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Is an Estate Sale an Option?


An estate sale is just what it says, it can consist of everything in the household of a deceased family member from clothing, kitchen goods, furniture and automobiles to the left-over cans of hair spray in the bathroom. Or perhaps it might be what is called a living estate sale, when there is a remarriage or divorce, downsizing, job relocation or just a massive de-cluttering.

There are different ways to conduct these sales. It can be a family-run sale or professionals can do it all for you. If it's a small estate and the family knows what they are dealing with, that might be the best option, but for anything that is the least bit complicated or involves possible valuable items, a professionally run sale is probably a better choice.

Recently I chatted with Matt McNeil about estate sales, how he approaches them as a professional, as well as tips for those who just might want to do it all themselves.

McNeil is a ISA Board Certified Appraiser of Personal Property, one of only two certified appraisers in the state of Oklahoma. Although certification is a lengthy process and not necessary to be called an appraiser, Matt choose to pursue it to add legitimacy and creditability to his profession. As he says, self-regulation is of the essence in this field. He explains there are several different specialties in appraising, including antiques/residential contents; gemology; fine art; heavy machinery and equipment. McNeil is considered a Generalist.

His company, McNeil Liquidations, (aka Oklahoma Estate Sales) business consists of about 85% estate liquidations and 15% appraisals. The majority of the liquidation sales involve estates of the deceased, with the rest helping folks in the the midst of moving, divorce, job relocation and collectors who over burden themselves.

McNeil's particular interests and specialties are 18th century Georgian silver, American Southern silver, Chinese export porcelain, Georgian mourning pictures and mid-century art glass.

How an Estate Sale Works
Matt says he meets with the legally designated owner/trustee on the premises to view the estate after all the heirs have gone through and taken what they want. He refuses to view the items to be sold until everything that is to be removed has been taken by the family members.

Sometimes a sale is just not a good fit, if that's the case McNeil will always give the sellers options, never leaving them in a lurch. Sometimes a sale would be best run by the family, be auctioned off or perhaps just be done as garage sale. At times he explains that charitable donations might be the best way to go for tax liability.

It can take anywhere from a week to two months to prepare for a sale, but most sales take two - three weeks of preparation. The company will clean organize and display all the items and remove or drape items not for sale

Costs will vary widely depending on your location, but in this area the commission can run anywhere from 50% for very small estates, 15% for larger estates with 20-25% the average costs of an estate sale.

For that price the company takes care of everything including: the grounds keeping fees, advertising, professional security and necessary permits. This also includes professionally draped tables, lighting, shelving, clothing racks, risers and cash registers. the necessary sales taxes are also collected and paid.

Reference Materials
As with any professional, a large reference library is a must and McNeil has a huge library of reference books and Internet data bases that he uses to determine age, value and history. McNeil stresses that he is a generalist and he is not afraid to ask for help from others who are experts in the field. Books that are reached for most often are books with identifying marks, two favorites include: The Book of Old Silver by Seymour Wyler and Marks on German, Bohemian and Austrian Porcelain by Robert Röntgen. According to McNeil, Davenport's Art Reference & Price Guide is another must-have. "It's one of the few hard copy references about fine art that I buy each and every year. It's expensive, yes, but well worth it to the professional appraiser to augment the (also expensive) subscription databases."

If an estate sale is in future, Matt shares his best advice for having that sale, advice that comes from years of experience!

Tips for Having a Successful Sale

  1. Ask prospective companies for letters of reference, their educational credentials and work experience.
  2. Throw absolutely nothing away until the professional has seen it.
  3. Clean nothing -- Matt has horror stories of bronzes scrubbed with Brillo pads and silver ruined by dips.
  4. It's crucial to keep information about the sale on a need-to-know basis. The last thing you want is for the home to be a sitting duck for thieves or for those crazy cousins to come out of the woodwork claiming their share.
  5. Have the sale in a house setting rather than a warehouse or store setting. Goods look best displayed as they might have been used.
  6. Avoid the three dreaded times of the year for having a sale:
    • The first two weeks of April
    • The first two weeks of September (vacation and State Fair time in OK)
    • The last two weeks of December
Finding the Right Appraiser and Company
Matt McNeil suggests "ask friends who have had estate liquidations conducted in the past. Internet research also helps, but can be tricky -- don't rely on the Internet alone. Ask your family's CPA, attorney, trust officer, realtor etc. The best referrals are often, in my experience, those from client to potential client."

For more information, Matt McNeil can be contacted through his company's web site McNeil Liquidations in Oklahoma City.

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