How to Hire an Estate Sale Company: Questions to Ask and Red Flags to Avoid

05/27/2016 11:41 am ET Updated May 28, 2017

It's time to say good-bye to Grandma's knitted owl collection, and somehow break down Gramp's' garage - the tool benches, weird springs and connectors he always liked. The whole house is packed, and the realtor told you to have it empty by June 1st. Anxious yet?

The summer real estate market is here and our phones are ringing of the hook as homeowners and realtors are under pressure to empty estates. When I speak to families about the management of their estate and the liquidation process they all have one thing in common: they are overwhelmed.

After managing hundreds of estate sales and speaking with hundreds of families, I find the same issues in hiring the right estate sale company arise repeatedly. Whether managing the estate of a family member--or planning your own as you downsize (or move to Hawaii), these top tips can make a huge difference.

1. When considering hiring an estate sale company to organize an estate sale or liquidation for you DON'T THROW ANYTHING AWAY! Many families feel like they need to clean up before they interview an estate sale company. A good company should transform the space for you. Items families may value like crystal, china, and furniture don't usually bring in the dollars--it is the small collectibles and vintage treasures that an estate sale specialist can spot that add up. Spend your energy determining which items you would like to keep-and leave the rest up to the company that you hire.

2. Where do you start? After removing items that you and your family members want to keep, research local estate liquidators. Ask your real estate agent and friends which company they might have used. Try a quick Google search: only hire a company with a website with listed services, photos of staff, and photos and listings from previous sales. Estate sale exposure is essential--prioritize using a company that has great marketing.

Two online websites, www.estatesales.net and www.estatesales.org let you type in your zip code to find local purveyors. These sites will also list upcoming sales: stop by! Watch how staff interacts with shoppers, review pricing, and how shoppers pay. If the owner is present, try to chat or grab a business card. Un-priced sales and insufficient staffing might be enough evidence to rule out some companies.

3. Interview--Select a few companies to interview over the phone and pick your top two to come out for a consultation on-site. I love in-home consultations because I can assess the potential liabilities that the property may have, the parking situation, the proximity to resources like a recycling center or a donation site, and the actual items available for sale.

4. Get down to business during the consultation, asking about insurance, staffing (if the company uses contractors or has employees, workman's compensation, full time or part time staff) and what the contract looks like. If anything in the contract changes after signing (set up, etc.) you have the right to request a new contract or walk away.

5. Money-- Accepting credits cards it is a very good indicator of professional conduct, while only cash or checks leaves too much wiggle room for error. Reducing cash also reduces theft risk. A California estate sale company should be collecting sales tax.

6. No extra items allowed--A frequent estate sale nightmare is extra items. "The company we hired BROUGHT items into our estate sale." This common practice in the estate industry is wrong--particularly when the goal is to empty the property! Bringing outside items in can also create a conflict of interest, as buyers will be spending money on your family items and those of the estate company. Consider an injury or property damage--imagine a client falling on a lamp that didn't belong to the estate in the first place!

7. Have realistic expectations-- I often have to tell a family that the value isn't what they are hoping for. It also goes the other way. Last year we managed an estate sale where the family believed the house was full of junk. On a friend's recommendation they called me on the verge of having a garage sale. I had to beg the family to let me work my magic. In the end they were shocked and grateful when we sold over $25,000 worth of treasures!

8. Free cleanup is a bad idea. Some companies shuffle unsold items into their next sale, rather than make a promised charitable donation. Make sure to ask about this during the interview process. At Kuzak's Closet we clean up 99% of the estate sales we organize for a fee based on the volume of trash/recycling/medical waste/hazardous waste/shredding etc., leaving the house clean. In the event of unsold items after the estate sale or liquidation we process them to be donated and provide an itemized list, unless the family has specified otherwise.

The right estate sale company can help you pass your family treasures along to happy new owners in a respectful and organized way. What could be a daunting and devastating task for a family can be managed in a very short time, saving emotional energy and potentially making a good profit.

Grampa's springs and coils? They are flying high in an engineering buff's new model plane, while Grandma's owls are getting plenty of hoots and ahs decorating that young couple's kitchen.