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Estate Sale Chic: Bargain-Shopping Some of Washington’s Best Listings

A crash course on budgeting your money—but not your good taste.

At a trio of estate sales in Georgetown last summer we nabbed, among other things, a large-scale gilt-wood mirror holding court over an elegant staircase at Evermay, a full set of 1960s vermeil bamboo flatware for $30, and this sweet chinoiserie tea-and-coffee service for a song. Photographs by Natalie Grasso.

When we were young and impressionable design mavens, we used to think estate sales at fancy houses (ones in Georgetown, especially) must be treasure troves of stylish vintage finds once owned by Washington’s power elite. On this count, we were right. We also never went because we found the prospect of rummaging around these houses kind of intimidating. But all it took was an older, more experienced friend showing us the ropes to get us hooked—and now we want to do the same for you. Read on for a few easy tips on getting the most bang for your buck.

What we love to dig for:

Furniture. At many of these sales, you’ll encounter items of great value that are way out of your budget. But among them, you’ll also find a variety of less expensive pieces that could be just right for your space. Regardless of provenance, if you like the lines and the price is right, snatch it up. Applying a fresh coat of paint is cheap and easy.

Costume jewelry. Cocktail rings and earrings, especially. Our friend found a pair of vintage William de Lillo drops for next to nothing last summer. Whoever said DC has no style definitely was not talking about the doyennes of ’50s and ’60s Georgetown. J.Crew’s vintage-style baubles pale by comparison.

Books. They furnish a room, you know. And at these kinds of sales they’re generally inexpensive. Eggheaded Washington loves big, old tomes and first editions about smart and obscure topics, which confer a bit of intrigue when you stack them on the shelf next to your fave chick lit.

How to score a deal:

Play the game. Estate sale regulars can be savage. When it’s go time, they’ll burst into the house and clear rooms by the armful. Be strategic. Not sure if you want to spring for that pretty $15 frame? Hold on to it while you shop. You can decide later whether to buy it—in the mean time, don’t give anyone else a shot at it. And if you feel intimidated, just remember a lot of these types are going to turn around and sell their finds on eBay for a profit, so we actually think the universe prefers if that vintage bar cart ends up in your tiny Logan Circle apartment instead of at Joe Schmoe’s dusty shop in Michigan.

Second-day markdowns. Tuck that cute Louis XVI chair—upholstered in what you think may be old Fortuny fabric—in a dark corner (strategy!) and cross your fingers. Items that don’t sell for full price on the first day will be marked down on the last day of the sale (often up to 50 percent off), and you might score something that was initially out of your budget.

Negotiate. “What’s the best you can do?” is a standard question you should feel confident asking at estate sales, flea markets, and the like. And in a not-very-scientific study we’ve found people are generally more prone to give you a deal if, say, you’re holding a stack of books and ask for five for the price of three—that type of thing.

Where to look:

The Washington Post has an online directory of many upcoming estate sales, and you can search sales by Zip code on Bethesda Estate Sales and the Potomack Company are two reputable services that list their upcoming events online. Watch for old-fashioned signs, too, posted outside a few days before a sale. Happy hunting!

  • Chip

    Carol, Brette, and the staff at Bethesda Estate Service are terrific to work with. They'll help you find just what you're looking for at a ridiculously reasonable price, all with a smile. They are most hospitable, create a warm, welcoming environment, and couldn't be more helpful.

  • Olivia L.

    Bought a beautiful four-poster bed for my daughter at a great price. There is no way I could have found this item anywhere else, but at a Bethesda Estate Service estate sale. They have the best items at affordable prices. Thanks so much! Love your sales!

  • George

    We love Bethesda Estate Services! We go to their sales all of the time and we always have fun!

  • Great finds definitely! Love scoring on unique china and fabulous pottery pieces!

  • EastGeorgetowner

    Fabulous -- a really stylish, fun to read ,and informative article. It makes you feel like you went on a successful treasure hunting trip with the author, and she seems like somebody you'd want to be friends with -- and have her help you decorate your house with all the fun stuff you got for nothing! It just shows that all you need at these sales is a good eye....

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