There’s nothing like an L.A. estate sale: How to find true treasures at the best price
By Kailin Brown
Originally Published in the LA Times on May 1, 2023
Photo Caption: Decorations purchased from estate sales are displayed on the dining room table of Amy Solomon and her boyfriend, Greg Kestenbaum, at their home in Glendale. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)
As Amy Solomon made her way to the royal blue entrance of a Hollywood home on a sunny Friday afternoon, a bevy of enthusiastic shoppers scurried past, clutching items ranging from flourishing fiddle leaf fig trees and snake plants to ’80s-style garments and antique china. These were the goods they’d scored at an estate sale for late actress Audrey Marlyn Singer, a co-founder of the nonprofit Actors Forum Theatre.
Solomon, 31, had just missed the rush of patrons who’d come early to get their hands on authentic Mart Stam dining room chairs — which typically cost upwards of $800 each but sold for roughly $250 due to wear and tear — and vintage pendant trumpet lights. But Solomon wasn’t worried about missing out. She wanted to search for tchotchkes and other quirky items for her home in peace.
Every week, there are at least a few estate sales, also sometimes called “tag sales,” happening in L.A. It’s not just celebrity treasures that are up for grabs, but also the beloved belongings of everyday people, as well as items from TV shows and films that have stopped production and defunct businesses like women’s co-working space the Wing, which in March attracted hundreds of shoppers seeking something cool for a bargain price.
“I was at a sale where the person was a magician, and he had a stage with all the props, and it was unreal,” says Mahan Safaei, owner of Golden Age Estate Sales, which hosted Singer’s recent estate sale. “And then two houses down, you have a Victorian house that’s full of antiques from 200 years ago. So there’s just a variety of stuff. You never know what a house might have inside of it.”
The most common reasons people have estate sales are known as the three Ds: death, divorce and downsizing. So, unlike shopping at a yard sale or thrift store, where you might pick up an item someone has decided they no longer want (and would like a little cash for), an estate sale offers the chance to shop a curated collection the owner, for whatever reason, can no longer hold on to.
“I look at [estate sales] as someone passing on their items so other people can enjoy them and get good use out of them,” says 30-year-old Dash Anderson, who’s been going to estate sales since she was a child. “I feel honored to touch something that someone else has touched and it’s not just being thrown out. I’m also finding use and meaning out of these items, and I can hopefully pass them on to someone else” someday.
Since the pandemic, there’s been an uptick in Gen Z shoppers going to sales to find distinctive pieces, especially vintage clothing and accessories, thanks to influencers like Solomon and “thrift queen” Macy Eleni of Beverly Hills, who runs the Blazed and Glazed accounts chronicling her estate sale finds on TikTok and YouTube.
“So much of my audience are younger people and Gen Zers who are so into sustainable fashion and want to learn different ways to shop,” says Eleni. “It feels like a whole different world from when I went to my first estate sale in 2020, and I was in line with 10 other people who were in their 50s and 60s. Now, there’s like massive lines of every demographic.”
Figuring out how to tackle the enchanting world of L.A. estate sales can feel daunting, but the best way to learn is from the experts. (I was new to this world too, having just attended my first sale in November.) I spoke to social media influencers, estate sale liquidators — essentially, the people who host the sales — and folks I met while shopping to get tips for finding the best ones, dodging lengthy lines and securing an item you desperately want.
Shopping sustainably, saving money and exploring a possibly famous stranger’s home for one-of-a-kind pieces is a fun weekend activity in and of itself. And it’s even better when you go home with an amazing item you’ve found.
Start by reading the listing
Ask any estate sale aficionado how they find estate sales, and they’ll likely direct you to estatesales.net — the industry’s premier site — which chronicles sales nationwide and lets you set filters by ZIP Code. The listings are typically submitted by estate sale liquidators or private individuals, according to a representative from the site. Note that not all estate sales take place at people’s houses; some are held online or at businesses that are shutting down, for example.
Once you’ve found a sale — or a few — you’d like to visit, carefully read through the entire listing. This is where you’ll find valuable information such as what time the sale starts and ends, whether there’s going to be a sign-up sheet or it’s by appointment only, how early you can start lining up at the property and what payment forms are accepted. Many estate sale liquidators accept payments via credit card or digital apps like Venmo or Zelle, but some sales are cash only. Pro tip: Legal tender reigns supreme at estate sales and can increase your odds with haggling. Also, the full address for where an estate sale will be held typically isn’t unveiled until the morning it launches.
The listings commonly feature photos of the items that will be available for purchase but don’t always show everything. For this reason, it’s wise to read the text description as well, which may include more details on things you can buy, says Solomon of Estate Sale Freaks. Some of the best stuff might not even be mentioned in a listing.
The pictures “can give you a sense of the kind of stuff there might be, but then when you go, it’s like, ‘Oh, they didn’t even capture anywhere near the amount of stuff that’s here,’” says Solomon. “So there’s always this question mark of what’s there, and if I don’t go, I’ll never know.”
Don’t judge a house by its exterior
Just because an estate sale isn’t being held at a sumptuous home in Beverly Hills or Bel-Air, that doesn’t mean that you won’t find any gems. Dan Jordan, owner of Again L.A. Estate Sales, mentions an estate sale years ago run by a family in South Los Angeles.
“The mom had been a housekeeper in Beverly Hills,” he says, and “she had the most amazing stuff — really old crystal, fine china, antiques and things you would’ve never pictured.”
If you’re trying to avoid long lines, Solomon recommends going to estate sales that are off the beaten path or even on the outskirts of L.A. County.
“At Silver Lake or Los Feliz estate sales, people are going to see the signs in the neighborhood and will just walk up,” says Solomon, who waited in line for two hours to get into a Silver Lake sale once. “But if you go to Sherman Oaks or Northridge or Covina, those places are probably going to be pretty damn chill.”
If you’re visiting a neighborhood for the first time because of an estate sale, Solomon recommends making a day of it and finding a coffee or lunch spot to visit afterward.
Discounts come to those who wait — but not too long
If you’ve spotted something you really want in a listing, you have to be strategic about it.
On the first day of a sale, hosts typically are not flexible with pricing. If there’s an item you just can’t imagine your life without, you should buy it right then and there, according to the experts.
By the second day, there’s typically a price cut — sometimes 25% off or more — on the remaining items. The discount continues to increase — sometimes to as low as 75% off — throughout the rest of the sale, which could last multiple days.
You’ve got to weigh how much you want things and whether you’re willing to wait until the last day to get stuff really cheap — but also risk losing it, says Solomon. “And if you’re an absolute estate sale freak, you could go back” and buy the item that you were on the fence about at a lower price if it’s still there.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
When I attended my first estate sale in November at a Beverly Hills home, a stunning vintage Teac A-7010 tape recorder caught my attention. As I brushed my hand along one of its wheels in awe — I wasn’t familiar with the device beforehand — I felt like I was breaking some sort of trespassing law. Not only had I been given free rein to roam through a stranger’s home — minus a few blocked-off sections — but I could also forage through their prized possessions. I eventually felt more at ease once I saw other people slinging open kitchen cabinets, peeking under bed frames and rummaging through closets without any interference.
Solomon urges first-timers to be confident when they go to an estate sale while also being polite. After all, you are a guest in someone’s home. “It’s very egalitarian,” she says. “There’s all sorts of people going through there, so you won’t look weird. There’s no way you could look weird.”
When Solomon found a 1969 Uten Silo — an aesthetically pleasing desk organizer worth upwards of $500 — selling for $8 at an estate sale, she boldly asked the host if she could borrow a screwdriver to remove it from the wall. “They’re ready to help you,” Solomon says. As long as the estate sale host isn’t busy with other customers, “ask them whatever you want,” adds Safaei of Golden Estate Sales.
Some estate sales also have a hold table where you can reserve items temporarily — that way you don’t have to carry them around as you’re shopping. There’s usually a staffer keeping an eye on the table so you don’t have to worry about someone swiping your reserved item. And if you buy a heavy item like a couch or mattress, some hosts will let you keep it on site for a while so you have time to borrow your friend’s truck or rent a U-Haul.
Haggle, but don’t be a jerk about it
A key difference between estate sales and other secondhand shopping experiences, like yard sales, is that the seller knows how much the items are worth. It’s their job to do the research and set the price of the items they’re selling. Plus, they’re in this to make money for their client too.
So, yes, you can absolutely bargain with the seller. “But don’t haggle like an a—,,” says Monica Tyson, 29, who owns Vintage Finds Estate Sales, an L.A.-based estate liquidation company. “If someone says $100, don’t say $20.”
“That’s why, if you want the best deal, go the last day because they’re just trying to get rid of everything,” Eleni of Blazed and Glazed advises. “Then you’re going to be able to get a couch for super cheap, because no one else can move it, and they just want to get it out of the house.”
Also, being respectful to the estate sale host can get you a long way: Eleni, who’s set to release a book about secondhand shopping in spring 2024, notes the number of people who have given her discounts “or items literally for free with my batch of things because I’m just being kind and friendly to them. So be nice, go in with a really good attitude and have an open mind for what an item can become, not just what it is.”
Moving forward, I’ll no longer consider stores like IKEA, Living Spaces or CB2 as the essential shops for bringing my Pinterest board to life. Instead, I’ll start my hunts at local estate sales for rare items that will make my space stand out from those on my Instagram feed — or at least spark a fun conversation when my friends come over.