In this day and age, you can do (pretty much) anything online that you can do in person. And that includes many aspects of end-of-life planning, like organizing and carrying out an estate sale.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How Do Online Estate Sales and Auctions Usually Work?
- Steps for Planning on Online Estate Sale or Auction
If you’ve inherited a house full of stuff, or you’re the executor of an estate, an online estate sale or auction could help simplify the process of getting rid of things. And hosting your estate sale online means you’ll encounter more bidders, too, which means you could earn more money.
But how do you plan and conduct an online estate sale or auction? We’ll walk you through the whole process, step by step, below.
Post-planning tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, it's tough to handle both the emotional and technical aspects of their unfinished business like estate management without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.
How Do Online Estate Sales and Auctions Usually Work?
In many ways, an online estate sale or auction works much like the offline, in-person version. But instead of the bidding taking place in your home or at an auction house, it’s hosted entirely online.
If you want to host an online estate sale, there are essentially two ways to go about it:
- Online auction websites. You can post your items, one-by-one, on an online auction site like eBay.
- Professional liquidators. The more common option is to work with a professional liquidator, who posts the items for you.
After you’ve posted your items up for sale (or had a liquidator do so), people can begin bidding. If you’ve ever bid on an item on eBay, that’s just how an online estate sale works. You can choose a minimum sell price for each of the items you want to sell. Often, online estate shoppers are looking for unique vintage items, so those tend to sell the fastest.
The website you’re using, whether it’s a direct, person-to-person auction site or an estate liquidation service, will take a percentage of your sales.
Steps for Planning on Online Estate Sale or Auction
In some ways, planning an online estate sale or auction is easier than planning one in person. You don’t have to move your furniture and belongings right away, and you don’t have to set aside an entire weekend to host the sale.
But planning an online estate sale can still be complex and confusing. And complexity is the last thing you want to deal with when you’re hosting an auction, whether you’re cleaning out a parent’s house or just getting rid of your own old stuff.
If you’re ready to get started with an online estate sale, we’ve laid out the steps for you.
Step 1: Make a list
First, take out a pen and paper (or open up a word processor), and make a list of all the items you want to sell in the estate auction. It might help to walk around, from room to room, and look at things one-by-one.
As you’re listing the items, jot down some quick notes about each one. These don’t have to be detailed; we’ll write more complete descriptions later on. But it’s a good idea to take note of things like brand, color, and size now. If you know the year something was produced, that’s even better.
If you’re unsure whether or not you want to list some items, you can give columns to your list. Put those things you’re unsure about in the “maybe not” column.
Step 2: Do some research
Now, take your list and set aside some time to research each item. What you’re looking for is what identical (or similar) items tend to sell for, as well as where they’re listed online.
Search online marketplaces, like eBay and Etsy, to find items similar to yours. Search by details like the date the item was made and the material, as well as the brand of the item.
If you have an item that you think might be especially valuable, it might be worth hiring the services of an appraiser in your area. Older books are also often worth appraising or at least investing some research time.
Step 3: Add approximate prices to your list
As you research the items you want to list for sale, jot down approximate prices for each one. These prices don’t have to be exact; the service you choose to list your items will help determine the prices you choose. And if you go with a professional service, they’ll help you pick the best prices. But it’s still often worthwhile to list the ideal price you’d like to get for an item.
It’s also well worthwhile to write down a minimum price for each item. This is the amount you need to receive from a buyer in order to part with that piece. There may be some items you just want to get rid of, at any price. But there might be many you would hold onto unless someone offers the right price. Keep in mind that buyers will be bidding, so it’s usually best to set a lower price at first.
Step 4: Write brief descriptions
If you haven’t already transferred your item list to a word processor, now is the time. Enter all of the information from the steps above, including each item’s approximate prices.
Next, write a brief description of each item on your list. This is the description that you’ll copy and paste into an online auction site if you run the estate sale yourself.
Tip: If you plan on hiring an estate sale company to manage your sale for you, you can skip this step and let the professionals write the descriptions.
Step 5: Label and photograph everything.
To avoid confusion throughout this process, you might want to remove everything you plan on selling from the home. You can move the items to a storage unit temporarily, for example. Alternatively, you could set a room in the house aside just for your estate sale items.
But whether you move your items or not, you should take a trip around the home and place a sticky note on each piece you want to sell. As you do, note where in the house each item is, if you’re leaving things in place.
If you plan on posting the items online yourself, now is also a good time to take a snapshot of each item. If you do, make sure the lighting is sufficient and the background isn’t too distracting. Imagine you’re viewing the photos as a buyer and determine whether or not you would click on each to see more information.
Tip: Depending on the estate sale company you choose, you might be able to skip this step, too, if you go with a professional service. Some estate sale companies come to your home to photograph the items and tag and move furniture as necessary.
Step 6: Create an online auction or sales account
If you know you want to leave the listing and selling to the professionals, you can skip to the next step now.
But if you’re planning to DIY the process from start to finish, you’ll need to create an online account to sell and ship your items.
Of course, the go-to auction site is eBay, which allows you to post your items with descriptions, photos, and all, and list a starting price. From there, interested buyers will bid against each other, raising the price of the item until time runs out.
In addition to eBay, you can auction items using these sites:
If the bidding process isn’t important to you, and you’d rather list your items for fixed prices, consider these online selling services that antique buyers and sellers love:
Step 7: Or choose a professional online auction service
If you don’t want to run the whole estate sale yourself, you don’t have to. Many regional estate sale companies host online sales. That means a local business in your area likely offers online selling.
Here are some of your options if you want to hire a professional online auction service for your online estate sale:
Step 8: List your items or have them listed
If you’re running the show yourself, post your items, with their respective photos and descriptions, online. You can list the items in batches (for example, five at a time) to make the whole process more manageable and less overwhelming.
If you’re working with a professional service, you’ll sign some paperwork allowing them to list your items via their own site or a partner site. Make sure you read through those papers carefully, including the fine print.
Step 9: Advertise your estate sale
Whether you hire a professional or not, you can get more bites if you advertise your estate sale. Post signs around the neighborhood with the sale’s web address, or place an ad on your community’s Facebook group (if allowed). You can place a classified ad in your local newspaper, too.
You can also let your friends, family, and coworkers know about your estate sale and where to find it. Selling to people you know or people who live near you will also simplify the process when it comes time to deliver the items you’ve sold.
Step 10: Refer to your list as items begin to sell
As soon as your items are listed online, buyers can start bidding. If you’re working with a professional estate sale company, they’ll likely advertise your estate catalog through various channels. This can make the process go faster and get higher prices for your items.
The whole online estate sale process usually takes between one and two weeks, but it can take longer, especially if you’re managing the sale yourself.
As items sell, refer to your list and check things off. You should also write down the price you (or the auction service) received for the item. You’ll compare this list to your total proceeds later on.
Step 11: Ship or deliver your items
As each item sells, you or your professional service will need to arrange for delivery or shipping. For large items, buyers might come to pick up the item in-person. Smaller items might be shipped for an additional shipping charge.
If you’re shipping items yourself, make sure to carefully wrap delicate pieces in tissue paper and padded packaging.
Step 12: Pay fees and receive your funds
Finally, you’ll need to pay the fee for the site or service you use. This fee can be much higher or lower depending on the method you chose: DIY or professional. Of course, a professional service will take a larger percentage for the work they did.
After paying that fee from the proceeds, you’ll receive the funds from your estate sale. Compare the full amount you receive to your list of items and what the items sold for. Add up the totals, subtract the fees paid, and make sure the numbers add up.
Online vs. Offline Estate Sales
Before the rise of the internet, you would have to hold estate sales in person. Usually, you would hire a professional liquidator, who would take up to 50% of the sales proceeds. And visitors would often have to visit the residence, which was often still occupied by the owners. All of these factors made traditional estate sales relatively unapproachable for the average person.
But online services like those discussed above have changed all that. Online estate sales are more convenient and often more profitable. And online estate sales can take place over time, rather than within just a few very busy days. All of this is more conducive to coping with the loss of a loved one, and it’s easier to offload a whole house of old furniture.