My Story: Estate Sale "Handlers"

contributed by Kate

I am a former Ebay seller, and my "specialty" was vintage collectibles and books. The main sources of my merchandise were yard sales and estate sales, and I became acquainted with most of that area's other dealers (both eBay types and those with shops). I observed the tricks and unethical practices of so-called estate sale "handlers."

An estate sale handler is (usually) an antique dealer who will come in after a death and organize the disposition of the estate. They set the prices, act as cashiers, and take a percentage of the "profit" as their fee. For a family that just can't bear to sell Grandma's things themselves, it can seem like a godsend. However, there are dangers to be aware of in using one of these people. While many are honest, there are just as many that are predatory and can really scam the family. Here are some things a family considering using a "handler" should watch for.

Dealers who bring in their own merchandise to sell. Most Estate sales are held in the deceased's home, and unethical dealers often bring their own wares to sell, passing it off to customers as part of the estate. Besides being dishonest, this also takes money away from the family. They do not get any part of the money earned from these items, and money spent on the dealer's items is money a customer doesn't have to spend on the real estate items. It should be clearly stated in any agreement that the dealer may not do this, and a family member or trusted friend should be present at the sale to make sure it doesn't happen.

Dealers who set unrealistic prices for everything. Most people know the price of a new toaster, common flatware, dishes, and other general household items, and realize the price of a used item should be substantially less. Unethical handlers will price everything unreasonably high, near retail, to discourage sales. Why? Because they've already made a deal with another dealer to sell it all to him/her at the end of the sale or, if the items are genuinely collectible, to discourage anyone from buying. Then, at the end of the sale, they will generously offer to buy everything themselves (for pennies on the dollar!) If the house is already sold and the family needs to clear it out quickly, they will usually agree.

Even if it's difficult, the family should do a walk-through after the pricing is finished to determine whether the prices are realistic. If they suspect Grandma has some valuable items, do the research (eBay is a good resource) to determine what can reasonably be expected. Unethical dealers will whip out a printed "Antique Price Guide" to try and convince you their prices are fair, but most print guides are out of date the day they hit the racks and, with the advent of sites like eBay, almost obsolete. Set rules at the outset that the dealer may not buy anything, and that anything left at the end of the sale will be donated to a charity thrift store (or to Grandma's church for their rummage sale). A dealer who won't agree to this should be shown the door.

One of the most important things a family can do to protect themselves is to have a family member or trusted friend present at all times during the sale. If you're certain Grandma didn't own any valuable antiques, an alternative to hiring an estate sale "handler" is to ask at a local church about who handles the church's rummage sales. See if this person is willing to manage the sale for a percentage of the profit to benefit the church. These folks are generally unflappable, have a good idea of realistic prices, and are honest.

"My Story" is a regular feature of The Dollar Stretcher. If you have a story that could help save time or money please send it by

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