes are in foreclosure and because baby boomers are downsizing or perhaps selling off the belongings of their infirm or deceased parents.

Professional organizers of estate sales say they cannot keep up with demand and that they are working year-round rather than just in spring and summer, when sales were traditionally held. And the sales days, previously just on weekends, are now anytime from Wednesday to Sunday.

“I can hardly keep up with the calls,” said Denise LoSquadro, owner of Sisters in Charge Tag Sale Professionals, which organizes sales on Long Island. For a commission of 25 to 40 percent, organizers like LoSquadro handle all aspects of a sale, including pricing, staging, crowd control, transactions and cleanup.

Activity on confirms the rise in both shoppers and sales. The site, which helps people nationwide locate sales in their area, has doubled its business every year over the last five years.

“The poor economy is primarily what's driving it,” said Dan McQuade, an owner of the site, which is based in Jackson, Mo. “It's forcing more people to sell their things and making more people unwilling or unable to buy retail.”

Deborah McMahon, 59, a retired congressional staffer, started shopping at estate sales eight months ago for items to spruce up her four-story town house in Alexandria, Va. “You can find things that make a room, and at a tolerable price,” she said.

But McMahon said it took her some time to learn the protocol of estate-sale shopping. “It's like you are breaking into a clique,” she said. “There's this whole subcul­ture with its own set of rules.”

Those with the sharpest elbows, according to veterans, tend to be pickers, which in estate-sale argot means dealers who are seeking items to resell in antiques malls or flea markets, or online. Junkers are recreational shoppers who are buying for themselves. And hoarders, of course, are acquiring compulsively and may have to hold their own estate sales to pare down their accumulation.

Similarly, Diane Mars, 56, a real estate agent in Newbury Park, Calif., supports her estate- and garage-sale habit by selling excess items on eBay.

“The real estate business is really bad right now so if I get short on money, all I have to do is sell some stuff,” she said. She recently sold 10 Coca-Cola serving trays from the 1930s for a total of $5,000. She had bought them all for $30, she said. Also profitable are vintage ballerina cake decorations from the 1950s, which she buys four for a dollar and sells for $25.

Whether they seek paper towels or Picassos, experienced estate-sale shoppers say it is best not to dither. They advise picking up and holding on to anything that sparks even the slightest interest and making a final decision later.

If the piece is too big to carry, it is acceptable to remove the price tag and take it to the register. But it is considered bad form to bring “sold” stickers and put them on items before they are purchased, as some pickers are known to do.

And finally, said Reeves of Long Beach, “Bring wet wipes — be­cause your hands get filthy going through all that old stuff.”

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