The Truth About Estate Sales

An unscrupulous estate-sale agent might steal sale proceeds or sale items. An unqualified agent might underprice items or take no security measures at the sale, which makes it easier for someone else to steal during the sale.

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In the wake of her brother’s death in 2009, Diana Kyle believed that she could trust the estate-sale agent who was in charge of liquidating her childhood home. She lived in Los Angeles, and the home was in Roanoke, Va., so when she found an agent who had gone to the same high school as she had and who promised terms that seemed favorable, Kyle agreed to hire him to help her to liquidate decades of furniture, books and various collectibles that had to be emptied from the 1920s-era mansion.

However, getting the agent to cough up Kyle’s $20,000 share of the sale proceeds was a nightmare. Several months after the sale concluded, Kyle received only a few thousand dollars. A few months later, a separate check for $6,000 bounced. Even though Kyle badgered the agent over the phone for a year, she received only a little more than half of the $20,000.

So when Kyle had to sell some of her own things in Los Angeles in 2011, she met with an estate-sale agent who was recommended by several friends and grilled her about her experience and checked her references. Kyle was pleased that the agent returned calls promptly and discussed the details of the contract.

“It was lovely,” she says of her second experience. “Everything was inventoried after being appraised, and I got all the money [from the sale] within 2 weeks.”

Kyle’s wildly different experiences illustrate what can go wrong in an estate sale and what should go right. Unfortunately, the potential for consumers to get ripped off at their estate sale only will grow as an increasing number of baby boomers relocate parents to assisted-living facilities and liquidate their assets. The estate-sale industry is burgeoning, largely unregulated and ripe for exploitation by scam artists or even by sloppy estate-sale agents. Estate-sale agents have no state licensing requirements. When things go wrong, the only recourse for most people is to take the agent to small-claims court, which can be an experience akin to milking money from a stone.

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“There’s good and bad in all occupations. In this one, it just happens to be easier to fool people,” says Julie Hall, who owns American Society of Estate Liquidators, which trains estate-sale agents to run organized sales and to avoid conflicts of interest, such as buying items at the sales that they run.

It’s clear to us that consumers must guard against the possibility of problems at every stage of an estate sale. The most egregious example is when an estate-sale agent takes all of the money and runs, but you also have to watch out for estate-sale agents who intentionally overprice the most valuable items so if nobody buys them, the agent can offer to take the items off your hands at a steep discount—and resell them for a nice profit later. Other risks include hiring an agent who underprices items, which means that you won’t get the appropriate value during the sale, or an agent who provides little or no security at a sale, which can make it easier for people to steal items.

We would love to tell you that you can take concrete steps to protect yourself from an unscrupulous or an inexperienced estate-sale agent, but even the most helpful advice that experts pass along can’t guarantee that you won’t run into problems. Unfortunately, if you get ripped off by an estate-sale agent, you should know that, even under the best of circumstances, trying to get your money back can be a losing proposition.

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