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.

How to Furnish Your First Home WITHOUT Going into Debt

Update August 2016: "How To Furnish Your First Home Without Going into Debt" was published by The Huffington Post!! See the feature, here

When we bought our first home this past spring, we moved from a 1-bedroom apartment with approximately 600 square feet. Needless to say, the little bit of furniture we owned didn't go very far towards furnishing a 4-bedroom, 2,210 square foot house.

As a new homeowner, I understand the temptation to run up credit cards and charge accounts with furniture stores so your home can be decorated and finished as quickly as possible. However, my husband and I are committed to furnishing our home completely debt-free. Here's how we're doing it:

How to Furnish Your First Home WITHOUT Going into Debt! Affordable, budget decorating tips from Stevie Storck Design Co.

1. Rank rooms by priority and tackle your decorating in stages

There's no rule that says your house must be completely furnished 6 months, or even a year after you move in. A house is a longterm commitment. Slow down and let your decorating happen at a relaxed pace. Number one: you'll have better ideas because you won't feel so rushed and number two: you'll give yourself time to save up for big purchases. 

For us, our first priority was the living room since it's where we will spend the majority of our non-sleeping time at the house. After that it was the dining room and next up will be our master bedroom.

Click here to read my 5 Thrift Store Shopping Tips for Furniture & Home Decor

2. Accept hand-me-downs (after considering these 3 things)

It is possible to incorporate hand-me-down furniture in your new home while still creating a cohesive space, but you're going to have to be a little selective.  If your experience is anything like ours, news will spread like wildfire that you are buying your first house and soon even distant relatives, your parents coworkers, and casual acquaintances will be offering up their old furniture to help you get started. While it's such a kind and generous gesture on their part, if you aren't thoughtful about what you accept, you could end up with way too much furniture and not love any of it. Ask yourself these 3 questions:

Is this piece in good working condition?

Does it fit my style and/or can it be modified with new stain, paint, knobs, etc. to work with the design I have in mind?

Can I think of exactly which spot and in which room I would use it?

If you hesitate on answering any of these three questions, there's probably a piece out there that's a better fit for your space. Which leads me to...

3. Add Craigslist to your bookmarks bar

I'm at the point where I can't even count the number of things in my home that I bought off Craigslist. Searching through new listings on CL is a much a part of my daily routine as putting on deodorant or checking my email. You can score absolute gems on Craigslist, but the key is patience and consistency. You may not find what you are looking for the first time on the site, but if you keep checking back over the course of a few weeks, your odds of finding the perfect piece are much better. Don't be afraid to negotiate price and of course, be safe! Research the neighborhood before you go, bring a friend, and try to schedule pick ups in during the daylight hours and in a public place if at all possible. Use your best judgment, if you are at all uncomfortable during your interactions online or in person with a seller, leave the situation immediately. 

4. When buying new, ask for a cash discount

While I get the majority of my casegoods (wood pieces) second-hand, there are two things I highly suggest saving up for and buying new: mattresses and your living room sofa. Aside from the obvious sanitary reason for purchasing a mattress new, did you know that the lifespan for most mattresses is only 8 years? Even if your old college mattress still feels semi-comfortable, there's a good chance that it's not giving your spine the proper support that it needs. None of us are getting any younger, so do what you can to avoid unnecessary back aches and discomfort while you still can!

After your mattress, your living room sofa is probably going to get the most use out of any other furniture piece in your home. You don't want to go bottom of the barrel for this purchase or you'll end up with a sagging, uncomfortable sofa by this time next year. When shopping at furniture stores, ask about durability and how many years of use you can expect to get from the different sofa brands they carry. Avoid any 0% interest financing offers and instead ask if they offer a discount if you pay for your purchase with cash or check. It might not be a very big discount, but it will be even easier to relax on that new sofa knowing it is paid for in full. 

Are you trying to furnish your home on a budget? What is your favorite bargain purchase you've made so far? Share your answer in the comments below or tag me on Twitter or Instagram (@steviestorck)!

Currently Loving... Spanish Cement Tile

There's a new trend sweeping the design world: Spanish cement tile.

Actually, encaustic cement tiles (as they are widely known throughout the world) have been around since the 1850s, so they are hardly a new thing. What makes them different from normal clay or porcelain tiles is that they are not fired, and there is no layer of glaze on the surface of the tile. The result is a matte, porous, handmade tile that can be sealed or allowed to age and patina over time. 

While historically these patterned tiles were fairly colorful, manufacturers today are making a wide range of solid and neutral patterned designs that give a modern edge to this old-world material.

Alhambra Kitchen by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design

I have to admit, part of me sees these gorgeous tiles and thinks of the highly patterned linoleum flooring that was so popular in the 1960's and 70's. Patterned floors can be pretty polarizing. But with a natural, matte finish and in neutral patterns, I think this look is pretty classic.

What do you think?

Would you consider using cement tiles in your kitchen or bathroom? Or do you think 10 years from now, these people will be wondering what in the world they were thinking?

Share your opinion in the comments below or join the conversation on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter!