What is an Estate Sale?

When a person dies, someone the decedent or a court has selected to act as their representative must settle their estate. This can be a surviving relative, friend, or an attorney. An estate comprises everything that a decedent owned (such as property, vehicles, furniture, and other belongings) and owed (including taxes).

How Does an Estate Sale Factor into Probate?

Probate is a legal process that varies by state and occurs after someone dies. If the decedent had a will or trust, this document details how to distribute the estate among any survivors.

However, if any beneficiary or creditor disagree, or if there was no will (known as dying intestate), probate involves court supervision and approval of what happens to the decedent’s property.

An estate administrator – also called the decedent’s personal representative or executor – typically files an application or petition with the county probate court where the decedent lived. After notifying any heirs, creditors, and other interested parties named in a will, the executor takes an inventory of the decedent’s assets and liabilities to determine the estate’s worth. Read our article about estate administrator responsibilities.

The estate is insolvent if the decedent had no will or had more debts than assets. Therefore, the estate administrator must sell some or all the assets to pay the outstanding debts.

An estate sale comes into play when the decedent’s belongings are in good general condition, and the total value is greater than $3,000, according to the National Estate Sales Association (NESA), a nonprofit organization since 2015.

How to Have an Estate Sale

There are several ways to host an estate sale, including hiring an estate sale company or concierge.

Although survivors might think they simply advertise the sale online or through a newspaper or even post signs around the neighborhood, an estate sale has more complicated legal aspects than a yard sale or garage sale. Remember: the proceeds are earmarked for the decedent’s creditors.

An estate sale concierge or estate liquidator helps handle the organization and planning of the sale, including advertising and appraising items based on market value. They have strategic pricing and usually stage the location for an optimal customer experience. They typically post details of sales online to reach many potential buyers. NESA says that a reputable estate sale company operates under a specific code of ethics. They also can clean the home, remove all trash, have staff assist customers, and manage traffic flow.

Like any business, professionalism, transparency in pricing and customer reviews will help in deciding who to hire. The Better Business Bureau lists estate sales companies.

In addition, an estate sale company can handle different payment forms, including checks, debit cards, and credit cards, which can move along high-end items more easily. These companies also often discount items at certain percentages over several days to ensure sales.

Who Pays for an Estate Sale?

The estate pays for the sale, even if the estate administrator takes on the process themselves. Any current assets or the sale’s proceeds cover advertising and other costs.

An estate sale company or concierge receives their payment as a percentage of the sale’s gross profit. According to NESA, some charge a flat percentage; others use a sliding scale.

The average commission rate was 37% in 2019 for estate sale companies listed on EstateSales.NET, a website with over 30 million page views each month listing estate sales nationwide. The average gross per sale from those companies that year was $19,000, EstateSales.NET says.

Some estate sale companies charge additional fees for after-sale cleanup, trash removal, and other services.

Are There Items That Can’t Be Sold at an Estate Sale?

Although furniture and jewelry are often popular estate sale items, there are some items that every state prohibits at an estate sale, based on age-related and other legal restrictions. These can include:

  • Alcohol, tobacco, drugs, e-cigarette products, and drug paraphernalia. However, selling an empty tobacco pipe or collectible empty container (such as a wooden cigar box or empty bottle) is okay, according to EstateSales.NET.
  • Live animals, any items made from endangered or protected species, and items made from animals (including feathers and ivory).
  • Pornographic items or those depicting realistic nudity.
  • Baby gear such as cribs, high chairs, and car seats, which might have safety recalls.
  • Counterfeit items, including bootleg copies of TV shows and movies, knockoff designer clothing, and counterfeit money.
  • Firearms, explosives, and other destructive devices. (A seller who has a Federal Firearms License may legally transfer a firearm; again, this varies by state.)
  • Intangible items, such as cryptocurrency, coupons, and gift cards.

What Happens to Anything Left Over After an Estate Sale?

Even with a professional estate sale company involved, some items simply don’t sell. About 73% of these companies donate unsold items to charity. Roughly 59% told EstateSales.NET that they leave unsold items with their client; about 41% of them said they dispose of them.

An estate administrator might try listing unsold items on eBay, Craigslist, or other online classified ads before donating them.

Experts recommend consulting with a hazardous waste disposal company for removing items such as:

  • Paint
  • Fertilizer and other lawn care products
  • Automotive products, such as motor oil
  • Pool chemicals
  • Craft supplies, such as photography chemicals and adhesives
  • Propane and lighter fluid
  • Household cleaners, such as carpet cleaner or furniture polish
  • Rechargeable batteries

Hazardous waste disposal is typically not free, and can be a bit of a pain for survivors to manage. In some states, a utility bill (maybe water, garbage, recycle, i.e., usually a government entity) from the residence is required along with payment for disposal at a haz-mat station. Hauling it off may cost more money if the disposal station is far away or if transportation is an issue.

For any other trash, options include hiring a junk-hauling company to remove it or renting a dumpster for about $200 to $800 per week, depending on size.


Having an estate sale depends on many factors. The most important thing to remember is that the expenses incurred and income gained from an estate sale for a decedent’s belongings is part of the estate, not the survivors’.

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Kubloss, Inc. (dba EstateGrid) has placed the information on this website as a service to the general public. It is not intended as legal, financial, or health advice or as a substitute for the particularized advice of a qualified professional. It is provided as is without warranty of any kind, either express or implied, including but not limited to, the implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, or non‐infringement.