Pat Miller and Frances Barnes gaze down at an ostensible madhouse of dinnerware, at least 10 full sets stacked with dinner plates, salad plates, soup bowls, saucers and cups. And let's not even talk about the glassware and baking dishes and serving platters and other kitchen items cramming in on all sides.
The sisters, though, are laser-focused on the dish sets, picking them up, putting them down, turning them over, and talking all the while.
"I was thinking these because they're just plain white," Barnes says as she picks up a bowl.
"That's good, because I've got the bigger bowls. I need the smaller bowls," answers Miller. "That, right there, the plain white. And I need two plates, two plain white plates."
Barnes is looking for green dinnerware, "but plain white will do if I can't find anything in green,"she says.
They discuss dish sizes, color choices, needs and don't-needs. The conversation is full of partial phrases and half sentences, the kind of small talk two sisters have when they can basically read the other's mind and know what the other is going to say before she says it.
"It'll take us an hour to put five dishes together, but we have fun," Miller says of scouring estate sales for such items.
» Go to the first day of the estate sale at the starting time. The best stuff usually goes quickly.
» Take cash. Some estate sales don’t take credit cards.
» It may sound gross, but sniff upholstered seating and bed treatments before buying them.
» Do ask if there are sale items in the garage, backyard, or in outbuildings. It’s not unusual, but those areas are easy to miss because you’re concentrating on shopping inside the house.
» Make a thorough inspection of everything you buy because most estate sales have a no-return policy.
» Keep an eye on estatesales.net and other online estate sale sites. They usually have times and dates well in advance of the actual sale. They also may have a few items from the sale already on the website for you to check out.
» Be willing to dicker, but not to the point where you’re obnoxious. If you’re there on the first day of the sale (and you should be, see above), don’t expect a lot of haggling to be done. It’s the last day of the sale when the prices may drop substantially.
» If you’re shopping for furniture or larger items, bring a truck or have access to one. You probably won’t be required to pick up your items on the first day, but you certainly must get back by the final day of the sale to haul off your stuff.
Fun for the sisters revolves around the thrill of the hunt. The two have been tag-teaming estate sales for years, but Barnes lives in Arkansas so they don't get as much time together as they'd like. Miller, who lives in Chattanooga, figures she goes to at least 12 estate sales each year — "Minimum," she says — but even if she doesn't go, she keeps up with what's out there by going online at estatesales.net or looking in the newspaper.
"I might not go every week, but I'm always following them," she says.
Miller is hardly alone. You can pretty much bet that, any time an estate sale is advertised, mobs will descend. Parking will be at a premium on the surrounding streets, cars lining the curb in numbers that amaze. A recent estate sale in the Emerald Valley subdivision in East Brainerd — where the "cheap" homes start at around $500,000 — saw at least 50 cars stretched through the winding neighborhood, forcing some people to walk as far as 200 yards or more to reach the home. And they did.
Don't confuse estate sales with yard or garage sales, which generally are smaller, with all the details handled by the homeowner. Estate sales usually are run by professional businesses that specialize in organizing, pricing and orchestrating the event. They are large, multi-day sales that encompass the entire house, including outbuildings such as garages and workshops, offering the chance to buy everything from feature furniture, kitchen utensils, tools and clothes, to cherished and higher-end items such as crystal, pottery and artwork.
While the general perception is that estate sales are held only after a death, that's not necessarily the case. In some instances, people just want to downsize when they're moving to a new home. And sometimes folks just want to get rid of all the clutter.
Maria Thompson, owner of MWT Estate Sales and a 20-year veteran of the business, says the attraction of a sale covers a lot of ground, both financial and psychological. Sure, the staple of all estate sales is the hunt for bargains, she says, but good buys don't just come down to money; they may also mean memories that marry seller and buyer.
For instance, when albums are involved, a buyer may flip through a box of vinyl LPs and suddenly find a record they used to own but lost in the shuffle of life. "It's the 'Oh, she's got albums so I'm going to go hunt through those albums,' then, 'Oh, look, it's the first album I ever bought!'" Thompson says.
Miller says memories are one of the reasons she frequents estate sales, and she believes it's the same for others. "I think that, for a lot of people, it's the things they had during childhood or things their grandparents had. It's memories; it's your heart," she says.
Sifting through 60 years' worth of stuff at an estate sale in East Ridge's Harris Hills neighborhood, Pam Balog says her mother collected thumbprint glass — so called because it's covered with indentations the size and shape of thumbprints — so she looks for it at every sale.
"I may not find it, but I always look for it," she says.
Other shoppers, though, aren't just strolling through a sale searching for something that catches their eye or relives their past. They're serious collectors hoping to find a valuable treasure that no one else recognizes.
Marie Turner and Pedro Campa say they average about two or three estate sales each weekend. "We're 'hardened criminals,'" she jokes.
They mainly keep their eyes peeled for shining sterling silver, sparkling crystal, antique linens and textiles, and vintage artworks — items that have the best chance for resale and a healthy profit, though Turner and Campa admit that some of their finds are simply keepers for them.
"Pedro can spot real stuff from across the room. He'll say, 'Look, there's a whatever,' and sure enough, it is," says Turner. "We say hope springs eternal, so we always hope we'll find a Faberge egg somewhere."
But even if they're not jewel-covered eggs worth millions, treasures are still out there to be had. Campa recalls a sale with a stack of perfect, handwoven linens. Everyone else passed them by with hardly a glance, he says, but he knew what they were the second he saw them: Laotian, Burmese and Afghani textiles worth a good bit of coin.
"It was a 'Score!' big time," he says.
Because he and Turner know exactly what they want, they can instantly tell which sales might have it and which won't just by reading the listing.
"You look at an address and you sort of make an appraisement of the address: 'Oh, this would be a good one,' or, 'This would be used kitchen stuff or rusty tools,'" Campa says, drawing from his years of experience hitting estate sales and selling what he finds, as well as keeping an eye on sales at online retailers such as eBay and consignment businesses.
It's a similar situation for Jim Blair, founder of Blair's Estate Sales, which has been in business for 36 years. After so many decades, he can pretty much instantly look at an item and determine a price that both makes a profit and also seems like a pretty good deal to customers.
Still, no matter the price listed on something, for some customers, dickering is part of the game and they expect all prices to be negotiable. When they're not, things can get heated.
Blair, whose company hosted the Emerald Valley sale, says his prices are not negotiable and he runs into customers who get ticked off because of that. But after so many years in the business, he's learned that respect and kindness will get you through a lot of tense moments.
"We talk about that before we open up each time," he says. "We talk about our responses when customers are not happy, and what we find is if you treat people very kindly, they respond very well. There's a lot of good people and they just wanted to be treated in a decent way."
Then there are shoppers who just want to see the house itself, to search through the items to get a feel for the family that lived there and perhaps take some of that emotion home.
"This couple lived in this house for 50 years. They found these items; they loved these things," says Thompson. " And they're going to go to someone like this woman who is so happy that she got this lamp for $25, and she's going to love it."
When all is said and done, she says each reason for prowling estate sales can be squeezed into one category: curiosity.
"I just find that folks are curious, and I don't find it to be disrespectful," Thompson says.
She understands the feeling completely.
"I'm kind of nosy," says Thompson. "As a kid, if you had a trunk, I wanted to know what was in that trunk. That's why this is a perfect job for me."