Estate Executors’ Headaches: Hard-to-Sell Items

One executor told me that the estate had a “huge collection of antique radios and old magazines.” What did I find? Every room of the decedent’s house was stacked floor-to-ceiling with old radios and magazines. These radios are nicely displayed, but still present a difficulty in getting them sold.

It’s fun to think of estates as being filled with hidden treasures, waiting to be discovered and cashed in for Big Bucks. Hardly a week goes by without a news report of a naive estate shopper finding a rare painting, tool, coin or other collectible. The hard truth is that estate personal property consists mostly of run-of-the-mill consumer goods, well-worn and sometimes musty smelling. Some estate personal property is just downright hard to dispose of: used medical equipment, old computers and accessories, solvents and paints, and obsessive collections. Executors, faced with disposing of these items (and justifying their decisions to the decedent’s family), are often hard-pressed to find solutions.

Let’s see if there aren’t some solutions to these estate disposal complications.

Obsessive Collectors

I always cringe whenever estate executors call me to set an inspection and say: “…and there’s a huge collection of…” Usually, these “huge collections” turn out to be a decedent’s “huge obsession” instead. The decedent collected for the sake of collecting, with no thought given to the rarity or quality of the individual items. For executors, such collections can be a headache.

For example: one executor told me that the estate had a “huge collection of antique radios and old magazines.” What did I find? Every room of the decedent’s house was stacked floor-to-ceiling with old radios and magazines. There were paths from the front door to the back door, the kitchen and the bathroom but no room at all to deviate from the path. Every horizontal surface in every room—except for a few chair seats—was covered with stacked magazines and radios. If I were to pull a radio from the middle of a stack, they would all tumble like dominoes.

The problem? The house was already listed for sale and the real estate broker wanted it emptied so that it could be sold. Selling the radios on eBay made no sense, because there wasn’t enough time to sort, photograph and list each item; nor was there any likelihood of a profit once (or if) they were all sold. Selling large collections of mundane items at a live auction doesn’t work very well either, because the supply of radios invariably outstrips the demand for them.

The solution? Using SearchTempest, I searched Craigslist nationwide for the keyword “radio” in the collectibles category; then I searched Google using the term (in quotes) “we buy old radios.” Between the two searches, I was able to find a dealer in Tennessee who drove over and made an offer on the entire houseful of radios. Of course, the price wasn’t outstanding, but it was a win-win solution: the estate didn’t have to pay to sort/value/sell/dispose of the radios (the dealer took them all) and the dealer picked up a lot of parts and/or inventory at a bargain price. Executors faced with a similar circumstance can use the same technique on any “compulsive collectible” items.

With the magazines, we weren’t so lucky. The Boy Scouts, who used to collect magazines in their fund-raising paper drives, no longer take magazines. The executor opted to rent a dumpster and throw them all away rather than pay someone to sort through them looking for “gold.”

There are three ways to approach the liquidation of used medical equipment: first, determine a price that competes with the Medicare reimbursement for the item and then advertise the item for sale at that price; second, sell the item to a used equipment dealer; or lastly, donate the item to charity.

Used Medical Equipment

One would think that with an ever-aging population there would be a brisk market for used medical equipment: walkers, scooters, bathroom aids, oxygen tanks, etc. But, that’s not the case. Medicare rules are very specific about what types of durable medical equipment they will pay for, and where such equipment can be purchased. Senior citizens who expect to be reimbursed by Medicare for their equipment must buy the equipment from Medicare-approved sellers. Medicare’s reimbursement policies greatly reduce the resale market for used durable medical equipment.

There are three ways to approach the liquidation of used medical equipment: first, determine a price that competes with the Medicare reimbursement for the item and then advertise the item for sale at that price; second, sell the item to a used equipment dealer; or lastly, donate the item to charity.

To determine a competitive price for the equipment, an executor first needs to know what the out-of-pocket cost is to buy their particular piece of equipment through Medicare. Generally, anyone desiring to buy durable medical equipment through Medicare will pay 20 percent of the cost of the item, once their Medicare Part B deductible is met ($147 in 2013). So, a Medicare-approved mobility scooter with a $2,000 price tag would cost a user $400. For such an item, a marketable selling price for a gently used scooter would be between half and two-thirds of the Medicare reimbursement (that would be $200-$264). Before selling for that price, executors should check online for used medical equipment sellers (there are lots of them) to see if any of them will offer a better price. As a last resort, the used equipment can be donated to a charity and a tax deduction taken (check applicability with a tax advisor).

Paints and solvents are items that usually must be disposed of before real estate can be sold. Inconveniently, it is both illegal and irresponsible to just send such chemicals to a landfill.

Paints and Solvents

Paints and solvents are items that usually must be disposed of before real estate can be sold. Inconveniently, it is both illegal and irresponsible to just send such chemicals to a landfill. There are two ways to dispose of paints and solvents:

First, contact the waste disposal authority for your jurisdiction. Most counties have a hazardous waste disposal day, where paints and solvents can be safely disposed of. However, the dates for such disposal may not fit the needs of the estate. In those instances, household paints and solvents (not large commercial quantities) can be poured onto newspapers and allowed to air dry, and then the papers and dried solids can be thrown into the trash and safely taken to a landfill.

Many years ago when I purchased my restoration shop, my predecessor regularly stored the strip tank sludge in 55-gallon drums that were placed in his warehouse. Before closing the sale of the business I had an EPA inspector come by to inspect and comment on my liability. His report stated that the drums had to be taken away by a hazardous waste hauler at a cost of several thousand dollars. It was the EPA inspector who suggested to me the “newspaper” method of disposal, since I was, by EPA standards, a “small generator” of such waste. Surely, the small amount of leftover paint and solvents in a typical estate fit within this classification.

It wasn’t too long ago that schools and libraries would welcome such equipment, but that’s not the case any longer.

Computers and Accessories

It seems that every year computer software programs require greater speed and memory to operate. Computer hardware struggles to keep up with the demands placed by software and old computers are being disposed of at an alarming rate. It wasn’t too long ago that schools and libraries would welcome such equipment, but that’s not the case any longer.

Computers and cell phones contain significant amounts of lead, cadmium and mercury. When electronic equipment is thrown into a landfill, these elements seep into the groundwater. Eventually, trace amounts of them show up in our drinking water. So, the disposal of electronic equipment presents a challenge for an executor: the equipment can’t be thrown away, given away or sold. Electronic waste laws vary from state to state; the specifics for your state can be found here.

The e-waste disposal challenge has provided an opportunity for entrepreneurs, and most states now have access to such services. Executors can search online for “electronic waste disposal services” to find a suitable provider. Although using such providers will be an expense to the estate, the costs are much less than the possible fines and/or lawsuits that an estate executor would face for non-compliance.

In administering an estate, there are both treasures and traps. Wise executors will approach their duties conscientiously and cautiously.


Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.

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9 Comments

  1. karen says:

    Very helpful with aging parents, who have a home full of all of these items.

  2. accentrique says:

    Wow, thank you for all the great information. I especially appreciate the tip about pouring small quantities of paints and solvents onto newspaper. Also the tip on Search Tempest. A VERY informative column, keep ‘em coming!

  3. R Young says:

    What you’re not taking into account with old computers is that many vintage (ie, at least 20 years old) models are now collectible in and of themselves. Do some poking around on eBay, and you’ll see what I mean.

    And then there’s the Apple I, which are bringing hundreds of thousands of dollars when they come up for auction.

  4. Attics and Under Estate Liquidators says:

    Great article. I’ve been doing Estate Sales for the better part of 10 years, and you are exactly right. LOL

    Thank goodness for the internet.

  5. Deb Dunbar says:

    I know exactly what you mean. My mother was a “collector” and bought odd pieces of china (Noritake, Nippon, etc.) and Depression glass wherever she found it. Now I have a house (and cellar) full of her little treasures. I know she paid quite a bit for these items in the 1970s when they were hot collectibles, but now I’m finding I can’t even give them away.

  6. Jean Gagnon says:

    Check your local “Best Buy” to recycle computers, laptops, small appliances. They take quite a bit, and at least they’re not going into a landfill. You can find a list of what they take on their website.

  7. You should write about the converse situation. The estate with plum pickings where the collector has planned for the disbursement of a world-class collection. By definition this has to be the rarer case.

  8. pat says:

    This is a very informative article. When my Antique Trader Magazine arrives Wayne Jordan’s column is always the first one I read. He shares pertinent and up-to-date information that is always very helpful. Thanks Mr. Jordan!