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A Plan for Your Stuff Thumbnail

A Plan for Your Stuff

Anyone who has lost their parents and then had to clean out their house knows it can be the worst part of settling an estate. Apart from just the logistics of disposing of all that stuff, how can you know whether any of that stuff is worth anything? Antiques dealer and historian Bruce Austin joins us for a conversation about how to determine what may have value and how to handle it.

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Full Transcript below:

Speaker 1 (00:07):

And welcome back to 30 Minute Money, the podcast that delivers action-oriented smart money ideas in little bite-sized pieces. Today joining me in Roc Vox Studios in Bushels Basin, Steve Wershing from Focused Wealth Advisors.

Speaker 2 (00:20):

Scott, nice to see you.

Speaker 1 (00:21):

Nice to see you again. And we're doing something a little bit special today. We

Speaker 2 (00:24):

Are. I'm very excited. We have a guest in the studio today. We have a guest for the first time. I think I've been down here. So because this is a very interesting topic and we needed somebody who really knows what he is talking about, unlike me to guide us through this stuff, please introduce. So today we have with us Bruce Austin, who is not only an antique dealer in town and has been doing that for 40 years, but also as a researcher and has done historical studies, including publishing a couple of books. One about the 1903 Gustav Stickley exhibit that was in Syracuse and Rochester, which I understand from Bruce's the first traveling art exhibit in history. And another book about called Tourists and Trade, about two shops. What kind of shops were there around the Depression? Two

Speaker 3 (01:11):

Tiny little craft shops when producing pottery, the other metal.

Speaker 2 (01:16):

Okay, very cool. This

Speaker 1 (01:17):

Is awesome. This is actually an episode where I can maybe take part in because history is a passion of mine. Jump

Speaker 2 (01:24):


Speaker 1 (01:25):

I'll try to jump.

Speaker 2 (01:26):

There you go. And the reason that we have Bruce here is because we talk a lot about the financial plans, a plan for your money, a plan for your finances, but there's also, you need to have a plan for your stuff. And this is personal to me. I have a lot of clients who have parents that have passed away and they leave their kids a house full of stuff that they've got to sort through. And I just recently sold my house and moved out of a place I've been in for 31 years. And so I've got, I've am very sensitive to how much stuff you pile up over the course of time, but the reason that Bruce is here is because there might actually be value in some of that stuff, and a lot of people may miss that. And we're all used to dealing with the finances, the money part of it, valuing, that's easy.


But Bruce, you'd made a comment to me a little while ago that you're surprised at some of the things that you see out at the curb or surprised at things that people get rid of because they're just trying to empty out a house. And so that's why we wanted to talk with you a little bit about that today. So let's just start there. So when comes to, if your parents pass away and you've got to empty out the house, what is it that people are really missing? What are some of the things that people don't realize that might be important when it comes to how to make decisions about how to get rid of all that stuff?

Speaker 3 (02:52):

I think sometimes there's a tendency to go to one extreme or the other, to undervalue things or to things. So the lamp that's sitting in the living room was always called a Tiffany lamp, but in fact is not a lamp made by Tiffany. It might be a very nice lamp, but doesn't carry the kind of value that Tiffany does. On the other hand, there are objects that may seem inconsequential, perhaps that we're sitting on the shelf for years and years without anybody really paying much attention to them and that they do have value. Those could be small craft objects like the book that I wrote about crafts or manufacture pieces that carry some value. People I think tend to think about antiques just in terms of the high end. And if you broaden your thinking to antiques, collectibles, then all of a sudden some of those seemingly ordinary objects are objects that may have intrinsic value to them. Maybe not the rake out in the garage, but some of the other things in the house, although out in the garage is a good place to look for stuff too.

Speaker 2 (04:00):

Okay, sure. Yeah. Well, I think we learned that from American pickers. So before we dive into some of the guidelines and whatnot, what are some of the most surprising things that you've seen in the 40 years that you've been dealing antiques when it comes to estates and houses full of things that people leave behind?

Speaker 3 (04:20):

I think every now and again, but with some regularity. I might go to a garage sale and I find sterling silver flatware and it's priced as though we're silver plate.

Speaker 2 (04:31):

Oh, okay.

Speaker 3 (04:33):

When it's out at the garage, you've priced it. It's fair game. But I think that for folks that either their own possessions or the possessions that they're entrusted with parents, for example, there should be a motivation to look carefully at all of those. And because nobody can know everything, occasionally, it's worthwhile bringing somebody in, paying them to look at the items to help identify, okay, stuff, good stuff, household stuff, put it in the dumpster stuff and sorting things that way.

Speaker 2 (05:10):

So let's talk about that. So if you're faced with having to distribute a house full of stuff like that, how should you approach that? I mean, there are probably people you could call in who could sort of give you a ballpark estimate and that kind of stuff. And I know that you've commented to me the same thing. I've commented on the program here that sometimes you get what you pay for. So how should people approach that kind of a project?

Speaker 3 (05:37):

I would say look for recommendations from other people or if there are dealers, and they might be a fine art dealer, but the fine art dealer may know people that specialize in furniture or ceramics, all sorts of other specialties, look for a personal recommendation, find somebody you trust, invite them to come in and give you an idea of what's there. And as I say that broad sort in terms of this is valuable, this may be valuable, this belongs in the dumpster, will be a helpful first cut. But for anybody, I think the customary advice is don't throw anything out, don't clean anything.

Speaker 2 (06:23):

So that's interesting. Why shouldn't you clean anything?

Speaker 3 (06:26):

Sometimes what looks like dirt or grime is what we call patina and it's intended to be there. So that old copper object that doesn't look like a new penny and has a dark finish on it, that's the way it was made. You should leave it alone.

Speaker 2 (06:42):

Oh, interesting. Okay. So what are some thoughts about how, if you don't know anything about this area, what are some things you can do or what kinds of things can you ask to try to get a sense of? Just confirm that the person you're talking to knows what they're talking about?

Speaker 3 (06:58):

Well, you can ask for their referrals. So who else have you worked for or what their experience has been, what they do in terms of buying and selling antiques. Some people who, for instance, offer free appraisals. They're not going to be giving you an appraisal. They're there to purchase items from you and they'll tell you what they can pay, not necessarily what the item is worth. For estates, most of the time the sales price is going to be at the wholesale level. That's how it's going to be valued for the purposes of the estate. So not the retail price, but the wholesale. However, the person that you're speaking with should have some knowledge of what it is that they're buying and be willing to impart some of that information to you. You're not going to be going to class, so it's not a three week course on fine China or furniture from the 19th century.


They should be able to say, this is what the object is, here's why I'm interested in it, this is what I can pay for it. And if you ask them, what is the retail on this? Then you'll see the difference between what they're willing to pay and what one could expect to get at a retail store at an antique store, for example. Knowing that there's a gap doesn't mean that somebody's ripping you off. It means that they're trying to earn a profit. A profit isn't guaranteed because I too have lots of things that I've had for years and years and they're going to be in my estate sale, I'm afraid.

Speaker 2 (08:35):

Right. And just because somebody's in business and needs to make a margin doesn't necessarily mean that they're treating you badly, but you should at least know what the retail and the wholesale are. Yeah,

Speaker 3 (08:50):

And I think that most people, well, I think that people should be willing to provide you with that information. What is a fair markup? I think many antique dealers talk about 50 to a hundred percent. So if I buy it for $5, I have to think I'm going to be able to sell it for 10, not price it 10, sell it for

Speaker 2 (09:11):

10, right?

Speaker 3 (09:12):

I'm going to price it 13. And so in the negotiation come down to 10. Some people think that an unfair margin, well then you have to start pricing the things. But I think if you're calling somebody in because you perceive them as being experts and they're going to give you straight advice, I would pay attention to it myself. If I don't know, I say, I don't know.

Speaker 2 (09:40):

Okay, great. I don't

Speaker 3 (09:41):


Speaker 2 (09:42):

And knowing that margin is really helpful so that people have some context for things and 50 or a hundred percent may sound like a big margin, but there's a big difference between talking about $1,000 objects and one $10,000 object. So a lot of smaller objects, I would anticipate there would be a bigger margin there that because there's more work to get rid of all of it. That's right.

Speaker 3 (10:05):

The $10,000 object, I think 10% is a fair mark

Speaker 2 (10:09):

On it.

Speaker 3 (10:10):

The $100 object, then I'd be looking closer to 25 to 50%

Speaker 2 (10:16):

On it. Okay. What are your thoughts about the companies that will come in and do an estate sale mean? Should you have somebody come in and look at your stuff before those companies come in? Or do you think that those companies are reliable sources of information about valuable things that might be in that estate?

Speaker 3 (10:37):

I think the organizations that offer household and estate sales have pockets of knowledge as all of us have pockets of knowledge. What they're experts on is setting up an estate sale, not necessarily all of the contents that are in the estate. So I think it's still valuable and probably worth the $200 it might cost, bring somebody in and have them identify things that perhaps deserves special note for the estate sale person. I think the good advisor is also going to tell the homeowner or the beneficiary that there are things that they can look for themselves. For example, I was at somebody's house and the deceased had a tremendous book collection. The books weren't particularly valuable. I mean, there were kind of ordinary novels of which 10,000 copies were printed. So there's really no value in the book beyond a dollar, what might be in the book is what you want to look for. So it would be worth a couple hours to fan through the books. That's a great place to hide money.

Speaker 2 (11:40):

Okay, so you're not talking about a signature of the author. You're talking about stuff that's hiding in the book.

Speaker 3 (11:46):

That's right. What used to be called women's day coats or day dresses, the Pockets besides being filled with Kleenex, that's also a place where money ends up.

Speaker 2 (11:58):

I actually have a story from an advisor that I used to work with, and the sort of stereotypical client that would do this is like a depression era person. They're the people who hide things all over the place so that they have 'em later on. And he went to somebody's house and they asked a question about some savings bonds and what they were worth and that kind of stuff. And so he talked with 'em a little bit about it and tried to get a sense of, so how many are we talking about here? Because it's a bigger job if there are a lot of 'em. And they went over and pulled something off the bookshelf and just fan through the pages and all these savings bonds just dropped right out of it. And he said, yeah, we have dozens of these things. So that's excellent advice.

Speaker 3 (12:40):

And I think the expert's also going to be able to inform you the beneficiary of the person handling the estate of trends in the market for antiques and collectibles. So at one time people did buy hummels and they spent a lot of money on hummels. Most hummels today are almost

Speaker 2 (13:01):

Worthless. Interesting

Speaker 3 (13:03):

$5 to maybe $25 if you can find somebody that's willing to pay that. So because something once was expensive doesn't necessarily mean it is today expensive, and the reverse of that is equally true.

Speaker 2 (13:18):

Okay. Yeah. Interesting. One of the things you'd sort of slipped in there was how the $200, they might pay you to come in and look at stuff. What should someone expect to pay for somebody to come in and take a look around and give them an idea of what might be valuable and what it might be worth?

Speaker 3 (13:35):

If I'm going to spend three hours at the house talking with you, and I think you want to talk with me as an employee, not as a conversationalist, a couple hundred bucks should be okay. Some people are willing to come over and offer that information free or relatively free. But as you noted earlier, more often than not, you do get what you're paying for.

Speaker 2 (14:00):

Right. Well, and I've heard that in areas of collectibles that the people who will give you a free assessment are probably looking to buy things for their own inventory and to resell them. And so there's sort of a conflict of interest there that they have a vested interest and getting it from you inexpensively so that they can then sell it for a whole lot more.

Speaker 3 (14:25):

And an appraisal usually means some form of valuation where the person doing the appraisal doesn't have the conflict. In other words, if I come in and you ask me to do an appraisal, that is what I'm going to do for you. I'm not there to buy anything from you.

Speaker 2 (14:43):

And that was going to be the next question is would you expect conflicts of interest like that where if you pay somebody, what's the likelihood that they're going to want to buy it from you? Or should you just insist that if I'm going to pay you for it, we're not going to talk about you buying anything from me?

Speaker 3 (15:02):

Well, my insistence is that I'm not buying anything if I'm there to do an appraise, if at a later point in time you find that you want my advice, that's a separate business arrangement.

Speaker 2 (15:15):


Speaker 3 (15:17):

But I think that you want to have that sort of barrier between the person who's doing the valuing and the person who's doing the buying or the selling for you. And I think for most folks, if you have a household full of objects, one of the things you can do yourself without a lot of knowledge is get your phone out and photograph

Speaker 2 (15:39):

Everything. Okay.

Speaker 3 (15:43):

That begins creating an inventory. So we've got photographic evidence, then you can write things down. For instance, this phase is marked. There's a signature on the bottom and it says whatever it says there and so on throughout the house. But I think that'll offer documentation for the possessions that are now in your care.

Speaker 2 (16:06):

Okay. Okay. What's the value of getting a second opinion? Is that ever worthwhile or is that just more trouble than it's worth?

Speaker 3 (16:18):



It can't hurt, and again, the cost is modest on this. If we're using my figure of a couple hundred dollars, it wouldn't hurt to do that. But you judge in terms of how comfortable and easy you feel when you're talking with the person. I mean, we do get a read on whether or not the individual's being a straight shooter, and we get some information about how much they know about what they're talking about. So the person that disuses you of the fact that it is not a Tiffany lamp, should also be able to tell you why it's not a Tiffany lamp and it's not just the signature.

Speaker 2 (16:59):

Oh, I see. Okay. Okay. So what's the likelihood that there's going to be something of value in grandma's stuff if you have to sort all that out?

Speaker 3 (17:10):

I think I've been to houses where really there is nothing of much merit at all in there. It's good functional ordinary furniture and decorative accessories. And for that, a household sale makes perfect sense. The likelihood that there's something good, I don't know. Somebody spends 60 or 80 years on this planet over time, chances are they will have found something or intentionally bought something, and they may have secreted it away. Your example earlier about the depression, it's a good example. People do do that. They hide things, then they forget where they've hidden them. So nobody knows until somebody goes in and goes through all of the material that's there.

Speaker 2 (17:57):

And either way, if you're talking about a couple hundred dollars and you've got a house full of stuff that you're going to end up selling in an estate sale, you're going to cover a couple hundred dollars several times over by selling all this stuff, even just for ordinary prices. I

Speaker 3 (18:12):

Think so, because most of the folks running household and estate sales, they probably charge in the area of 30%, 35% plus their expenses and for better things, you and the household sale manager can talk about the pricing for those. I would not. If I hired a household sale company, I would not go in to try to micromanage them, but I'd be knowledgeable ahead of time rather than after the fact.

Speaker 2 (18:40):

Okay, great. Yeah, and as I said, if you empty out a house, if you end up netting a couple hundred dollars less because you brought somebody in and potentially identified something that really did have value, I mean, that's a pretty good investment. That's a,

Speaker 3 (18:55):

I think so. And maybe the thing that you decide to send out of the household sale and sell in another venue like an auction for instance, or to a private person.

Speaker 2 (19:06):

Yep. Exactly. Well, so what else should people know before I wrap this up?

Speaker 3 (19:14):

I think taking the time to look at what's there, trying to make an inventory for yourself, and then for other people, making notes on what seems to you to be significant, even if it isn't, and calling the attention of whoever it is you invite in to look at the merchandise to those specific items, and then allowing him or her to roam around the house to help you to identify things that it didn't occur to, you might have value.

Speaker 2 (19:43):

Okay. Great. Well, Bruce, if people have questions about this and want to find out more, where can they find you?

Speaker 3 (19:49):

I'm available through work and by email. I'm also on Facebook and I'm listed in the phone book.

Speaker 2 (19:58):

And so under Bruce Austin in the five phone book, that's where, what is that? Do we still have those kindling? Yeah. Right. And do you want to give a contact information for people to listen to? We'll put it in the show notes too, but

Speaker 3 (20:12):

They can reach me through my full-time work address, which is Bruce dot austin at.edu.

Speaker 2 (20:19):

Awesome. Bruce, thanks so much for spending a little time with us. Your 30 minute action item, if you go through your own house, figure out how much stuff you have and how you're going to dispose of it in the end so that you might give a little thought to it before you saddle your kids with it.

Speaker 4 (20:38):

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Speaker 1 (22:04):

There you go. Now I know what to do with those 500 Pez dispensers I have in my basement.

Speaker 4 (22:08):

I think you should have Bruce look at those.

Speaker 1 (22:10):

Thanks a lot, Bruce, for coming in, and thank you for listening and watching to 30 Minute Money. You could find it at 30 Minute Money. And thank you to Steve Wershing of Focused Wealth Advisors. My name is Scott Fitzgerald of Roc Vox. You can find me at rocvox.com and we will catch you next time on 30 Minute Money.