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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
(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
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:

Washington Post has an online directory

of many upcoming estate sales, and you can search sales by Zip
code on estatesales.net. 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!