How to Plan a Successful Estate Sale

You don't need to own an estate to have an estate sale. But you do need to know that estate sales differ significantly from garage sales. In an estate sale, you pay a company a fee to manage the event and sell every single item in the home. This is often the best course to choose after a divorce or a death in the family. You don't do any of the actual selling, but there's plenty of work to do to prepare for one.

Step 1

Create an inventory of the contents of the home, garage, yard and other properties. Make a separate list of important documents, including real-estate deeds, stocks, bonds, insurance papers, bank accounts and personal papers. Locate valuable assets, including jewelry, cash and artwork. Sort through the personal effects and determine how you will dispose of them.

Step 2

Hire a professional organizer to help you with the estate, especially if you live far away or can't invest the time, or if the process is too emotionally difficult. An organizer can help you decide what to keep, throw away, give to relatives or sell, and can suggest places to donate unwanted items. He or she will also inventory the remaining possessions, pack or oversee the packing, and arrange for storage and shipping of household items. See 12 Get Rid of What You Don't Want.

Step 3

Interview at least two estate sale companies. Ask to see a business license and insurance policy. Call recent customers and ask lots of questions. Get a reliability report from the Better Business Bureau ( Give each company a copy of your inventory and expect them to inspect the house's contents.

Step 4

Ask what the company estimates you'll earn from the sale, what its fees are (usually a percentage of the gross), what those fees cover and what its timeline is for a sale of property like yours. Get details on what advertising the company will do in advance of the sale.

Step 5

Make sure the company you choose has expertise (on staff or on call) if the estate includes valuable items such as antiques, jewelry or artwork. Reserve the right to get independent appraisals if you're not satisfied with the company's. You'll pay for your own appraisals.

Step 6

Find out if the company policy allows dealers to come in before the sale to buy items. This is not necessarily a problem.

Step 7

Inquire about the company's after-sale procedures. Will it contact a charity to remove items that don't sell? (Make sure you get the tax-deduction receipt.) Will it haul away trash and leave the house empty and broom-clean?

Step 8

Choose a company based on the information you've collected. Get a written contract and make sure it covers all aspects of the sale--when it will take place, what the costs will be, how much advertising will be done, appraisal of special items, and so on.

Step 9

Arrange to get a complete accounting of the sale when it's completed.

Step 10

Sell everything--junk and all--to an auction house or liquidator for the easiest solution. Either will take a percentage of the total sales figure, so there's no out-of-pocket expense for you.