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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

Clearing Out the House: Behind the Scenes of the Estate Sale

Ten years ago, when clearing out my parents’ home of 50 years, I had no idea what I was getting into, let alone what I was doing. I had never been to an estate sale, now I was going to have one. I took a week off from my job in Florida, flew to California and dove headfirst into the quicksand, a paralyzing quagmire of family history, memories, sentiment, legend, and surprise-filled boxes, and all laced with my own guilt for being so ill-prepared to handle it all.


But I couldn’t wallow. Though I had no earthly notion what anything should sell for, I made wild stabs at pricing so I could meet the goal of clearing out the house to get it on the market. The proceeds would help pay for my elderly parents’ long-term care.


I get PTSD just thinking about it. The memories of this life-altering ordeal came flooding back this past week as I talked with Melissa Sullivan, owner of The Posh Peacock, an estate sales company serving greater Orlando.


Where was she when I needed her?


Sullivan fell into the world of estate sales four years ago after working in IT for 25 years. Ready for a career change, she started helping a woman who had a small, private estate sale company, but no technical skills. “She didn’t accept credit cards, and didn’t have a website,” said Sullivan, who fixed that. Shortly after, the woman died of cancer. Sullivan kept the business going and growing.


Today, Posh Peacock, handles about 25 sales a year.


Knowing services like hers exist to clear out family homes and turn material objects into cash and freedom just makes me so happy. My soul feels lighter because I now know I can stop worrying about all those jam-packed homes out there threatening to fall like avalanches onto the heads of adult children.


Though an estate sales company can be just what a family needs, some intrepid types want to tackle the sales themselves, which has its own rewards. Either way, I found Sullivan’s insider information useful. Though too late for me, maybe these takeaways can help you:


Marni: Who are your clients?

Melissa: Two-thirds of the homes we clear belong to people downsizing or moving into assisted living. One third belong to someone who has passed. If the owner has died, we sell every item in the house after family members take what they want. For downsizers, we assess what they’re taking with them to see if enough remains to justify an estate sale, the equivalent of about four rooms of furniture, plus household goods.


What if downsizers want to hold their own estate sales?

You don’t need an estate sales company. Families who want to do this themselves can follow the same process we do. Empty all cupboards, closets and drawers. Separate out trash. Set aside what you want to keep or give to someone. Everything else you can sell or donate. The two most difficult parts of the job are pricing and having enough help to make sure items don’t walk away. Many pricing tools are available now. One is an app that lets you look up items and find suggested pricing. Looking up eBay sold prices is another good resource.


How do you prevent theft?

We don’t allow purses or backpacks inside. We also group small items together near the jewelry counter, which is staffed constantly, and have staff trained to watch every exit.


How much does the average sale gross, and what is your cut?

The usual split is 60 percent to the client, 40 percent to the estate sales company. Most homes we liquidate gross $12,000 or more. In that case, the homeowner would get $7,200, and we would get $4,800. That goes for staffing, which runs about $2,500, advertising, and art consultants or appraisers we bring in to help us price collectibles.


How long does the process take?

We are in and out in a week. Day one, six-to-eight workers go through the house, and inventory everything. Then we clean and polish merchandise, so it shows well, and stage the sale, creating vignettes so the house looks like a boutique. Over the next few days, we price and photograph items to promote the sale online. Friday the sale starts. On Saturday, prices drop 25 percent (on art and collectibles) to as much as 50 percent, and on Sunday we discount by 60 percent. Monday, anything left goes to a local charity and the client gets a donation receipt.


What’s worth more than people expect, and what’s worth less?

Clothing, especially vintage clothing, costume jewelry and tools sell really well. Tools hold their value because no one cares if they look old. Coins and stamps don’t go for as much as they used to. And I still remember how heartbreaking it was to tell one woman that her collection of over 200 Madame Alexander dolls in their original boxes wasn’t worth much.


How can owners help?

We welcome any appraisal or other information they have about their valuables. Most important is that they take anything they do not want sold off the premises, or buyers will find it.


What should those wanting to hire an estate sales company look for?

Ask what they do with items left after the sale. The company should donate them and give you a receipt so you can write off the donation. However, some companies take possession, resell the items and take all the profit. It’s a chronic problem in the industry. Make sure the company you hire has sufficient liability insurance. Also ask about any extra fees beyond the commission.


What do you wish more people knew?

For some of their beautiful furnishings, like living room sets, they will be lucky to get 20 percent of what they paid. This is where research tools can help. I learned early on that you will make more money if you lower your prices slightly. Price too high and items will sit, then go for much less.


CAPTION: Repurposed —An illness and a job layoff drove Melissa Sullivan to leave the corporate world and do something more meaningful. Now the owner of an estate sales company, she says, “I love that I am helping families through a difficult transition, and putting their once loved items into new appreciative hands while keeping them out of the landfill.”  Photo courtesy Roy Law.

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