When is an Estate Sale Not an Estate Sale?

On our tour of sales together last Friday, Stephanie, aka Love in the Time of Foreclosure, told me the story of her house sale. She and her husband held a giant clearing-out of furniture and belongings just before they moved from California. They advertised it as an estate sale, but one shopper insisted they were wrong.
Who died? he asked. If no one was deceased, it can’t be called an estate sale, he said.

Was he accurate? The collective minds at Wikipedia define an estate sale as a type of garage sale, yard sale or auction to dispose of a substantial portion of the materials owned by a person who is recently deceased, or who must dispose of his personal property to facilitate a move.

This definition is backed up by Sue Casey of Manderley Estate & House Sales, the organizer of the first sale we visited. To protect the privacy of the owner, Sue said, the reason for the sale wasn’t mentioned, but he was downsizing and moving.

On Saturday, intrigued by a sign, I stopped at an estate sale which I discovered I’d shopped a few weeks ago. It was billed then as a French style market and was a collection of vintage items the vendor had gathered from world travels. On this visit, she pointed out a couple pieces that were among several Asian artifacts she was selling. Also in the offering were portraits and some charming pastoral paintings, two antique doll houses, older dish ware and jewelry. Can you call this an estate sale, I wondered as I browsed through this one.  

Clearly, collecting and then selling to the public was this vendor’s avocation, and I suspect I wasn’t the only person to notice she changed her marketing strategy from time to time to attract fresh buyers. Was she stepping outside an unwritten code of estate sale ethics?

I don’t have the answer to that, but will note that, as always, it’s up to the individual to buy or not, to read between the Craigslist lines and decide if a sale may have what you’re looking for.

Searching for an additional definition of Estate Sale, I found this one published by a firm that conducts sales and liquidation services in northern California on their site, estatesalemyths.com:
“As long as you are in possession of an entire estate full of items (a lifetime’s collection worthy of selling to collectors and dealers) then you are totally within your ethical rights to advertise your sale as an estate sale. ”


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  • Hi Diana! I love that you dedicated a post to this topic. As you may have noted by my tone when I told you the story, I was quite annoyed by the man who challenged the definition of 'estate sale' at our sale. For two reasons.

    1. His callous attitude when he swaggered in and asked, "So who died?" (Who does that?!)

    2. What's the point in challenging the definition of the type of sale once you're already there? Just to flaunt your superior knowledge of sales? I don't know.

    As you wrote: "it's up to the individual to buy or not, to read between the Craigslist lines and decide if a sale may have what you're looking for."

    And I agree. The label does not the sale make. However... it's always nice to go to a sale that surpasses your expectations. In my experience, that happens less often. And that has less to do with the marketing than the content and pricing. But I suppose that's all part of the marketing as well.

    The thing is, it's all part of the discovery. And if every sale (estate, thrift, garage or rummage) was exactly what you expected, where would the discovery be?

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