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Pricey estate-sale bargains worth every cent

Good deals aren't just under $25; in the right neighborhoods, the great stuff can cost thousands.

By doubleace Apr 18, 2011 9:09AM

This post comes from Lynn Mucken at MSN Money.


A few years ago, my wife and I walked away from our jobs of 25 years, our house and most of our belongings. Nancy became a traveling nurse and I turned into an itinerate golfer who spent a very few hours a week as a very small cog in the vast Microsoft moneymaking machine.


We stored what little we kept -- most of it should have been sold -- in a storage unit while we shuttled between furnished apartments in Seattle and San Diego. Three years later, we bought a condo in suddenly affordable San Diego that was one-third bigger than the house we'd left. We had to fill it. Post continues after video.

We had always been buy-new types, but we opted for adventure this time: mix the leftovers with garage- and estate-sale bargains. We made a list of what we needed, scoured Craigslist, newspapers, bulletin boards and power poles for sales, plotted out the most efficient routes and hit the highway early each Saturday morning.

The lovely Nancy and I were a good team. I would sweep through a garage or home and determine if anything met our overall criteria. Then I would locate Nancy, usually mesmerized by something three feet from the entrance, and she would do the detail work. "Won't fit," she might announce dismissively. "Nice, but beat up." "No way." "Flip this over; I want to look underneath." "This could work."


Our rules were simple:

  • Each of us had to instantly like the item; we had a lot of miles to cover and the good stuff goes quickly.
  • We had to like the price on the tag. We're not especially good hagglers, and, besides, sellers usually are reluctant to deal at 7:30 on Saturday morning.

Early on, we learned a couple important lessons: Skip the garage sales, and shop neighborhoods. In San Diego, that meant old money -- Rancho Santa Fe and La Jolla.


Here's how it usually works in such places: Mom and Dad were well off and bought only quality stuff. The kids are 50 to 60, live out of the area, and just want to get the house cleaned out so it can be put on the market for $2.5 million-plus.


Over the course of six months, we scored nine tables of various sorts, an upright secretary, a set of twin beds for the guest room, three chairs, deck furniture, a credenza and a few odds and ends. All were high quality (although a couple are a tad funky) and most were bargains -- a like-new leather computer chair for $35 -- but not necessarily cheap.

For instance, we paid $200 for an oak butcher-block table. We couldn't resist its paintings of pigs dancing merrily among hams and strings of sausages. We use it as a kitchen decoration only. As we were lugging it out the door -- it must weigh 80 pounds -- a woman approached us and said, "My mother paid $1,200 for that years ago."


At one estate sale, we bought a desk that was too large to haul in our Mazda 5, but we also fell in love with a 8-foot-long, 7-foot-high articulated Chinese room screen hand-embossed on one side and hand-painted on the other. The sticker said $1,200. We asked if that was negotiable, but the woman replied: "Everyone asks about the screen. My dad was a ship captain and brought this back from Hong Kong. I know what it's worth and I'm not going down."


I came back a few days later to pick up the desk. The woman was not there. "She's gone back to Massachusetts," her brother said. The screen remained. We chatted a bit about the big job of cleaning out a home your parents had lived in for 40 years, then I inquired about the price of the screen. "Oh … 600 bucks?" came the answer. It made a very nice surprise birthday present for my wife.


The highlight of our expeditions was The Table, which has taken on legendary status in our household. We had a perfectly nice dining room set, inherited from my mother. But we must have stared for 10 minutes at this table: Koa wood and glass, hexagon in shape, three leafs that took it to 9½ feet long, a solid wood base instead of legs, and six of the most beautiful upholstered chairs we had ever seen. The table was priced at $2,300 and the chairs at $400 each.

We didn't need a dining room set, so we moved on -- physically. "I can't get that table out of my mind," I told Nancy the next morning. "Let's drive over there to see if it sold."


The table was still there -- with a sold sign on it. The sale was over, but we left a note asking that if the deal fell through, please contact us. Two hours later, we got a call. "The buyer offered full price for the table, but doesn't want the chairs, and hasn't paid yet," the caller said. "If you want to make an offer for the whole set, we'll consider it."


We bid $3,000, a lot of money for something we didn't need. A few hours later, it was ours. Now the best part: When we went to pick up the table, we also received a sheaf of paperwork that included a copy of a newspaper article titled "Furniture As Art." Turns out our table was not only one of a kind, but also famous!


A little detective work led us to the creator, John Michael Pierson, who now teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia. We talked by phone for about an hour and he seemed delighted that someone was excited by something he had built 30 years ago.


I asked him how you go about custom-building a dining room set. "First of all," he replied candidly, "you find out how much they are willing to spend." In this case, that had been about $14,000 (the paperwork shows that the chairs were over $1,000 apiece).


Now the table sits in the dining room, covered most of the time by pads and a liquid-resistant tablecloth. Except on special occasions, we're afraid to eat off it.


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