It Pays to Be Wary When Hiring an Estate Sales Agent

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Wealth Matters

TIM AND TAMARA DAVIS say they have firsthand experience with the dark side of estate sales, that fixture of weekend life in affluent suburban towns around the country.

The brother and sister said they realized after their mother died that she had been shielding them from knowing the extent of their father’s dementia. He needed to be in a skilled nursing home. But to pay for that, they would have to sell the family home in suburban Detroit, along with its contents.

So they hired an estate sales agent to value and sell what she could, auction other pieces and donate anything that was left.

“My dad had been in and out of the hospital seven times in the last year,” Mr. Davis said. “There was a lot of pressure financially and also on my time.”

He said his father received $3,000 a month in pension and Social Security benefits, but the nursing home costs were $5,000. Selling the furniture would buy the family some time.

What seemed straightforward, though, turned out to be far more complicated and time-consuming than the siblings had expected.

After the sale this spring, the estate sales agent delayed payments, bounced checks and, according to the Davises, underpaid for many items, including some bought by friends and family members at a presale, where the Davises knew what was paid.

“We filed a police report, but the police said it’s a civil, not a criminal, matter,” Ms. Davis said.

Estate sales are a step up from tag sales, with the promise of nicer items, the potential for rare finds and an expert to curate it all. But they exist in an unregulated market in which an agent’s average fees are 35 to 40 percent of the sale total.

The Davises said their experience began when Ms. Davis tried to find an estate sales agent online from her home in Chicago and through family friends still living near her parents’ home in Beverly Hills, Mich. Mr. Davis was working in Detroit as an engineer at an automobile manufacturer and trying to take care of his father without missing work.

The two interviewed three agents.

“The first one seemed very nice, but she was more concerned with putting bows on things and her percentage was a lot higher — she wanted 40 percent,” Ms. Davis said. “One guy wanted a guarantee of $2,000 and then 25 percent on top of it. He was concerned about getting valet parking. We didn’t feel like we wanted to pay for that.”

In the end, they chose an agent who said she had been in the business for a long time. “She explained the process, how she puts numbers on everything to keep track of things. And if it didn’t sell, she said she’d take it to the next estate sale. She had a really, really good story.”

The Davises’ first mistake, estate sale experts said, was that they didn’t get a copy of the contract she had them sign.

Julie Hall, director of the American Society of Estate Liquidators, said she always asked people who called with a complaint whether they had a contract. Usually they don’t.

The Davises’ agreement also had a red flag: They would not get their money for 30 business days. Most agents pay people in under a week, if not sooner.

Ms. Hall said many people like the Davises are attracted by the lowest fee, but good estate sale agents earn their money by knowing what they’re looking for and how to price it.

“I offer Mr. or Mrs. Executor a game plan,” she said. “You need to know the process and the order in which you do it. The Depression era throws nothing away. Everywhere you look, it’s like the stuff reproduced when you weren’t looking.”

Once, she was going through a client’s trash and found three gold coins. “I called to tell him, and he said, ‘I know, but they’re only worth one dollar,’” she said. “I said, ‘No, I’m staring at $3,900 worth of gold.’”

Micky McQuade, co-founder and chief executive of, which lists sales, said he told people to go to estate sales and see how they’re run. If they like what they see, they should talk to the people whose belongings are being sold.

“If they’re a professional company, they’re having at least two, but probably four, sales a month,” he said. “Go visit their sale. You don’t have to tell them who you are. Just see how they’re treating customers and running the sale.”

Ms. Hall said she advised people to talk to real estate agents about who they use for estate sales, but also to check the Better Business Bureau and Angie’s List for comments or complaints.

Jim Shay, a retired steelworker, said he, too, had experienced problems with an estate sales agent. He said he had collected tens of thousands of dollars in antiques over the years. But he was in a rush to sell his house in suburban Detroit so he could join his wife outside Jacksonville, Fla.

He sold about $11,000 in antiques, but the bigger, more valuable items — worth another $10,000, he estimated — were supposed to have been taken to auctions. So far, he said, he has not received any money for them, though he has seen some of the items advertised on estate sale websites.

As for payment, the first check for $8,600 bounced, he said. It took him four months of calling to get a check that cleared.

Mr. McQuade said his company stopped listing estate sales agents who received complaints about not acting honestly toward customers or violating their terms of service. But the more common complaint is that the estate agent accepted too little for someone’s belongings. “That’s where the communication comes in,” he said. “Their expectations were more than likely too high.”

(Tip: All that brown Victorian furniture isn’t worth as much as people paid for it, but midcentury modern furniture is popular right now.)

After much back and forth with the police, not to mention complaints filed with various estate sales websites, Mr. Davis said the agent finally sent him a cashier’s check. It was two months late and for a lot less than the Davises had expected.

“We had our family day sale, and all of the receipts from my relatives added up to more than the amount she sent,” he said. “Our neighbors told us it was packed on Saturday,” but the sales receipts did not reflect the activity in the home.

The agent, when contacted, contends that she acted properly.

The Davises say they hope others will learn from their experience. “If people are going to do estate sales, I’d encourage them to take their time to find the right person,” Mr. Davis said. “My biggest bit of advice would be if you have red flags, stop, even if you’re under a lot of pressure.”