How to Find the Hidden Cash in Your Attic

SmartMoney

As certainly as your kids will wake up at 5 a.m. on Christmas, sometime during your annual holiday pilgrimage home, your mother will say, "I do wish you'd go through those boxes in the attic." Maybe this year, you shouldn't fight her. In fact, help her sell all that stuff -- it could be lucrative.

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With thrifty consumers on the lookout for quality used goods, they're hitting estate sales -- and spending more money. Bargain hunters are spending about 15 to 25% more at estate sales now, compared to a year ago, estimates Caring Transitions, a company that manages estate sales and relocation around the country. Nationwide Estate Sales, a similar company, pegs the increase at around 10 to 15%, or more. Buyers are paying more per item, says John Buckles, president of Caring Transitions, and if they have to return to collect their first purchase, they often buy more. "We hadn't really seen that before," he said.

Good timing. And not just because it's family pilgrimage time. There are 2.1 million baby boomers with a house on the market today, according to the National Association of Realtors, making up 40% of all home sellers. Many are selling a family home in favor of smaller, more manageable abodes -- which means they have years worth of furniture, books, games and knick-knacks to divest.

Of course, it can be hard to tell what's worth the effort, and unless your childhood home was a trove of fine art and rare books, this process won't make you rich. Consider: Even the prized possessions presented on PBS' "Antiques Roadshow" are typically valued at less than $500, says Marsha Bemko, executive producer of the show. And many of the items that were hot a few years ago -- like shabby chic furniture and Beanie Babies -- won't fetch the kind of cash they once commanded. Still, done properly, an estate sale could cover the cost of a move and then some: A typical sale might yield up to $7,000, says Lori Tucci, an appraiser at Los-Angeles-based Estate Sale Angels.

SmartMoney asked the experts how down-sizers can make the most money -- when they should bargain hard, when they should take the best offer they can get, and what items to give away. Here's what we found in four popular categories:

Furniture

Bargain hard: Mid-century modern furniture from the '50s and '60s is especially popular, says Tucci. A mid-century modern buffet that sold for $75 or $100 earlier this decade, for example, could now sell for $300 to $400, adds Christine Acosta, who co-founded Key Estate Sales, a Chicago-based estate sale company, with her husband.

Take the best offer: Everyday furniture like couches, chairs and coffee tables may sell, especially if the pieces are light wood, aren't chunky and less than five years old. A couch in good condition might fetch a few hundred dollars through a site like Craigslist -- more if its leather.

Free with purchase: Wall-mounted televisions have rendered most entertainment centers obsolete, and mattresses and bedding have never sold well, experts agree. And clunky, dark-wood pieces like traditional dining and bedroom sets just aren't in style right now.

Clothing

Bargain hard: Expect high prices for couture brands like Chanel and Gucci - especially vintage pieces -- as well as other high-quality vintage from the 40s and 60s. Buyers have also been snapping up finely made vintage fur capes this season, which can fetch up to $500, says Lauren Houdlett, founder of accessories label Fat Baby Deer.

Take the best offer: Even if your pieces don't meet the quality standards of an exacting vintage connoisseur, clothing in good condition from retro-hip eras like the '40s, '60s, or '80s will still sell, says Brian Elenson, owner of 2MuchStuff4Me, a New York-based estate- and garage-sale company. And Native-American style pieces are popular too, Houdlett says -- for now.

Free with purchase: Mass-produced items from large chain stores like GAP or L.L. Bean are usually destined for Goodwill, or the smock-box at a local school. Same goes for anything heavily stained, sweatshirts, or sweatpants.

Books and Records

Bargain hard: If you have first- or limited-edition books, or copies signed by the author, have them appraised before you put them on a table with the Prince of Tides. Something like a limited edition, leather-bound book of Tennessee Williams plays could bring in hundreds, as can leather-bound series, especially Franklin Library books -- the company produced collector-edition books, often of classics. For LPs, look for things like more obscure Rolling Stones and Beatles records in their original sleeve and un-scratched, says Tucci. You could sell one of these for about $500.

Take the best offer: Individual leather-bound books, especially of the classics, are often worth your time to sell. So are LPs by jazz greats or by bands that were popular in the 60s, as long as they're in good condition and in their original sleeve.

Free with purchase: Most paperbacks fetch about a dollar or less and mass-produced hardbacks sell for a few bucks -- if they're not damaged. LPs that are heavily scratched or aren't in their original sleeve likely won't get more than a few bucks, if anything. Your old cassettes and CDs are a tough sell these days too, as digital music downloads have taken off.

Collectibles

Bargain hard: Porcelain dolls, tin toys made between the '20s and '40s, and many toys popular with the baby boomers -- a complete Lionel train set, say, or Mattel's Herman Munster doll -- can be lucrative, says Acosta. Also hot: Vintage movie posters; coin collections, especially those that feature gold coins; and vintage cameras in good condition made by companies like Carl Zeiss and Leica from the turn of the century until about the 1970s.

Take the best offer: Even baby boomer toys in imperfect condition are worth selling, as are complete coin collections, even those that aren't especially rare, because of their nostalgia factor. Contemporary art is popular right now, as is local art, so a painting that features an iconic building or landmark in your community may sell well in your area.

Free with purchase: Buyers don't care much for most collectors plates with dates -- the kind where you'd get a plate each month in the mail with a date on it -- especially if the collection is incomplete, says Tucci. And the kitsch bloom has worn off velvet paintings or 80s pastel, floral and landscape paintings and prints.

And Don't Forget About ...

Family snapshots and video: Stock photography and film companies may buy home movies -- 8mm, super-8mm and 16mm versions -- and photos that include an iconic event or a famous person -- even if your grandma is in the photo, too. "You can sometimes make hundreds of dollars from these things," says Tucci.

Silverware and china: With the price of silver at historic levels, sterling silver flatware is extra valuable right now. But "even silver-plate and stainless flatware will sell simply because it is an item that everyone can use," says Acosta says. Most silver-plate flatware sets sell for $40 to $75; sterling flatware sets for $500 to $1200 or more.

Items from the garage: Tools sell particularly well, says Elenson, because they're easy for buyers to carry home and pricey when purchased new. Old bicycles are in high demand, and that old three-speed cruiser in particular: In good condition, you could sell it for $100 or more.

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