Seniors & Aging

Looking to downsize or take care of a loved one’s estate? Here’s what you should know

Franny Erickson, right, helps a customer at an estate sale put on by EarthaKittys on June 22, in Bellingham.
Franny Erickson, right, helps a customer at an estate sale put on by EarthaKittys on June 22, in Bellingham.

For seniors thinking of how best to downsize, or for middle-aged adults who need to know how to cope with their parents’ estate, it isn’t hard to find help in Whatcom County.

Local antiques and household goods experts Franny Erickson, Jeff Bassett and Nancy Ernst, and R.B. Wick all operate estate sale businesses, with more than three decades’ experience among them – and that’s just estate sales.

At least several hundred local dealers, re-sellers, collectors and curiosity seekers are familiar with these specialists, all of whom spend many weekend hours year-round selling items and liquidating estates.

They all consult with their clients on how best to deal with both emotional and financial issues.

Erickson owns EarthaKittys Estate Sales and Appraisals, while Bassett and Ernst own Diamond Antiques and Wick operates Bellingham Coin Shop/Irongate Estate.

Love and money

Where the love of families and heirs – and prized heirlooms – is often involved, most people realize that a practical approach is important, too.

Nobody wants to see valuable possessions go for pennies on the dollar.

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Debbie Sofka, left, helps a customer at an estate sale put on by EarthaKittys on June 22, in Bellingham. Evan Abell

“I do a ton of research,” says Erickson, 56, who for two decades operated EarthaKittys antique store in the Old Town antique district of Bellingham. She and her estate sale staff – Debbie Stofka, Diane Joy and Augie Chambers – attempt to establish a “fair-market” estate sale price to provide a maximum benefit.

Most items, of course, will likely sell for less than they did originally, since many are household goods rather than collectibles.

But vintage collectibles of many types – for example, jewelry, clothing, furniture, glass, books, watches and clocks – can be worth many times more than their original price.

“Nobody can know everything,” Erickson says with a grin, always aware many customers are constantly on the hunt for treasures, whether priced at the collectible market or what’s often called a “score.”

That’s especially true because some buyers are widely recognized specialists who know more about their areas of expertise than most estate sale clients and sellers.

But before the second half of the 1990s – when the internet and eBay emerged – and before printed and/or online price guides multiplied like rabbits, it was easier for people to score bargains at estate sales, not to mention rummage sales, garage sales, tag sales and the like.

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Franny Erickson, right, helps a customer at an estate sale put on by EarthaKittys on June 22, in Bellingham. Evan Abell

So family sellers, you really are more likely to benefit now than 25 years ago. But don’t be too discouraged if you hear about someone scoring a bargain.

When all these estate sale professionals hold a signed contract, they commit themselves to researching the value of what you have for sale.

Erickson estimates about three-quarters of her clients have deceased parents and about one-quarter are down-sizing seniors.

It gets emotional

Erickson has long observed how emotional the estate sale process can be. Families tell her what they want to keep, but once they sign a contract, she and her staff quickly go to work on all else.

However, she wants people to keep memories. She calls the many people she has helped to downsize/liquidate “my families,” as when she says, “I do a lot of listening … I keep photos of their estates online on my blog for my families to remember. This can be a wonderful bonding experience.”

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For-sale items are pictured at an estate sale put on by EarthaKittys on June 22, in Bellingham. Evan Abell

Ernst looks at estate liquidations as an important aspect of family life.

“We really are providing a service,” she says, with a multitude of memories of all the thanks she and Bassett have earned from clients. “They’re always very thankful.”

Both Erickson and the Bassett/Ernst married couple do true estate liquidation rather than start with total buyouts. Some estate sale people try to make a buyout and then sell the items themselves, but Wick encourages doing a real estate sale, as do the other firms.

“I’m a true on-site estate liquidator,” Erickson said.

Wick will sometimes do buyouts, because he has the storage space, but he, too, prefers to start with an estate sale. He also buys some items from the other two businesses that do not sell at estate sales.

“I love the business. My favorite part of the process is helping people realize they have an option,” he says. “I want to bring my ethics, morals and my belief that people should be treated fairly.”

All of them donate to local thrift shops, such as The Assistance League of Bellingham and the ARC of Whatcom County and its connection with Value Village. Goodwill and the Salvation Army, among others, also take clean and unbroken estate items, although it’s best to check what they can’t use.

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Franny Erickson, center, discusses an item with Lisa Distler, right, while helping a customer at an estate sale put on by EarthaKittys on June 22, in Bellingham. Evan Abell

How it goes

Erickson holds Friday through Sunday sales, aided by her seemingly tireless staff, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day. Prices are firm the first two days and half-price on Sundays, “with all bets off after 2 p.m.,” Erickson says. In other words, respectful bargaining is possible. (Hint: Do not offer five cents on the dollar on an already low-priced item.)

“We actually have a lot of fun as a staff,” says Erickson, who generally writes the longest newspaper classified ads (she splits costs with the families) and also puts them on Facebook, and craigslist. “Advertising works! I come from a family of writers and it shows.”

“We like to name the sales,” she says, such as the memorable “Sale That Time Forgot” at Hinote Corners off Pole Road, where a house was opened for the first time in 45 years and untold thousands of vintage items were scooped up by hundreds of treasure hunters.

“I don’t bring in things to spice up the sale, and I don’t buy things from the sale,” she says. “And as for people who switch price tags, that’s theft!”

The personable Bassett/Ernst team have worked in Bellingham since 2005. As Diamond Antiques, which also owns a higher-end store at 1806 Cornwell Ave., they usually conduct Friday and Saturday estate sales from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., with half-price the second day.

“What amazes me is the huge array of things I see,” Bassett said. “Everyone often lives so differently. It’s a lot of work. I got into this when I was in Seattle and wanted to get out of the restaurant business.”

The colorful Wick likes to chase down customers with whatever flexibility he can come up with. His Bellingham Coin Shop (also a thrift store) shares part of the space Diamond Antiques once maintained at the Cornwell Avenue address.

“I started (wheeling and dealing) when I was 9-, 10-years old,” says Wick, 31. “I tried to learn all I could about coins and other old stuff. I love it! I probably spend about 20 hours per week on my phone for a big sale.”

More than a few customers and rivals say Wick may well wind up on a TV show like “American Pickers.”

Erickson’s journey

“I’ve been in antiques for more than 30 years,” says Erickson, who has worked full time in estate sales since 2011. “I learned the ropes, learned so much, in Old Town from Carol Jenkins (now living in Canada) at Pink Flamingo and (the late) Bertha Lechtman at Old Town Traders.”

Erickson remembers her inspirations, since her building on the west side of Holly Street was originally vacated and later burned down.

“One day, an older couple asked me to help them, and we threw a tiny little estate sale,” she says. “I enjoyed myself and enjoyed helping them. I realized this is what I should be doing. … I understand the stress. By now, I’ve heard it all.”

She holds memberships in the Certified Appraisers Guild of America (through the Missouri Auction School), American Society of Estate Liquidators and Asheford Institute of Antiques.

What sells best?

“Mid-century modern furniture,” Erickson says. “I want to get the collectors. Musical instruments sell really well, and often artwork. Jewelry is also a good seller. I remember how exciting it was at ‘The Button Collection’ sale.”

“People collect their childhood,” Bassett says. “We like to leave things the way they are as much as possible. We just try to do the best we can for the sellers … We know what things will sell for and won’t sell for.”

Wick is also a collector of Whatcom County historical items. “My favorite piece is an 1860 envelope addressed to Henry Roeder.”