“Always asking yourself, do I actually want this, or am I just buying it because it's $5?,” advises an expert.
Shopping at an estate sale is like stepping into someone else’s life. That’s Jess Ziomek’s favorite thing about them. The woman behind online vintage shop Thrills of the Hunt, Ziomek has been scouring estate sales for vintage and antique gems since she was tagging along with her mother in a stroller. Now, most of her Nashville, Tennessee home is decorated with second-hand finds. With years of experience under her belt, she has estate sale shopping down to a science.
While Ziomek beelines to the dining room of the estate for vintage linens and statement pieces for entertaining, other shoppers like Jessica Lev, owner of Jessica Lev Antiques in Houston, Texas, have their sights set on accessories like china sets and leather books. As opposed to vintage shops or a crowded antique auction, estate sales give you the unique opportunity to picture what a piece looks like in a home setting. Vintage and antique decor bring character and depth to any room they grace, from the original owner’s parlor that you’re browsing, to your own living room. Before taking anything home with you, however, there’s a few things you should know. Here’s what to avoid at estate sales according to two vintage shopping experts.
Meet The Experts
Jess Ziomek is the owner Thrills of the Hunt in Nashville, Tennessee, an online vintage home decor shop. She frequents estate sales, vintage shops, and antique fairs to curate her business.
Jessica Lev, owner of Jessica Lev Antiques in Houston, Texas, is an interior designer and antique dealer with a passion for sourcing and collecting vintage goods.
“I tend to avoid anything upholstered,” says Lev, “because you don't know what sorts of things you might be bringing home with you unless you intend to fully re-upholster it.”
In addition to debris from lives past and even some creepy crawlers, it can be difficult to remove stains and smells from upholstery, Lev explains. Even if you think an upholstered piece is a clean slate, Lev advises that the adrenaline rush of a good find and dim lighting in the home can be misleading. In the past, she has been surprised by the condition of upholstered pieces at estate sales upon taking them outside.
As a good rule of thumb, Lev recommends taking anything of interest out of the house to look at before you purchase it. “Out in the sunlight, sometimes things don't look quite the same as what you imagined when you were inside the house,” she explains.
“A lot of baby items like vintage strollers, prams, cribs, high chairs are so dreamy in theory, but a lot of them are not up to modern day regulations and may have been recalled,” reveals Ziomek.
Babies will put anything and everything in their mouth, so take care when shopping for them. Infant accessories dug-up from the previous owner’s storage at the estate sale might still contain lead paint or choking hazards, and Ziomek advises to beware especially of any accessories involving sleeping, when babies are particularly vulnerable. Other items, like cribs and strollers that can take wear and tear should also be given a critical eye before purchasing because for all you know, they may be overused or had been retired from use by the previous owner for a dangerous fault. While we’re normally cheerleaders for anything and everything vintage, baby accessories are a strong exception.
Finds like televisions, vintage type writers, dial phones, and vintage radios may have been saved by the homeowners for the sake of nostalgia, but might not actually work anymore. Unless you’re prepared to do some re-wiring, Ziomek recommends avoiding vintage electronics at an estate sale.
“I typically shy away from purchasing electronics,” says Ziomek, “but if you do buy them, it's so imperative to test them. Plug them in before purchasing.”
Similar to electronics, games and puzzles in the home may be short a few pieces that they need to be functional. While you can try to plug in and turn on a piece of technology to determine if it’s still in working condition, a game set or puzzle is harder to sort through right in the middle of an estate sale.
“I'm saying no unless I know that all the pieces are in that box or that puzzle,” Ziomek tells us.
Big Ticket Claims
If the people running the estate sale claim that a piece of property is incredibly valuable, Lev says to take that with a grain of salt. A critical eye is necessary for determining the worth of pieces at these kinds of sales. Sometimes, decor for sale may come with claims of grandeur and price tag to match—neither of which can be backed up.
“I would avoid splurging on anything that you are not confident in the history or value,” says Lev. “People who run state sales are not necessarily experts in any particular piece of furniture, so be wary of anything that they say is super old and super expensive without any prior knowledge of the piece itself.”
To figure out the worth of a piece at an estate sale, Lev and Ziomek both say that Google is a girl’s best friend. Use the image search function to look up the exact thing and see what similar items are selling for. Another tip from Lev is that anything that looks like it’s made using a machine rather than hand-made, or anything with a design that seems printed rather than painted, likely isn’t too antique.
Anything You’re Unsure About
As surely as there will be overpriced items for sale at an estate sale, there will also be undervalued treasures. A worthwhile antique may slip through the cracks of the organizers and be priced way under market value. Still, even if you find underpriced gold, Ziomek recommends pausing before staking your claim.
“It's really easy to get caught up in the energy of an estate sale,” she says. “To not have buyers regret, it's important to think ‘am I buying this piece because I love it, or am I buying this piece just because it's a good deal?’ And if you ask yourself that question, I think you will have a much better outcome.”
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