Selling your loved one’s household belongings

7 min read

Considerations when choosing an estate sale company

  • Are they a member of a national association? If they are an auctioneer, are they accredited? If an appraiser, are they certified?

  • How will the company charge for its services?

  • Do they provide itemized receipts for all items?

  • Does the company have good online reviews, and can they provide references? 

  • Is the company properly bonded and insured in the event that something goes wrong?

  • What is my gut telling me? Do I feel good about the people I will be working with?

One of the biggest jobs to tackle after someone you love passes away is figuring out what to do with all of their stuff, a task that can be made more difficult by both your grief and sentimental attachments to the things they owned. But after consulting the will and sorting through your loved one’s possessions, you may decide to sell some, most, or all of the things that they left behind.

Because any proceeds from selling items become part of your loved one’s estate, this task and all the decisions involved are up to the executor or administrator. It is always a good idea to consult with a lawyer and possibly the probate court before making any major decisions about sales. It is also important to keep lines of communication open with the family and other beneficiaries to avoid any disagreements about what can be or needs to be sold. Depending on the amount of stuff you’re dealing with, you might feel like this is a task you can handle on your own, or you may need to enlist their help with the sales as well.

How and where to sell things

If you are looking to sell a relatively small number of items, you can hold a traditional garage sale out of your own home, or join a group effort like a rummage sale at a local church, synagogue, or community center. 

You may also decide to list and sell individual items online through local or neighborhood-based sites, or much bigger, well-known, and established online marketplaces. There are lots of options for selling online, so if you decide to go this route, do a little research to make sure you’re making the right choice for the items and your needs. Some online sites will take a percentage of your sales, so be aware of this as well.

If you come across some items that you suspect might be worth a significant amount of money, you can do a little digging online to get a sense of what they might be worth, but seeking out the opinion of a professional appraiser can bring you peace of mind and tell you definitively what something is worth.

Appraisals may be required by law under certain circumstances. Appraisers can typically be hired at an hourly rate; if there is an auction house in your area, they often offer free appraisals in the hopes of earning a commission on a sale later on down the line. 

How estate sales work

If you are looking to sell the contents of an entire home relatively quickly, an estate or tag sale is probably a better option. You and the rest of your loved one’s family members can manage an estate liquidation sale on their own, but this is a big job with a lot of moving parts, and likely to be an ambitious undertaking with both logistical and emotional challenges. 

It is completely natural and normal to feel conflicted about selling a loved one’s belongings.

This is where hiring a professional estate sale company can prove enormously helpful. Such a company will bring in professional liquidators to set up the sale, appraise every item involved, designate estate sale pricing, and clean out the property once the sale is finished. A good estate sale company will work with the family to decide if they should sell their items locally, regionally, or nationally. They can also organize, tag, and stage the items for sale and temporarily transform the home into a retail space that is open to the public at a specific time and date—generally over a weekend. 

The sale can even become a bit of an event with music and refreshments, similar to a realtor’s open house. It is strongly recommended that you do not attend the sale yourself, as it may bring up difficult feelings to watch strangers joyfully digging through your loved one’s belongings to find treasures.

Estate sales typically include whatever usable items are left in the home; clothes, jewelry, furniture, and appliances. But as the appraisers are cataloging the contents of the home, they may earmark particularly valuable items to set aside to be included in a more formal auction. This typically means art, antiques, and historical artifacts, but it can be anything. Professional appraisers have the expert knowledge and experience to identify these types of big-ticket items. 

Finding an estate sale company

Hiring an estate sale company can be an enormous relief and source of support, but it’s important to be diligent in your search for the right company. The estate sale industry is not regulated by any formal guidelines, so there is no specific certification or education required to do the job. Liquidators typically have some sort of background in the industry, whether it’s as an auctioneer, an antiques dealer, a professional appraiser, etc. Professional auctioneers do need to be certified, and appraisers often must be accredited, so if they don’t have this information readily posted, you can ask directly. There are also organizations like the National Estate Sale Association and the American Society of Estate Liquidators that require companies to be in good standing in order to become members and to display their official logos. 

Most estate sale companies will charge a percentage of the sale’s gross profits. This rate can typically range anywhere from 30% to 50%. Some companies offer extra services for an additional fee, such as trash removal and post-sale cleaning. Look into how the company charges for its services so you understand exactly what you’re paying for.

Check that the company has good online reviews and can provide references, and that they provide itemized receipts for all items. They also need to be properly bonded and insured in the event that anything goes wrong. Even if a company checks all the right boxes, the personal element is the most important, so trust your gut and make sure that you have a good feeling about the people you will be working with. 

Sorting through a lifetime of possessions is a daunting task under any circumstances, but grief can make the difficult feel impossible. Some people find solace in sorting, cleaning and categorizing items, but others may find it very daunting.

It is important to remember that it is completely natural and normal to feel awful, conflicted feelings about selling a loved one’s belongings.

You may feel frustration and anger that there is so much work to do, or because you have to sell these items to raise money to pay off debts. Or you may find yourself feeling guilty about selling your loved one’s things for money.

Try to be patient with yourself and, if possible, allow yourself some space and time to sort through your emotions as well as your loved one’s personal property.

You are going to feel what you are going to feel; in the end, it is important to prioritize what is best for your loved one’s estate, their memory, and most of all you and your family.

You may be eligible for free bereavement support. Empathy can help with everything from funeral planning to estate administration, with step-by-step guidance and real-time expert support. Many people get free premium access to Empathy as a benefit with their life insurance claim. We partner with New York Life, Guardian Life Insurance Company, Bestow, Lemonade, and other leading carriers. When you make your life insurance claim, talk to your representative about whether Empathy is a benefit they offer.