On the hunt for a one-of-a-kind thrifted furniture find? These expert tips will help.

By Wendy Rose Gould
December 12, 2019
Joakim Sundström/Getty Images

In a world where there’s too much waste, thrift stores, antique markets, and consignment shops offer a solution to overstuffing the landfill. Beyond that, shopping secondhand often translates into cost savings and an opportunity to find one-of-a-kind pieces. Of course, anytime you venture into used furniture and decor, there’s a good chance you’ll run into some curveballs.

For starters, it’s more of a hunt with no guarantee of finding pieces that will align with your style. Also, shopping consignment usually means doing a bit of research beforehand and using a sharp eye mid-shopping in order to know what you’re buying and how much you ought to spend. To better navigate the thrill of the consignment furniture hunt, abide by these expert tips and tricks.

RELATED: How I Conquered My Fear of the Flea Market

1
Think creatively and be open-minded

While it’s smart to come with a list of what you’re looking for and dimensions for each, thinking creatively and with an open mind is crucial when shopping for secondhand furniture.

“Don’t be afraid to grab pieces you love, even if you don’t have the entire look you are going for just yet. For example, you might fall in love with some chairs in one store and find a table at a different shop. Taking this approach will save you the most money,” says Darlene Richert, the CEO of Avery Lane, a luxury consignment shop based in Scottsdale, Ariz. “Woods do not have to match nor do metals; play around with different shades and tones. Also, try visualizing repurposing items. A small antique chest with a granite top can quickly be your vanity in a powder room, and contemporary living room side tables can make great nightstands.”

2
Make friends with the shop owner

If you’re an avid collector or seeking a very specific piece of furniture, build a rapport with the shop owner and fill them in on your wish list. “I recommend making a flyer with images of the type of furniture you collect and bringing it to the shop,” says Reyne Hirsch, a 20th century design expert and recurring host on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow. “After introducing yourself to the manager, owner, or floor staff, leave a copy of the flyer asking them to contact you if they get anything in that may be a fit.”

3
Check each item thoroughly for damage and flaws

Used items are bound to have imperfections, and in order to make an educated purchase it’s important to be aware of any damage. “Flaws may be hiding just out of sight, and you want to know exactly what you’re getting,” says Trae Bodge, a smart shopping expert. “Flip over any cushions to look for rips or stains, examine seams to look for separations, test any zippers, wiggle the piece to make sure it’s stable, and run your hand along wood to feel for scratches that may be colored in. If you find any damages and you still want the piece, try negotiating a lower price.”

4
Check for signs of restoration, too

In addition to checking for damage, Hirsch adds that it’s also important to check for any signs of restoration, particularly with costly antiques. “The value of an item can decrease greatly if it's been refinished or repaired,” she says. “It's OK if you like that it's been repaired, just be prepared to pay a greatly reduced price if it is or walk away if they won't lower the price tag.”

Signs that a piece has been repaired include more than one set of holes where drawer pulls/knobs were installed, more than one color of paint (check the interior and underside), a fresh varnish smell or sheen, and fabric that doesn’t look like it’s from the period the furniture was designed.

 “Also, bring a blacklight,” she adds. “Move the furniture to a dimly lit area and run a blacklight over the wood. You will see touchup paint in areas ‘pop’ that you might not be able to see with a naked eye.”

5
Question high price tags

On that note, it’s important to question high price tags before handing over your credit card. “Look for tags or labels that indicate the brand name, and if you don’t see one, ask a sales associate if they know why the price is high,” advises Bodge. “They might know that this is a rare piece, which would explain the price. Before purchasing, however, do a little digging on your smartphone to get a sense of what the piece typically goes for. Craigslist, eBay, and Facebook Marketplace are good places to look.”

6
If you love it, be quick

The thing about consignment shops is that there’s usually only one of each item in the store, and it’s likely to move quickly. “Items in Avery Lane revolve like a Parisian merry-go-round. Don’t hesitate on purchasing pieces that speak to you. If you love a gorgeous red chinoiserie desk and see it as a great value, buy it and the right place for it will open up in your home,” says Richert.

This tip especially applies to accessories and art since they’re easy to move again and again until you find the perfect placement. Should you miss out on a piece, the benefit of consignment is that new items are consistently added to the store.

7
Arrive early and travel further

Part of the excitement of shopping for consignment furniture is the hunt. Be prepared to arrive early and to head out of town for more options and potentially better bargains.

“New consignments are usually cleaned up and tagged the day before placing them on the showroom floor the following morning. As they say, the early bird catches the worm or the great piece of furniture,” notes Hirsch.

Bodge adds, “If you live in an urban area, look at secondhand shops a few towns away. Prices tend to be higher in areas that are more cosmopolitan. Also, larger chains often have category-specific sale days, so it’s worth making a quick call to the shop that you plan to visit and ask if they have any furniture sale days coming up.”

8
Don’t forget to shop art and accessories

“A home remains bland until you fill it with accessories and art that mean something to you. This is where consignment stores can be real treasure troves,” says Richert. “Look for pieces that will complete your ‘collection.’ When buying art, look for items that are oversized and remember to see it without the frame. Changing a frame to a sleek silver or bronze can make it instantly feel contemporary. This is a trick many designers use to create exceptional homes on a budget.”

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