Furnishing your new home can be fun and creative… but it can also cost a pretty penny. And that extra expenditure is especially intimidating if you’re a young adult or college student just moving out on your own for the first time.
Fortunately, there are more resources than ever before for purchasing used furniture, and doing so can save you a heap of money. (Case in point: I was able to furnish my entire apartment for less than $1,000, thanks mostly to Craigslist.)
But as amazing as some deals can be, used furniture can also be a bit of a gamble. And the last thing you want to do is waste money on a piece that ends up only lasting a few weeks… or even worse, a piece that introduces a population of unwanted, six-legged guests into your new home.
We spoke to a few thrift-savvy experts to get the down low on what to look for — and avoid — when shopping for pre-owned household goods.
Here’s what we found out.
Like everything else in our 2018 world, the search for used furniture has been transformed by the internet. Along with classic options, like consignment shops and curbside steals, you’ve also got digital alternatives like Craigslist or Letgo.
Don’t get us wrong — you can definitely find some amazing deals buying used furniture directly from the owner(s). But you can also run into some lemons… and you won’t have any protections in place to help you as you might with an actual business.
Pieces on sale at a consignment store have usually been vetted before they’re put on sale, giving you an added layer of insurance against accidentally buying a dud.
However, they won’t be quite as cheap as the stuff you’ll see elsewhere. Thanks to hefty commission agreements with suppliers, consignment store prices are somewhat inflated, says Andrew Zell, who works for junk removal service JDog United. Zell says that while pieces are marked down over time, they may be pulled from the floor before reaching a cost that “true frugal shoppers would consider reasonable.”
Good thing there are tons of other in-person options for used furniture seekers.
“Shop at estate sales, flea markets and secondhand shops,” suggests Darcy Segura, a Dallas-based vintage furniture buyer and reseller. “It’s no secret that midcentury modern furniture and decor are hot commodities nowadays, so such sales and shops are often where you can find quality, well-built furniture at reasonable prices,” she says.
Assess All Soft Pieces for Pests — Not Just Mattresses
Most buyers know bedbugs can lurk in used mattresses. But they can just as easily nestle into all sorts of other upholstered items, including sofa sets and even dining room chairs.
Alexander Crawley, an aptly-named entomology consultant for London-based Fantastic Pest Control, encourages buyers to take the time they need to inspect prospective pieces carefully, even if the seller seems sincere. “It’s absolutely possible for someone not to realize a piece of furniture is infested and sell it to you.”
“Check for dark stains or [insect] eggshells along the seams,” he suggests. “Check every nook and cranny, including the back of the furniture. Be sure to inspect the joints and all the dark areas.”
Since bedbugs can survive and lay dormant for a long time between “blood meals” (shudder), there’s no guarantee they’re not present just because a piece has been out of use or locked in a storage facility for a while. In fact, there’s no guarantee they’re not present even if the piece seems to pass inspection. “Even if you don’t find anything right away,” Crawley says, “keep checking periodically to see if there [are] any signs of an infestation.”
Along with bedbugs, upholstered furniture can also house fleas, carpet beetles and dust mites, all of which can be extremely difficult to get rid of. So if you’re at all in doubt about the cleanliness of a potential piece of furniture, leave it — this is one case where it’s way better to be safe than sorry.
Psst: Wood furniture can get infested, too
It makes sense that bugs could bed down in the soft materials we use to create cushions. But insects are nothing if not adaptable, and many have evolved to live inside less-hospitable-seeming materials.
For example, wood furniture serves as a prime nesting substrate for powderpost beetles — especially hardwoods commonly used in furniture construction, like walnut, oak, hickory and maple.
Unlike bedbugs, fleas and dust mites, powderpost beetles rarely bite pets or people. But they can turn a beautiful piece of wood furniture into dust in a flash. And if your home features wood construction, a serious infestation might even cause damage to its structural integrity.
So when you’re looking at a potential desk or table, be on the lookout for signs of stowaways. The most telling sign of powderposts are the sets of tiny exit holes, measuring from 1/32 to 1/16 of an inch in diameter.
Pay Attention to the Material
Whether you’re purchasing your furniture new or used, it’s obvious that some materials are sturdier than others. But while some flimsiness might be serviceable in an Ikea dresser you’ve just built yourself, if you’re buying something that’s already seen some use, quality is key.
“Don’t fall for today’s replicas,” Segura emphasizes — a tack she takes when doing her own thrifting. Those particle board pieces might be pretty, but they’re not built to last.
Perhaps surprisingly, in many cases, older can be better. After all, particle board wasn’t even a thing until the 1950s.
“I’ve found pieces that are at least 70 years old that, while they may need to be refurbished a bit, are as good as new, durability-wise,” Segura says. “Those are my favorite finds.”
Certain types of materials are naturally more durable than others. Teak, for instance, has long been a staple in Southeast Asian furniture making — not only for its beauty and strength, but also for its resilience. Teak contains natural oils and silica that make it resistant to water, mildew, fungi and stains, according to Fariz Zakka, who works for Indonesian furniture supplier Posteak Furniture.
Other hardwoods like ash, beech, birch, cherry, mahogany, oak and walnut all have a great reputation for high quality, says Zell — and they are thus usually more expensive to obtain. So if you find a good-looking piece on the cheap, jump on it!
Get up Close and Personal
When it comes to finding a great deal on a used piece of furniture, little details matter — not only to help avoid pest infestations, but also to verify build quality.
For instance, many pieces of well-made vintage wood furniture will feature dovetail joints as opposed to a joint made of nails or other fixtures. It’s worth taking a close look at those seams, anyway — corners and joints are “more likely to show signs of rot and other damage,” according to Segura.
Another indicator of high quality in a dresser or desk? A brand name, which you’ll find on the interior left side of the uppermost drawer in premier furniture, according to Zell. Look for “a stamped logo from the company that designed, developed and assembled the piece.” On occasion, this information might be inscribed on a brass plate. Not only can the logo help you recognize high-quality furniture faster, it also allows you to check out the company online and learn more about its reputation.
Armed with these tips, your used-furniture shopping trip should be less stressful and more exciting — and it will supply you with some high-quality, cozy pieces on which to kick back, relax and enjoy those sweet savings.
Jamie Cattanach (@jamiecattanach) is a writer whose work has been featured at Fodor’s, Yahoo, SELF, The Motley Fool, Roads & Kingdoms and other outlets.
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