Lisa's Full Story
I’m a 42-year-old mom and wife with two girls ages 4 and 1. We moved to California from the east coast. I was pregnant with my first daughter and I was planning to stay at home with her. After a cross-country move to a completely new area where I had no family or friends - when the baby was about 4 months old, I really needed something else to fill my calendar. I opened Expert Estates and had my first two estate sales booked in no time. My business plan called for holding about 1 sale per month, which I thought was optimistic since I had no contacts or connections. But in our first year we did 13 sales, and now we often have 8 weeks in a row with a sale, sometimes two sales, each weekend. I did keep Easter weekend unbooked so we could all recuperate and spend time with our families.
One of my first jobs was a regional auction house where I learned how to appraise art and antiques. I also handled contract negotiations and learned a lot about marketing all kinds of estate inventory. I worked as a private personal property appraiser after leaving that position and got the hang of working for myself. And, of course, life takes its twists and turns and we end up doing things we didn't even plan. For three years, I worked in politics after having been offered a job with now Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s Congressional office when she won her first election in upstate New York. I had been a campaign volunteer for her because I met at an event and thought she would be a great elected official. I learned how to control crowds, answer tough questions and speak in front of large groups of people. Which all comes in handy when I am opening an estate sale with 30 or more people waiting to get in.
How I landed my first client
We had relocated and I had no contacts. I did reach out to the Realtor who helped us buy our house to tell her about my new business. Next I put together an inexpensive but professional looking website. I remember the owner of my husband’s company was retiring and moving right around when I opened, and I tried to land them as my first clients. They were very kind but they didn’t hire me. But I started getting calls from families who found me online. When I booked my first consult, I knew it was not going to be a great sale and not in a great area. I told my husband I wasn’t sure I should even go on the consult since I didn’t think it would make money. He said, “Are you serious? You just opened. You have NO clients. Even if you lose money, just go and get this job for some experience.” We laughed. My client had no idea that I had never done a sale, at the consult, I showed up with my business card and my contract. I walked with her through the house and I focused on describing how I would set up her sale and the traffic flow I would establish. I just painted a picture in her mind of the sale I could give her and she signed on.
How have you expanded into coaching?
We opened in 2011 on a very lean budget. The estate sale industry is competitive but I see a tremendous need for the services we provide.
There are estate sale franchises available for between $20,000-50,000 but for a very very tiny fraction of that price, I can help other people establish their own brand and achieve the same financial success I have had. If I can move across the country and succeed with a busy husband and two small kids at home, I know anyone can do it too. I want to make it simple for them so they can define their goals get on the path to success.
My advice for start-ups?
This is a great industry and there are many different types of both appraisers and liquidators out there. There can be lots of competition. And often people just see us on sale day and don’t realize how much work is involved in turning a home over for an estate sale. But there are many families in need of our services - whether they are moving, downsizing or dealing with the loss or illness of a loved one. Go to sales in your area and then start to define what will make your services stand out from the competition. Whatever you do, don’t go to work for a competitor and then open a competing business, that’s a common idea that people have but is very frowned upon. Often the liquidators in an area all know one another and even refer jobs to each other. I sometimes am too busy to fit someone into our schedule or the sale may be a little small - so if you are starting out and are willing to take on little jobs or jobs on a fast turn around, introduce yourself to your competition. The industry can be tough on “newbies” some might give you the cold shoulder, but you might get your first job from an established liquidator who is happy just to have given a referral for a smaller job that they might not want.
What does an estate liquidator do?
I help people who have to either appraise or liquidate their personal property. There are a lot of reasons why a family needs services that I provide: the loss or illness of a loved one, moving, foreclosure, divorce, sometimes they just need to declutter a home that has accumulated too many things over the years. So I meet with them to find out: what they need, the size home they have, the type and quality of things, the scope of work involved, their timeline and if we would be a good match for their needs. Then if I can help them, we put together a contract and my team and I go in and get to work. We stage and price everything and then we run an estate sale for them. We also offer full clean out services.
I have been so blessed and successful that I am also offering consulting services to help other people starting out or expanding their estate sale businesses. I believe there is enough work out there for more liquidation professionals. Awareness of the estate sale industry is growing and demand for the services we provide is high. There can be a perception that you have to have a huge fancy home with antiques for an estate liquidator to help you, but in reality average middle-class homes are full of things that people need and will buy. Many sales are run in run of the mill homes - liquidating all of the appliances, clothes, furniture, tools, home decor and supplies all adds up.
How did I first promote my business?
When we moved, I didn’t know anyone here. I thought it would take forever to build up the contacts I would need to land my first job. The first thing I did was put together a very affordable but well-written website and then I started getting called for consults. A lot of people find me online, but as my business has grown, now I get referrals from Realtors, past clients and customers who shop at my sales. We advertise in the local phone book too, it seems an unusual way to advertise to younger people but a lot of seniors do rely on it.
Who hires an estate liquidator?
About half of my sales are from living estates, the family is moving and needs to sell most of what is in the home. It really makes financial sense to sell most things and save your moving expenses. A lot of people have a tremendous attachment to their things and will pay $4,000 to move things that would not cost that much to replace, but if you are a person who can let go of your things easily, you can just take what really is sentimental or irreplaceable, then a moving sale is a great fit.
The other half are usually executors or the heirs to an estate, it doesn’t have to be a big estate - for most heirs, the main real asset left to them is the home. Getting the home cleared of tangible personal property is urgent. If a family lives out of the area and has to take time off of work, or travel each weekend to come do a clean out, it can be daunting and time-consuming. And it can be costly, all of the travel expenses and plus all of the costs for carrying the home while they try to sort and pack and give away or sell things start to add up. Hiring professionals to do all the work can save a lot of money, plus a professional knows what the fair market values are in the area for the items for sale. You don’t know what you don’t know, so hiring someone with experience can make a lot of sense financially for many reasons.
What are some of my best business achievements?
Landing some celebrity estates was nice, we handled the estate of Elaine and Jack Palance and former NFL Defensive Tackle, Sedrick Ellis’ sale when he moved to LA. But when I reached the level of my business where had assembled a small team of great people that work for me who could set up and even run my sales, that was my biggest achievement. I still oversee all of the pricing and do most of the marketing and consults, but I do not have to be at each sale every day until the job is done as I did in the beginning.
Learning that I did not have to try to personally tackle each task, that was my best achievement. I often have an estate sale booked every weekend for eight weeks straight, without an honest and trustworthy team that I can rely on, I would never see my husband or my kids.
What are the primary advantages of working from home?
This way of working give me lots of energy and lots of control over my schedule. I don’t have to get up and rush out trying to be on time to work. I don’t have to commute and if I wanted to plan 5 vacations a year, I could. I just schedule my sales around my desired time off. And all of the effort that I put into my business is benefiting my own family. That is a tremendous blessing that I think so many more people should achieve as well.
Why am I helping other liquidators?
I want to help more people to achieve the same home business success that I have had. There are a few liquidation franchise opportunities out there, but compared to the start up budget I had for Expert Estates, the franchises are costly, and they require that you do things the way they prescribe.
For a very small fraction of the price of a franchise, I can help people build their own estate sale brand. That way they are in control of their own business and don’t have to outlay a high cash investment to enter the liquidation industry. Since 2011, I have learned a lot of lessons and I have built a successful brand that has increased revenues at or above our targets each year. It is very rewarding whenever I hear from someone who has purchased my Estate Sale Start Up Kit that it was exactly what they needed or that it exceeded their expectations. I want to keep doing that.
What started my passion for estate sales?
I have always loved art and objects. I learned how to research their history and their value in the current market and I find it fascinating. Moving from Pennsylvania to California was a key event that led to starting my Estate Sale business. When we arrived here, I was in my third trimester of pregnancy with my first daughter and I knew nobody here at all. We found a house and settled in. When our movers delivered our furniture, I had a realization of how foolish we had been. We spent thousands of dollars moving our things, many of which were broken by people who we thought were professional movers with references. They had even tried to hide broken things from me when they were unloading the truck so that I wouldn't be able to make an insurance claim for the damages. And a lot of the furniture that survived was going to have to be sold anyway because it just didn’t fit with the new house we had chosen. Who knew? In hindsight it would have been best to have just sold all of our stuff in Pennsylvania. With the money we made from the sale, and with what we saved from hiring movers, we could have furnished our home and saved lots of stress.
That experience combined with my love of researching art and antiques is what really got me thinking about becoming an estate liquidator. It seemed like a perfect fit because I always really enjoy having a profession where I feel that I am helping people.
What’s the hardest part of what we do?
Keeping in mind that even though I love helping people, I do have a business. Sometimes a family will want something from me that I can’t deliver as a business person. Saying no and explaining why I have to say no and what services I can provide to them can be hard. People are seeking my services most often at a time of transition, whether due to the loss of a loved one, or an illness, or sometimes due to a foreclosure or bankruptcy.
At times it can be a hard task because their attachments to the objects in their homes have sentimental value that just won’t translate into fair market value, but they are hiring me to liquidate these personal assets. So communication is important and having the research to back up my information helps too. I work on commission, so of course I want to sell things for as much as possible!
What do I love most about being in the estate sale business?
I love it when I can bring relief to people. Sometimes I have a client who has had a lot of emotional trouble with the task they have - emptying a home of its contents - it is a huge task. I have even helped families who have inherited hoarder homes with their liquidation. When they realize that they found a team that they can trust to handle it, that feels great. Sometimes they are clearly worried when we are starting. They are wondering whether they can trust us and there can be anxiety and a lot of questioning coming our way. But we just talk to them honestly and I try to connect them with a client I helped in the past that was facing a similar situation as a reference.
I just love the moment when they see us in action and they know it is safe to let go and let us do our work.
How to do better than an auction house and get more than your asking price at an estate sale
One of my favorite clients had interviewed with 12 other companies before choosing me. She had spoken with one liquidator whose first question to her was “Do you have a $50,000 estate?” And another one had asked specifically just about silver and jewelry and then offered to buy her silver for less than half of the melt value. When she hired me, I didn’t know any of that, she told me later. Her estate had a lot of objects she had purchased in China with her husband. And I consulted with a specialty auction house to see what would be right for auction. But we still had so many great items that dealers came to Bakersfield from all directions, we had people from San Diego to San Francisco waiting to get in. There was one pair of 19th-century cups that everyone wanted. They had been in the garage and my client didn’t even remember them when I asked her about them. People in the line waiting to enter her sale were calling my cell phone and asking me where these cups were and how much they cost. They were offering to give me gifts if I would put them aside for them!
I knew we had a “sleeper” - something the auction house had missed when deciding what to consign. I also knew a big fight would break out if I just opened the doors and let them storm in for the cups. So we took the cups out and let anyone in the line who was interested in them take a look. And then we told them we were going to do a sealed bid system to sell them, each person would write down what they’d be willing to pay for them and whoever was the highest would get them for the price they had offered. Well, the dealer who was first in line had what can only be called a fit. He threatened to call the police even (which did not scare me at all to his surprise). In the end, we sold the cups and the highest offer was about $300 above what the others were. Having worked at an auction house, I was very proud because in an open bid process, the high bidder wouldn’t have been outbid before reaching his max offer.
I also later sold a set of Chinese nesting cups from the same estate online on iGavel for over $5,000. Which was very inconvenient - it was just over $5,000 so there were a ton of papers I had to fill out for customs. We had to go to the post office three times before we could finally get them mailed back to the buyer in China. But my client was really happy that her cups went back home to China.
What qualities set me apart and makes me successful in the industry?
People hiring an estate liquidator are looking for someone trustworthy and honest. Those qualities are what I believe land me my jobs. But what makes me truly successful is that communicate openly and I don’t undervalue my services. I keep control of costs and I never let clients redefine our contract. Most clients are great, but I do sometimes have to be compassionate but direct about enforcing the agreement we signed. I set my commission rate based on what they told me I would be selling, so as a businesswoman, I need to ensure that what I was promised is what is there. Direct communication saves me when an issue comes up.
For example, I had a client recently who told me that I could sell their vehicle but when we went to pick up the keys, they said that they might sell the it themselves and they didn’t have the title with them. I told them we needed to address that before going forward because it was in our contract, being able to sell it was a factor in my taking the sale and it was factored in the overall commission rate and terms they were given. So they agreed that, of course, we would be selling the vehicle as per the contract. And my commission on that was $840, so if I had let that go, I would have lost out on a big part of that sale.
Author, Lisa Kroese, owns Expert Estates LLC, a consulting and estate liquidation company in Tehachapi, CA. Lisa is a CAGA Certified Appraiser and a Member of the American Society of Estate Liquidators. She has appraised and sold millions of dollars worth of personal property. Lisa writes about family, estate liquidation, business, entrepreneurship and more at EstateMama.com.