I’m writing this from ground zero: My childhood home in Orange, California. To get through my job here, I need smelling salts and a bulldozer.
Eight months ago, my elderly parents moved out of the single-story ranch they tended for years into a home that tends to them, I hope as well.
I have parachuted in from Florida, where I now live. I’ve taken a week off work to clear the place out and start fixing it up to sell.
I can tell right now, one week is not time enough to undo nearly half a century of living in one house. It’s not time enough to sort through the mountains of memorabilia that have accrued, the dishes and documents, linens and letters, crystal and cookware, photos and furniture, tools and trinkets.
It’s not nearly time enough, but it’s what I’ve got.
I arrive near midnight on Saturday, and sleep in my old room. A triangle from where my high school pennant once hung is ghosted into the faded yellow paint. I’m up early Sunday, boosted by the three-hour time change, and charge in.
I start swiftly, trying not to fall into sinkholes of sentiment. I sort stuff into piles: toss, donate, sell, Craigslist, keep, unsure. The unsure pile grows faster than any other. I get derailed often, sucked in by such finds as the suitcase containing mom’s wedding dress.
When I get too overwhelmed in one area, I leave it for another. Sometimes I roam room to room looking for a task I can tackle but don’t find one.
Still, I steamroll along because the painters are coming Thursday, and everything in the house has to be gone or in the garage by then. If you’re ever frozen in a sad well of pity, just schedule the painters.
As the sale pile grows, I know I have to hold a garage sale – or estate sale as the bigger ones are called. Since I’m not going to be in town a full Saturday, prime garage sale day, I have to host the sale mid-week. I worry that no one will come.
Before I can change my mind, I post an ad for an estate sale — “50 Years of Treasures” — on Craigslist, estatesales.com and the PennySaver online. My brother and sister-in-law arrive like angels to help sort. We stick signs around the neighborhood, wrapped in plastic because rain is coming.
Monday I empty closets and cupboards, and set up display tables with like items: purses, chatchkies, china, vases, books, CDs, floral arrangements, and figurines. We turn the 1700-square-foot house into a boutique. I make a stab at pricing but really have no clue what much of this stuff is worth, if anything.
I discover, among other stashed secrets, that my British mother has enough crocheted doilies, dresser scarves, embroidered hankies and linen tablecloths to cover the surface of the moon.
The next morning, I’m up again at 5 a.m., putting price stickers on items — $1, $5, $50, Make an Offer. I put “Not for Sale” Post-Its on furniture I can’t bear to sell, though know I should. I have a four-alarm headache.
The two-day sale starts Tuesday at 8 a.m. By 7 a.m. a line starts forming at the front door. Buyers are making a numbered list of who was first, second, and so on. They know game rules I don’t. First come, first in, first dibs.
So starts steady stream of buyers armed with magnifying glasses, penlights and laptops, who in two days turn more than half the household contents into cash, and teach me a lifetime of lessons about the world of second-hand sales:
• Call it what you like. An estate sale implies that a whole household is on sale, meaning more and better items. It is usually held indoors. A garage, moving or yard sale implies that the person is cleaning house. These usually take place in the garage, driveway or yard. A rummage sale invites people to dig for buried treasures.
• Value is relative. Do not assume you can guess what shoppers will buy. A box of old rags, cans of rusty nails, an old meat grinder (to turn into a lamp), vintage postcards from the trash – all sold. One couple bought the Clorox and a gallon jug of white vinegar.
• Nothing is sacred. Expect to be invaded. Signs on doors that say “Don’t Open” mean nothing.
One shopper took the single bath towel I was using from the bathroom. Another asked how much for my blow dryer.
• Which day? Weekend sales may attract more buyers, but mid-week sales attract better buyers. Collectors, dealers and professional pickers who buy and sell for a living often buy during the work week.
• Some people have no class. One buyer picked up the pile of worn towels marked to sell for $1 each. She wanted the stack of roughly 15 towels for $5 to use in a rehabilitation center, she said. As my sister-in-law finalized the sale, she found that the customer had shoved a few more treasures inside the stack.
• Some people have a lot of class. One collector customer pointed out that an all-white porcelain figurine I had priced at $5, was a first-issue Hummel, circa 1939-1945. Based on the stamp, it was probably worth closer to $1500. He suggested I reconsider the pricing.
• Know your goal. It’s easy to get caught up in pricing items based on how much you would have to buy them for, but when we kept our goal in mind — clear the place out — prices fell. Our win-win motto. “The more you buy, the less things cost.” When a shopper asked how much for a Lazy Susan filled with spices, I said $5. “And how much without the spices?” she asked: $8.
• Don’t do this to your children. Parents of adult children, PLEEEEEAASE declutter now. Let go, pare down, and lighten everyone’s load.
Join me next week, as I enlist the help of a celebrity appraiser from PBS’s Antiques Roadshow to help me know how to price and sell my parents’ antiques.