8 tips for selling heirloom family furniture

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Life is hard enough when a family member dies. But the stress can be compounded when those left are faced with a home full of heirloom furnishings. To make matters worse, the second-hand furniture market is quite small. Instead of bulky antiques, today’s young homeowners prefer smaller pieces that are versatile and easy to move around.

After 25 years of appraisal and resale work (plus a few years to help my mom downsize), I have some advice for those overwhelmed with legacy furniture. Here are some tips for winding it all down (and preserving your sanity).

1. Start early

An elderly father has a serious conversation with his adult son
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In an ideal situation, you could start liquidating furniture before you inherit it.

Invite your parents or grandparents to have an open conversation about their plans. Do they hope to eventually reduce their workforce? How could their home be redesigned to better suit their current lifestyle? Could large dressers, unused bedroom sets or formal dining room furniture be gone now?

Position the idea as a way to streamline the home for safer aging in place. Less furniture means less tripping hazards, less cleaning and maintenance, and less worry.

Remember that leaving possessions behind can be a deeply emotional journey. Be sensitive and respect the decision made by your loved one.

To learn more, check out: “8 Essential Home Features for Aging in Place”.

2. Know what you have

Used Furniture Appraiser
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Knowing what’s happening in the market is key to assessing value and therefore understanding the options you have for liquidation.

For example, Victorian or Colonial style furniture is notoriously hard to sell. I’ve seen sideboards and dressers taken to landfill after an auction or estate sale because no one was willing to pay even $5 for them.

On the other hand, mid-century furniture couldn’t be warmer. Buyers will happily compete for price on pieces from Heywood-Wakefield, Eames and Herman Miller.

Take a close look at the furniture you inherited. Figure out what time period it fits in, research a maker’s mark, and look for comparable sales on eBay or 1stDibs.

3. Organize an estate sale

Real estate sale sign
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Sometimes called a “tag sale,” an estate sale is a great way to liquidate furniture without having to move it first. Buyers enter the house, buy at an advance price (or tagged) items, buy what they like and take it with them or schedule a pickup time.

Many real estate sales hosts hand out numbers and only allow five to 10 people in the house at a time. This not only controls the crowds, but allows shoppers to consider each item without feeling competition from the crowd of other shoppers.

Pro Tip: Market bulky and outdated furniture by suggesting how it could be repurposed. At an estate sale last summer, I noticed the hosts had attached cute little signs to hutches, curio cabinets, and stereo consoles. Each sign offered a different creative idea.

For more pro tips, read: “11 Domain Buying Selling Tips From An Expert”.

4. Put it up for auction

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A domestic auction can be conducted onsite, at an auction house, or at a rented location. Although fees vary widely, a 10% to 15% commission on gross sales is the norm.

Auctions are a good choice for time-constrained families who need everything completely liquidated. Generally, anything that doesn’t sell becomes the responsibility of the auction service.

The potential downside? Most auctions are completed in a single day. Bad weather and other uncontrollable circumstances can reduce attendance and affect overall sales.

5. Sell via consignment

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When you consign an item, you agree to sell it through a third party vendor and share the product. Although fees vary by store and item, consignment stores typically keep 40% of the sale price of the furniture.

Consignment works best for those with unusual or valuable furniture. This buys the seller time – time to find the right buyer and hopefully maximize value.

Be Prepared: To maximize every square inch of showroom space, consignment stores need to be selective. Staff will refuse items they deem too hard to sell.

See also: “Where to sell your stuff for the best price?”

6. Work with a clearance service

woman inspecting antique furniture
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Working with an estate executor is similar to coordinating an estate sale, but the executor takes care of everything. Tasks typically include:

  • Estimate and pricing
  • Setting up, advertising and animation of the sale
  • Delivery (for items sold online)
  • Clean up and donate unsold items
  • Issue payment and provide relevant documents for tax purposes

According to EstateSales.org, established businesses can charge a commission rate of 25% to 45%. But for sellers who live outside the area, having a local professional to handle everything can be worth the price.

7. Be (very) flexible on the price

couple buying furniture in second hand store
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People tend to overvalue furniture that has been in the family for a generation or two. It’s completely understandable – your parents cherished this huge buffet, so why doesn’t the rest of the world?

Remember that styles and tastes change. Instead of clinging to rigid price expectations, listen to the market and be prepared to trade. If it helps, consider all the moving and long-term storage costs you’ll avoid by selling quickly.

8. Give it away

Goodwill thrift store
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Share the love! Invite your close friends and family to choose pieces of furniture to keep for them. This can be especially useful for young families or young families trying to furnish their first home.

To avoid quarrels, establish some ground rules. Be clear about pick-up times and who is responsible for loading and transporting.

If your friends and family aren’t interested, donate to Goodwill or list parts on Freecycle.

Disclosure: The information you read here is always objective. However, we sometimes receive compensation when you click on links in our stories.

About Oscar L. Smith

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