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Estate Sales: The canary in the mine?

La Maya and I drove out to Scottsdale this morning, at the crack of proverbial dawn, to attend an estate sale that looked pretty enticing. Pictured on the organizer’s site was a bedroom set in the mode that M’hijito has described as desirable, plus various other interesting-looking loot.

When we got there, we found a half-renovated house in a (relatively!) downscale neighborhood of a ritzy part of town, the pool green and the pickin’s slim. The kitchen was devoid of valuable finds; the tools were old and worn; the bedstead was the wrong size and the bedroom set was cheaply made junk.

That notwithstanding, La Maya is not called the Queen of Estate Sales for nothing. Her discerning eye spotted a handsome loveseat, chair, and ottoman in butter-colored leather. After some study, we decided it probably was a quality product. She nailed all three pieces for $425, a fine 20 percent off the marked price. Not only that, but the estate sale organizer ate the tax.

Although we were numbers 24 and 25 in line to get in the door, no more than ten or twelve people were ahead of us. Evidently the ticket number they started with was higher than 1. It took two trips to haul the furniture. The second time we arrived out there, the furniture-lifting person had gone off for a break, and so we sat with the estate sale company’s owner for a while, helping to calculate tax and hand out bags to the few buyers.

And “few” was the operative word. Over the past several weeks, we’ve found ourselves at the head of the estate-sale line, even when we arrived after a sale was slated to open. This is in vast contrast to the normal experience, where you may arrive a half-hour or an hour early and still wait to get in the door through three or four rafts of people who got there first.

Gina, the estate sale proprietor, echoed other organizers in saying that business was very slow: plenty of sellers but few buyers. She was practically giving things away-name a price for a piece of loot and you could walk with it. Gina said people are not buying, and that times are tough in the estate sale biz. What she does is considered effectively wholesaling. “Retailers”-read dealers in antiques and used furniture-are really suffering. She said her biggest buyers, who indeed are dealers, are in deep trouble.

So, we might add, was her client. They evidently had purchased the house speculatively, figuring to fix it up and turn it around for a profit. Before they were done, though, they fell into bankruptcy. They had completed maybe half their renovation work on the unimpressive little tract house. In one bathroom, blue masking tape around the paint job was still in place, only half-pulled off. A sloppy plaster repair stood out on the ceiling where some defunct fixture had been removed to make way for recessed lighting. The pool water was green, slimy, and evaporated several inches below the tile line. Old dirty carpet remained on the floor.

Understand, an estate sale is a gold mine for two sets of people:

  1. those who are in the business of reselling “antiques” and used furniture (in general, one and the same thing); and
  2. frugalists, folks like you and me looking to furnish our homes and our lives with nearly new, upscale products at second-hand prices.

When neither of these are in evidence, well…it’s not a good sign. It means consumers are not buying. They’re not buying from businesses that sell second-hand goods and genuine antiques, and they’re not buying yard-sale items. When bargain-hunters quit looking for bargains, IMHO, it indicates people are either really hurting or really scared.

Well, at any rate, La Maya scored a lovely pair of luxurious leather seating pieces. They transform her family room, and she is very pleased.

Nevertheless, we worry. We worry.

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