Take a little advice from someone who’s been there and who’s done that. I recently recovered from the trauma of having a “professional” run an estate sale at Mom’s house. Eventually, many of us will have to go through the process of getting rid of Mom’s or Dad’s or Aunt Mary’s stuff. And, you may be going through grief as-well-as encountering some serious time constraints. There may be a home sale in the works, and you may be taking a short leave from work, and perhaps you live out of state. Whatever the reason, estate sales are rarely held under peaceful conditions. Some professional estate sale opportunists are banking on it!
Finding a professional who knows the value of antiques and who can correctly price general household items, who is able to organize the entire house for optimum sales appeal, and then can arrange for the donation of whatever doesn’t sell to charity (subject to an owner walk-through following the sale) and insure that it’s carted off, can be a tremendous help.
Estate sales professionals usually have a crew who will take several days to set up display shelves and tables, and will organize the entire house, and photograph the items to put online. Most of the professionals take credit cards at the sales, which actually encourages more sales. Additionally, the professional advertises the sale in local newspapers and on the internet, posts signs, and does a light cleaning after the sale is over. During the sale the owner is expected to be away from the sale. But, all things considered, having a good professional to run the sale can be a life saver.
I thought I did all the right things. I called several antique stores for names of professionals. I used the internet to research estate sales in general and made a list of important tips. I compiled a list of local estate liquidators. I interviewed at least six professionals on the phone and two in person. I asked for references and called them. Finally, I picked the one who seemed to be the most experienced, the most knowledgeable, the most self-assured, and the one who actually was busiest. She definitely impressed me the most and gave me the link to the listing of her current estate sale, which featured pictures of the items for sale online.
During her initial walk-through I asked her questions about several of Mom’s antiques just to see what she would say. She wasn’t at all afraid to venture a guess as to the values and she was pretty on the mark. She seemed very up-front and at ease. As a matter of fact, during our first phone call she brought up her references even before I did. None of the other professionals had done that!
Following that face-to-face interview, I told her she was hired. She was pretty booked up but we had to have the sale within 30 days and before the closing of the house sale. We picked the only weekend she had available. The sale would be in two short weeks. Good grief! How would I be able to go through all of the rooms and closets and go through every drawer to gather and box half a century of Mom’s personal items?
She jumped right in. “That’s our job! You don’t have to do a thing. You don’t have to lift a finger. We will go through everything, every drawer, every book, every corner and box up all of her personal effects for you before setting up for the sale.”
She then presented her contract and told us we could take it home, go over it at our leisure, and then give it to her signed when we would give her the house key. That seemed reasonable. The two-page contract was very comprehensive and outlined everything I would do and everything she would do. It was clearly outlined what her percentage of the total sales would be depending upon the total amount of sales. If sales were under $5,000 the commission would be adjusted from 35% to 40% percent for her. There was a section for special provisions and her contract said that she “would provide the owner with a sales summary, copies of receipts recorded during the sale, and a check for the amount due to owner within (15) fifteen business days following the conclusion of the sale.” Due to the fact that she was taking credit cards during the sale, I could understand the need for some lag-time before settling accounts.
It bothered me that she seemed a little too enthusiastic about boxing up Mom’s personal items. I thought to myself: No, I don’t think so. So we spent that two weeks going through everything and boxing up all of Mom’s personal things, and we took them home to go over in our leisure. I photographed every room from every angle. Just in case. You never know.
We met again and I signed the contract and gave her the house key. Almost immediately I began to have more concerns. Nothing I could really put my finger on. Call it a gut-level feeling. I noticed that I was the only one who signed the contract. There was no place for her signature. That bothered me just a little.
Then, right after our professional got set up for the sale; we went over and photographed the set-up in every room, from every angle. Again, just in case. You never know.
Another thing. . . Once our professional got the job she seemed to change just a bit. She was in total control and in very subtle ways she let me know that our sale was her show.
The last day of the sale I was a nervous wreck. We drove to the house just as the sale was closing. Everything appeared to be OK. There were a lot of customers even late in the day. She didn’t seem flustered that we showed up. After the sale closed, we did a walk-through and selected a room to place items that we didn’t want donated to charity. We didn’t push her to look at the sales receipts. After we left it dawned upon me that her contract didn’t even have her physical address listed and all I had to get in touch with her was her two phone numbers and a Yahoo e-mail address.
Fifteen business days turns out to be about 21 actual days. And as each day passed I became more and more concerned. My daughter did a Better Business Bureau search on her company and discovered that it had an F rating. It was the only report on her business and not detailed but it was filed around the time of our sale, so we wouldn’t have known about it when we hired her.
Now I was a complete wreck. Fifteen business days came and went and we didn’t hear from her and we didn’t get any money. We started calling and e-mailing her.
On the 15th business day following the estate sale, I e-mailed her looking for our money. Our professional responded that "your check and the receipts will be sent to you this week, it will be sent via certified mail."
When we did not receive the check in three more days we again contacted her. She provided us with a postal tracking # for the certified mail which turned out to be invalid. As a matter of fact that, "certified letter" never has arrived.
We contacted her and insisted that she meet us in person to provide us with a check. She met us at a local Denny's in Fort Worth the next day and was in a hurry because she said that her father had died and she had to get a burial plot that morning. She gave us three books of sales receipts and a personal check for our take of the sales and left. She failed to provide us with a sales summary.
While sitting in Denny’s, my husband and I immediately went over the sales receipts and discovered that there was no receipt for one of the more valuable items in the estate sale, a complete set of sterling silver. Additionally we noticed that all the sales receipts looked very neat. I immediately called her and she answered her phone and said that she remembered that she had sold the silver on E-Bay for $700.00 "prior to the estate sale" and that's why she forgot the receipt (and the money) which wasn't accounted for. She promised to put a check in the mail for our take on that item that day.
We left Denny’s went to cash her check at her bank and they ended up having to call her due to some issues with her account, and then charging us $6.00 since we didn’t have an account at that bank. I even had to give my finger prints just to cash her check.
Naturally, the check for the sliver didn't arrive when promised either. It was four days later and I e-mailed her. She responded: "The money for the flatware has been mailed to you, it is in the form of a postal money order."
The next day I e-mailed her "When was the money mailed and what was the amount?" She replied “It was the 700.00 minus the 35 percent and you should have today.”
We finally did receive our money that day.
Although our professional seemed to have put on a fairly good estate sale, offered, without asking, to provide references, set up the house and items well, and advertised adequately, and got the donated items to charity, and left a fairly clean house, she has shoddy bookkeeping methods, she failed to provide a sales summary, and did not settle up within the 15 business days, and she had to be hunted down for us to get our money. I suspect that this is her usual M.O.
I also suspect that most folks who need professional estate sales services are grieving family members who have so much on their minds that they can't keep up, or more to the point – follow up. They aren’t the kind of people who are used to having to physically hunt down someone for money. I suspect that's what she counts upon!!! I suspect that there are a lot of so-called “opportunity professionals” out there just like her.
Although I did some things quite well, I overlooked some important things that could have spelled disaster. What would I do differently?
I’d take charge from the start and I’d listen to my gut.
I’d check the local Better Business Bureau immediately and use several different search categories until I was satisfied that my professional didn’t have a bad BBB record.
I’d make changes or addendums to the contract that would include the estate sale professional’s signature and complete contact information including a physical address and his or her driver’s license number and perhaps even finger prints.
I’d shorten the lag time following the sale to about 10 business days or less.
I’d be there every afternoon at the close of the sale to look at the receipt books.
I’d take daily photographs if necessary and most of all, I’d let this person know in no uncertain terms that: You work for me!!!
What tips do you have to share???