To Take The Sale or Not? 25 Potential Red Flags Can Offer Guidance For Professional Estate Liquidators

They say your best teacher was your last mistake. As estate sale professionals, we realize that while each estate may have similarities, our clients are all very different with unique personalities, expectations, emotions, family dynamics, etc. Experience and exercising discernment often come with time and tenure, but even then, it continues to be a question mark for many. All kinds of strange scenarios, unpredictable personalities and unforeseen events will eventually come to pass in your daily work.

These experiences, while often painful, are wonderful teachers that we need to pay attention to. Try looking at these situations more objectively, as if advising a friend on what to do in a similar circumstance, as we sometimes make clearer, more protective decisions for others than we do for ourselves.

The million dollar question is, "Should I take the estate sale or pass on it?" This question doesn't just plague the new liquidator but the veteran as well. In these softer economical times and this competitive market, it's difficult to turn down any potential estate sale that can help us maintain and continue to build our businesses. The real question should be, "How will I know if I should take the job or not?"

When we are new to the industry, or when competition is snapping at our heels, we are eager to move forward and often take jobs we ordinarily may not accept. This is the place where we must learn to exercise discernment - from the moment you are contacted by the client and especially after your initial consultation or subsequent meetings. It is equally important to not allow your enthusiasm (or emotions) to cloud your judgment. (Easier said than done.) 

Listen to your gut instinct - when in doubt, it might be wise to consider passing on the sale or backing out professionally. It's important to constantly remind ourselves of this instinct, and to only accept sales in which our professional skill sets are best suited to the client's needs and situation. 

Those who are have longer tenure in the liquidation business can attest to the fact that many mistakes and bad decisions were made along the way - or at least should have been given more thought before saying "yes" to the sale. Always err on the side of caution and make sure you're feeling confident throughout the entire process. Learn to "read" your clients and what they may be trying to tell you, without actually using words.

Red Flags to Be Aware Of:

1. Economic Distress - "We need the money right away" or "We need $____________to cover a bill." This is not a good way to begin a relationship with expectations already set in stone. With this mindset already embedded, will they listen to you when you try and educate them and offer your opinions? Of course, you want to do your best, but will your best be good enough in this situation?

2. The client feels that your commission/fees are too high - "Your competition is lower" or "That's more than I want to pay." Experts suggest never lowering your commission. A) You are worth what you charge, B) This is backbreaking work and you have to pay yourself a staff, advertising, etc., C) It takes knowledge and know-how, research, and the ability to juggle many things at once, D) Perception is a biggie. On the one hand, you can be perceived as being the best in your field and clients want only you to conduct the sale, willing to pay more for this added value. On the other hand, some may only be interested in the lowest possible commission, not fully understanding you often get what you pay for. Educate them the best that you can. If it doesn't work out, it may be for the best.

3. Unrealistic Expectations - The client is expecting top dollar because: "Mom said these collector plates are worth a fortune" or "I found these on the internet for $2,000 each." "It's antique so we know it's valuable. I saw it on a TV show." Setting client expectations requires honesty and finesse. Tell them about the market, the lack of interest in brown furniture, glassware, china, etc. Explain the younger generation's lack of desire for many of these items and why the prices are lower than they used to be.

4. Identify Power of Attorney, Executor, legal decision maker - Meet with, converse with, and sign the contract with only the legal decision maker. "Well, we actually don't have the paperwork just yet..." This is a huge red flag if you potentially sell items that do not actually belong to the person you are working with, or if they are not the power of attorney or other legal position to make decisions for a loved one.

5. Family feud: Struggle over keeping vs. selling - "Mom said I could have that." "No, it's mine." Continued arguing or hard feelings will not go away because you are on the scene. Think twice. If you sense it from the beginning, exercise caution.

6. Possession Indecision -To keep or not. To sell or not. To hire or not. You may not want to get caught up in chasing a client to sign a contract, spending many hours or days to do so. That is time lost that could have been spent on something more productive, or losing another client that really needed your help.

7. Questionable Decision Maker - may not be thinking clearly, severe grief or distress, possible memory impairment, etc. Something doesn't feel quite right. Pay attention to your instinct.

8. Know-it-Alls/Impossible to Please - "Your prices are too low. I know what they're worth. You need to research again. Don't display it like that."

9. Continual removal of items from the estate sale - Your contract should have a clause specific to this issue, including an extra place for the client to initial that you reviewed this with them. Communicate clearly and point out additional fees or commission on items that disappear after the contract is signed. Explain it as a "professional courtesy" to you and that you agreed to take the sale based on what you saw at the walk-through. Document the contents with photos/video at the time of signing the contract.

10. Client's actions indicate they are not ready to make a decision -If they're not ready, it will not work and it will not go smoothly.

11. Self-Valuators - for those who do their own "research" and feel their pricing is better than yours, disregarding your pricing experience. "I've done the research for you. This is how it will be priced."

12. When the client has a predetermined price in mind or places too many reserves on items you know will not sell.

13. Micromanagers who question every move, hotheads and those on the warpath - Very difficult to build trust or mutually beneficial relationship.

14. Clients keep the majority of the residential contents, leaving little to sell.

15. Contract changes - too many made by the client - exercise caution. This is your contract. Small changes are up to you, the estate sale professional. When you start seeing multiple changes required by the client, pause and think about whether or not you want to proceed.

16. An impossible time frame is placed on you - "You can do the sale this week, right? We have to empty the home fast."

17. Contents that are beyond your area of professional competency -Pass it on to an expert or bring in assistance to determine pricing and best options for selling.

18. Conflict of interest - even if it's just a single occurrence, avoid it at all costs. "Don't tell my sister. This will be just between you and me. No one has to know." Getting caught in a web is not a good thing. Walk a straight line and do what you do best, avoiding these situations.

19. Location, Location -Sales in a less than stellar area of town, in the middle of nowhere, with no parking available, HOA's, townhouses/apartments often have restrictions, gated communities, etc., but there are always other options you may be able to provide.

20. Date of Sale - Make sure your sale is not competing with big community events, certain holiday weekends, marathons where streets are blocked off, etc.

21. Occupied Residence - If your client is still living in the house. "It'll be like we're not even here." "I won't get in your way." The possibility of sale items disappearing, items being accidentally sold, getting under each other's feet, rising tensions, etc. all increase in a situation like this. If at all possible, wait until the home is vacated.

22. Revolving door, too many keys out there - When too many people have access to the home though alarm code and keys, beware that anyone can gain access to the home, and if things disappear, you could be the one blamed. Discuss this with the client ahead of time. Even suggest a new alarm code just for you, in the event that someone does come in and take things, they would be able to see what code was used to get into the home if things disappeared in the night.

23. Old appraisals are handed to you - The only purpose of an old appraisal is to assist in identifying the pieces. Styles and lifestyles have changed, as have the economy and the market, and there are generational differences, too. These appraisal reports are also usually written for replacement cost/insurance value instead of Fair Market Value. Educate the client!

24. Client wants valuations, resources and options for free during the consultation -If you decide to offer this depth of information, you should get paid an hourly rate for it.

25. Extreme Odors - Some odors can be very hazardous, and you will need to consider this carefully. Some odors such as those from animals, cigarette smoke, mold/mildew, mouse droppings, etc., need to be seriously considered before conducting a sale on-site.

Should you take the sale, or Run, Forrest, Run? You already know the answer. These flags are provided to guide you and do not necessarily suggest forfeiting the sale. They are simply reminders to use caution, keep your eyes and ears open, document (including phone calls and photos/videos) and cover all of your professional bases. Taking the wrong job can mean costly mistakes and a tarnished reputation. We all work too hard to allow something like that to happen, so move forward carefully yet confidently!


©2015 The American Society of Estate Liquidators® This article was based on Julie Hall's talk at the 2015 EstateSales.Net Conference in Chicago. No part of The American Society of Estate Liquidators® articles, whole or partial, may be used without Julie’s written consent. Email her at

By Julie Hall

Julie Hall is the Director of ASEL. Her passion is helping others excel in the estate sale industry.