How to Shop for Thrifted & Secondhand Furniture

Thrift stores are a budget decorator's best friend. Pinterest makes it all look so easy-- from thrift store furniture makeovers to buying valuable vintage pieces at a steal. In reality, second-hand shopping savvy is a skill that takes some practice! If you're frustrated about repeatedly coming home empty handed from your thrifting attempts, this post is for you! 

If you're new to the blog, let me start by saying that  I'm all about creating a beautiful home without blowing your budget. Click here to read one of my most popular posts, How-To Furnish Your First Home Without Going Into Debt. I'm often asked by friends and family members how I manage to score such awesome thrift store finds when all they see is junk. 

Well, I'm here to tell you it's not some special gift I was born with. My second-hand shopping success can be boiled down to these 5 tips I'm about to share with you. Read on to learn how to better shop a thrift store and find the best used furniture deals. 

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Leather Chair, Drawer End Table, Lamp - Craigslist | Mirrors & Books - Various thrift stores

1. Know Where to Shop 

At this point, I have a regular thrifting route of local shops that are my go-to's. You'll always find the best deals at places like Salvation Army, Community Aid, Habitat for Humanity Restore, and any local thrift stores and salvage shops in your area. The next tier would be consignment shops (here in York we have Finders Keepers!) whose prices are a little higher but they are much more selective about what they accept so you have a better chance of finding something good. After that, I'll stop by more boutique-style resale shops and antique stores that may have a selection of booths from different vendors. These shops are the most curated, and therefore have generally the highest price tags when it comes to secondhand furniture and home decor. But you'll still pay way less than what you would new and more importantly, you save time in looking.

I usually fit in thrifting when I'm out running other errands, or when I have a couple hours free during the day. But if you are new to thrifting and planning to visit a bunch of new stores, I would recommend doing a little research ahead of time. Thrift store hours can be weird, so always check what days and times they are open before you go! Calling ahead to see what day new items arrive, or if they have any weekly specials (like 50% off Wednesdays) can also help you plan your trip.  Of course, there are also online options, like Craigslist and now Facebook Marketplace which I've had great luck with as well. Those I tend to check anywhere from a couple times a week, to daily depending on if I'm actually looking for something or not. 

2. Know How to Shop

When I'm shopping at locally, I usually make two loops around the store, the first one focusing on big items like upholstery and wood furniture and the second focusing on "smalls" like lamps, accessories and artwork. I make a mental note of items I like, but I don't make any decisions until after the second loop. By that time, I've seen hundreds of pieces, so if I am still thinking about one or two in particular then I take that as a good sign I should buy them. 

When I'm shopping online, I have a few tricks for finding the hidden gems. First, you want to know which categories to look in. You might think that area rugs would fall under "Furniture", but some sellers list them under "Household". On Craigslist specifically, I will usually browse Furniture, Antiques, Household, Free and Arts & Crafts in that order. I also filter the results by checking the boxes for "has image" and "posted today" whether I've searched for a specific item or am just browsing a whole category to save myself some scrolling. When typing in search terms, it's good to try out a few different options since many types of furniture can be called by different names. General terms often cast the widest net and help you find the diamond in the rough. You might be looking for a midcentury modern teak dining table, but if a seller has those words in the listing that means they know what they have and are probably charging a premium price for it. You're looking for the grandmas and grandpas cleaning out their basement and having their teenage grandson list the items under simple words like "table". 

Tip: Know the store's pricing policies before you go. Generally, at thrift stores and consignment shops the pricing is firm. Some antique stores will let you negotiate, especially smaller ones but at larger ones with multiple vendors it can be tricky. If you're shopping on Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace, definitely negotiate!! If you think something is overpriced, point out why and offer them what you think it's worth. Even if the asking price is fair, I usually start by offering around 80%. The worst they can say is no.

3. Look for Good Bones

While you can find plenty of things in great condition, many secondhand items are in a gently used to very used state and could use a little love. I try to look past the fabrics and finishes and just look at the size and shape of each piece. A coat of paint can do wonders to transform a chair, a dresser or even a lamp. Old, thirsty wood can usually be revived with a nice coat of danish oil or Restor A Finish. Dining chair fabric is just about the easiest DIY reupholstery job. And if you can get a really good deal on a chair or sofa, having it redone with new fabric will still put you ahead of box store prices plus, chances are the piece will be better quality than what you could afford new. Which leads me to...

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Antique Piano - free on Craigslist | Vintage midcentury modern table - handed down from family | Art, Lamp, Baskets & Vase - Various thrift stores

4. Know Signs of Quality

There are a few hallmarks of quality construction when shopping for upholstered and wood furniture. I don't go out looking for high value antiques, although if I find them- great! I look for stylish, quality pieces that will actually get used, so here are the main 3 things I pay attention to:

  • Check for shop marks in common places, like inside drawers or on the bottom of a piece. If you find a name, do a quick Google Search on your phone to learn more.
  • "The Jiggle Test". Test out the construction of any piece by giving it a light jiggle. This works for wood and upholstered pieces,which have wood frames underneath the layers of fabric and cushioning. If a little movement makes the piece feel unstable, or if you can hear a lot of creaking and loose joints (called "racking"), I would probably pass on the item unless you want a project!
  •  Pay attention to the details, like if the piece you are looking at has drawers check to see if they are dovetailed. They are usually the most visible joinery in a wood piece and are a sign of quality in construction. Look at a piece from every angle, open the doors, sit on it (if it's something you would sit on!), see how every part and feature functions to get a good idea of what condition it's in and if you would need to put any work into it. 

5. Be Consistent!

The number one reason I have success with second hand shopping is that I do it frequently! Sometimes I'll find nothing, and other times I'll have a whole carload. That's just how thrifting works. When I am specifically in the market to buy something, I shop the same couple of stores up to 3-4 times per month. Even when I'm not, I go about once a month just to see what new. And like I said before, I browse online anywhere from a few times a week to multiple times in one day. No matter what anyone tells you, there are really no "good" thrift stores. It's always a gamble whether you'll find something or not, so if you're hoping to furnish your house with mostly secondhand pieces then thrifting has to become a part of your lifestyle!

What tips do you have for thrift store shopping? Did you score something awesome recently? 

I like to hang out on Instagram, so connect with me there to see my latest finds and tell me about yours! @steviestorck

This post was updated in March 2018, originally published in March 2016.