Estate Sale Operators Sell Expertise, Labor

The first thing Anna Harper would like you to know if you are contemplating an estate sale is this: Your stuff isn't worth as much as you paid for it.

"I hate it when people ask me, 'How much do you think I'll make?' That's my most dreaded question," said Harper, who has operated Anna's Estate Sales in Little Rock for the past 15 years. "This is not a money-making project. This is a cleaning-out project. It's a rare bird that sells for more than you paid for it."

But estate sales are money-makers for Harper and more than a dozen other operators who regularly conduct sales in central Arkansas. They typically charge a commission of 30 to 35 percent on the proceeds of a sale, sometimes more. They do all the work leading up to the sale, including advertising, pricing and organizing the merchandise for display. Then they help the owners get rid of anything that doesn't sell and leave the house spick-and-span.

Estate sales are capital-light, labor-intensive businesses. The operators own a few signs, maybe a van or truck. Harper has some golf carts to ferry shoppers to sales where limited parking or steep terrain could serve as impediments to buyers.

The main things that estate sale operators have to offer are expertise on the current market value of just about any object that might be found in someone's home and an established marketing network to attract shoppers with ready cash.

The people who earn their livings off selling other people's belongings are the type of people who were always fascinated with all manner of tangible things.

Harper spent 15 years in retail before going into the estate sale business, which she calls "the world's second-oldest profession."

"I had always loved old stuff, so I'm not sure why I didn't go into [estate sales] in the first place," Harper said. "It's a lot easier to make a living selling old stuff than it is to make a living selling new stuff."

Kathy Cecchin of Conway, known professionally as The Estate Sale Queen, has run shops and booths selling antique and vintage items for almost 20 years. But when the Great Recession hit in 2008, she started supplementing her income by joining the booming estate sale industry.

"I've been a buyer and a seller and a collector my entire adult life," said John Gaiser, who had a long career in Little Rock's restaurant industry before he and his wife, Emily McCaskill Gaiser, hatched the idea for an estate sale company on their honeymoon two years ago. Their Pennsylvania Trading Co. has quickly become one of the most prolific operators of estate sales in the area, joining familiar names like Roy Dudley, Burchfield, Rook's and Estate Sales by June (Blankenship).

"I do have competitors, but there's plenty of business out there for all of us," Harper said. "I could work a lot more than I do."

While hard times might seem to be a reason why more people are looking for bargains at more estate sales, Harper doesn't think the recession and sluggish recovery are behind the growth in the industry.

"I don't think it's economy-driven. I think it's generational," she said.

Baby boomers are retiring and looking to downsize at the same time their parents are dying off and leaving them with more stuff to deal with. Estate sales these days are as likely, maybe even more likely, to involve a move - to a smaller house or assisted-living apartment, to another part of the country, to a houseboat - than the death of the owner, but all involve clearing out a residence.

"In 2011," Emily Gaiser said, "I think there have only been one or two weekends when there was not an estate sale in central Arkansas. And that's just the professionals."

Harper is a one-woman show when it comes to setting up for the 10 or 12 sales she takes on every year. It generally takes her three weeks to get ready for a sale, which may start on Thursday or Friday and continue through Sunday. During the sale, she will generally pay six helpers, although a bigger sale may require more manpower. One of her biggest sales, at Bill and Pat Carlton's home on Overlook Drive in January, required a crew of 20 over a five-day period

Cecchin operates similarly, personally spending two or three weeks setting up for one sale a month then paying helpers to work during the sales. But the Gaisers' Pennsylvania Trading Co. will conduct more than 30 sales this year alone, and it pays three contractors who work essentially 40 hours a week to help John set up for the sales while Emily handles the bookkeeping and marketing.

100 Percent Trust
While professional estate sale operators almost always require clients to sign a contract so that expectations are clearly spelled out, the operators say the business relationship is really all about trust: Trust that the operator will get a reasonable price for each item and then account for all sales honestly.

"It's a trust business, 100 percent," Anna Harper said. "So you'd better go with someone you like and trust and feel comfortable with."

Because all estate sale operators take a straight commission on total sales, they have a clear incentive to get the best prices possible.

"It's a very transparent business relationship," John Gaiser said. "I'd rather sell this for $100 than $10."

That's because a $100 item is worth $35 to Pennsylvania Trading Co., while a $10 item is only worth $3.50. The Gaisers generally command a 35 percent commission on almost everything, although they may agree to a lower commission on big-ticket items like vehicles. They may also charge a higher commission if a sale involves moving a lot of furniture and boxes out of storage units.

Big-ticket items may be itemized, but there are no bar code scanners and no guarantees on which items will sell for the full asking price and which will have to be discounted. The operator, however, has a long-term interest in making sure that clients feel confident that they cleared as much money as possible on the sale.

"You live and die by your reputation," John Gaiser said. "We are based almost entirely on referrals."

Cecchin, The Estate Sale Queen, also works for 35 percent most of the time, although she might give a break on the commission for a very large sale or charge more for a very small one. The typical estate sale in Conway will net about $10,000, she said, although she has managed sales that brought in as much as $25,000.

Harper charged the Carltons 30 percent for what was the second-biggest sale she had ever coordinated, but she'll take a bigger commission on very small sales or hurry-up sales that don't allow her the three weeks she generally needs.

A too-short timeframe, she said, means harder work for less money because she won't have time to market properly.

"I have done some in two weeks. I've done one in eight days, but it's difficult. I have to have time to advertise - and to know what it is I'll have for sale," Harper said.

Advertising is part of the operator's job, and professional operators routinely collect email addresses from estate sale shoppers and use online services like EstateSales.net as well as traditional newspaper classified ads. Most also have websites where they whet shoppers' appetites by posting photos of the most interesting items that will be included in each sale.

Once the buyers are at the sale, the professional operators know techniques for getting them in the buying mood. They group like items together - Christmas decorations in one room, tools in the garage or shed. They will start the sale at full tag price, and then typically offer discounts of 20 or 25 percent on the second day and as much as 50 percent on the last day of the sale. Professional operators accept bids during the sale to help find the true market value of items that may have been priced ambitiously.

As the sale wears on, the operators consolidate the remaining items into fewer and fewer rooms and close off the rest of the house so that it never looks like all the good stuff is gone. The pros will also bring in consignment items from other clients.

"More is better," Harper said. "It's hard to sell from an empty cart."

Do It Yourself
Many advertised estate sales are amateur productions, but the professionals scoff at the idea that families come out ahead by doing it themselves rather than paying the commission.

"It takes a long time to know what things are worth," Cecchin said.

People who do their own sales invariably overprice some items and underprice others, she said, a double whammy on the bottom line. The overpriced items won't sell at all, and money walks out the door with the underpriced merchandise.

What's more, she said, "It makes the public uncomfortable to deal with the family. They like dealing with a third party. It's just better."

And then there's the cleanup. About 10 percent of the items are left after any sale, Cecchin said, and professional operators work with the families to make sure the leftovers are donated to charities or otherwise cleared out of the house.

Within a day or two after the sale, the house will be completely empty, virtually ready for showing to prospective buyers or for a new owner to move in.

"We leave it broom clean," Harper said, "We don't do baseboards and we don't do windows, but the potties are all clean."

And that service, Emily Gaiser said, is something that families would either have to do themselves or pay someone else to do even if they did manage their own estate sale.

"At the end of the day, it's all just stuff," Cecchin said.