Tips for Choosing Second-Hand Furniture That Will Make Your Space

Decorating is fun and it’s very satisfying to see your home come together in a way that reflects your personality. Of course, this can also be very pricey. Furniture is a major investment and all the other decor elements can add up to a hefty total rather quickly. Those who are budget conscious — as well as those who love a creative challenge — often opt for second-hand furniture to make their decor dreams come true.

Imperfections in second-hand furniture increase charm. This is a reproduction from Creative Coop.View in gallery
Imperfections in second-hand furniture increase charm. This is a reproduction from Creative Coop.

Choosing to use second-hand furniture, whether it is vintage or not, is a budget and environmentally friendly way to furnish a home. Plus, the search for hidden gems, bargain finds and special pieces can be a lot of fun. Just as with any project, it’s a good idea to arm yourself with information before you set out to scour the shops and tag sales in your area. Most importantly, be honest with yourself about the level of work you are willing to do in order to resurrect a second-hand piece of furniture. And, if you are not going to do it yourself, make sure that you have a realistic idea of the cost for basic jobs like upholstery work and wood repairs.

954bartend has gathered up some great tips for buying second-hand furniture.

Gallery-worthy finds like Panton chairs from Modernity are rare finds.View in gallery
Gallery-worthy finds like Panton chairs from Modernity are rare finds.

Examine pieces carefully

It happens: You find the perfect piece and you just have to have it. Beyond being a savvy price negotiator, you have to be smart about deciding whether a piece is worth the money…or even worth purchasing at all.

No matter where you find the piece of your dreams, before you make any offer or plunk down your hard-earned cash, examine the item very carefully. Sit on the sofa or chair, open doors and drawers and lean on the piece. Do all the parts work as they should and is it sturdy? If something is broken or not operating as it should, is it something that you know how to fix or that can easily be remedied?  If it’s damaged and you will need to spend money repairing it, try to bring down the sale price to accommodate for the expenses. Finally, look for tags or other markings on the piece that can help you determine if it is a real vintage find or just a mass-produced piece.

The raw weathered look, like on this cabinet from the Elk Group, is popular.View in gallery
The raw weathered look, like on this cabinet from the Elk Group, is popular.
True vintage classics are worth the expense.View in gallery
True vintage classics are worth the expense.

Buyer beware when it comes to a couch

Appearances can certainly be deceiving because there are vast differences among second-hand sofas and whether they are worth updating. The inner construction, which you can’t readily see, is the determining factor. According to SFGate.com, sofas that are more than 10 years old are likely to be sturdy enough to warrant recovering. Unfortunately, in the last decade, sofa constructions has become more about affordable cost than quality construction.

If the sofa is sturdy, turn it over and check the frame to make sure it hardwood and doesn’t have too many knots.  Joints should be connected with dowels and glue, not staples. If you can’t see the frame anywhere, at least try to lift the sofa. If it feels heavy, it’s likely a higher quality piece made of wood. It’s also key to pay attention to the cushions. Feathers or good foam are costly, so reusing the interior of the cushion saves a lot of money. However, if the foam inside is hard or crumbly — or if it contains foam peanuts — you will have to buy new fill for the cushions.

Vintage shapes can be upholstered in unexpected fabrics.View in gallery
Vintage shapes can be upholstered in unexpected fabrics.
Be sure to check cushion fill for firmness.View in gallery
Be sure to check cushion fill for firmness.

Give it the Sniff Test

Every home has its aroma and it doesn’t always smell like a rose. Second-hand furniture has already lived one life in someone else’s house and those pieces with upholstery will likely bring the native odors along with them. Even large wood pieces can have a smell. Sometimes a good cleaning and dose of fresh air can take care of it, but other smells like pet urine and smoke may never go away. This is all doubly true for sofas.

Be sure to smell upholstered pieces, even if you plan to recover them.View in gallery
Be sure to smell upholstered pieces, even if you plan to recover them.
Even a wood cabinet can harbor smells. This is a fun find from Vintage Addiction.View in gallery
Even a wood cabinet can harbor smells. This is a fun find from Vintage Addiction.

Pass on these treacherous treasures

Maybe it goes without saying, but never buy a second-hand mattress, no matter how good the price or how new it looks. Besides obvious stains and damage, there are plenty of hazards you can’t readily see like smells, bedbugs, bacteria and germs. These are all things that you don’t want to introduce into your home for any reason. If the budget is so tight that you can’t afford to buy a new mattress set, consider an air mattress as a temporary solution. Many of the new models are sturdy and quite comfortable.

While a second-hand bedframe is fine, you never want to buy a used matress.View in gallery
While a second-hand bedframe is fine, you never want to buy a used matress.

Another piece of second-hand furniture with potential problems is one that was put together by the consumer. Just about every home contains a piece or two of furniture that came in a box as parts, hardware and some unintelligible instructions. These are typically not very sturdy and are rarely worth any rehabilitation effort.

Finally, purchasing second-hand children’s furniture requires extra care. Often, older pieces do not meet current safety regulations, such those for as the slats and rails on baby cribs. Because of all the safety rules governing infant and children’s furniture, manufacturers often have to recall pieces and there’s no sure way to know if a second-hand piece was subject to a recall

Plan on Redoing Upholstery

We’ve already mentioned re-upholstery with regard to second-hand sofas, but it is often the only thing you need to turn an old discard into a new treasure. Because upholstery shows wear easily, sturdy chairs with a good design can look quite ratty if the seats or cushions are dirty or torn. If the piece is made of quality wood and has “good bones” it can be worth the cost of new upholstery.

That said, a bargain piece can quickly become a pricey project with an expensive fabric choice and complex re-upholstery job, especially if it includes new cushion stuffing. If you find a piece you love, do some quick mental math to determine if it is worth the time and effort. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it’s going to be a bargain!

Most upholstered pieces will need to be redone, either for quality or looks.View in gallery
Most upholstered pieces will need to be redone, either for quality or looks.

Solid Wood is the Best Bet

The bulk of second-hand furniture pieces that hold their structure and value is often because they are made from solid wood, especially hardwoods like beech, teak, walnut, maple, mahogany, or oak. Softwoods like pine may be common in second-hand pieces but they damage more easily and typically don’t last as long. It’s not worth the work of refinishing second-hand furniture if it is not made of sturdy hardwood.

If you still want to purchase the piece because it’s inexpensive, make sure you check the construction like joints for quality and stability. Take your time and look the piece over to make sure you really want it.

Solid wood furniture like this credenza from Park Hill are the best pieces to buy second-hand.View in gallery
Solid wood furniture like this credenza from Park Hill are the best pieces to buy second-hand.

But don’t automatically skip veneer pieces

Is the piece you want made of laminate or MDF that has a veneer?  While solid wood is the best bet in the long run, many beautiful pieces are made f these other materials. Along the same lines, you need to check the integrity of the piece and make sure that any damage can be easily repaired. If it is a simple matter of veneer that has come loose, you can usually glue it back down as long as it does not involve large areas of the piece.

View in gallery
Vintage laminate pieces like this table can be a good buy and are in demand.

Metal is Marvelous

Second-hand furniture that is made from metal is one of the most easily refurbished and often is the most attractive. Besides a giving it a good cleaning, removing any rust and adding a coat of the appropriate type of paint, there’s usually not much else to do. If you want to use it outside, make sure you pick the proper paint.

Second-hand furniture made from metal can be cleaned and left in its natural state.View in gallery
Second-hand furniture made from metal can be cleaned and left in its natural state.
Metal components can be used for a table with the addition of a top. This is from Mercana.View in gallery
Metal components can be used for a table with the addition of a top. This is from Mercana.

Think creatively

For those who have a vision and can think creatively, second-hand furniture is truly a treasure trove. Part of the fun is finding a great piece and imagining a purpose that goes beyond its original reason for being: Turn an old dresser into a console, a mechanical industrial piece into a credenza, or a buffet into a kitchen island.

Being crafty and creative can provide solutions for different types of cosmetic damage. Textiles, decorative painting, wallpaper and other materials are often used for camouflaging surface imperfections like heavy wear, water marks or scratches and dents.

Tub stools from VIP Garden & Home are a good example of repurpoisong.View in gallery
Tub stools from VIP Garden & Home are a good example of repurpoisong.

Where to Find Second-Hand Pieces

Sometimes you don’t need to look much further than your own street. People often leave used furniture on the curb to go out with the garbage. Apartment complexes and especially college neighborhoods at the end of the school year can yield some good finds.

Second-hand stores, tag sales, garage sales, flea markets, estate sales– all of these are tried and true places to find used furniture. In addition, now there are apps and online resale sites specific to your city or neighborhood. If purchasing online, follow the same rules for examining furniture in person before buying it. Another fun way to buy second-hand furniture is at an auction. These require a little more preparation to become familiar with the pieces before the sale.

Sometimes, furniture rental companies or hotels that are remodeling may sell their furnishings and these can be sturdy bargains. Keep an eye on local listings for special sales or put your name on mailing lists for furniture rental companies.

An old chicken coop becomes a decorative wall unit.View in gallery
An old chicken coop becomes a decorative wall unit.
A tractor seat in bright red makes a whimsical stool.View in gallery
A tractor seat in bright red makes a whimsical stool.

Shopping Tips

While the hunt for treasures is fun, there are practical tips that can make shopping for second-hand furniture easier. First, remember that you will be responsible for transporting your purchases home, so you need to have, or have access to, a vehicle that is large enough to move them. Some sellers will hang onto your piece for a few hours so that you can get a truck or wagon. Just be sure to discuss these issues before you turn over your money.

Before you head out the door, make sure that you bring the measurements of your space with you, along with a measuring tape. There’s nothing worse than buying a piece that you love only to get it home and find it won’t fit in the living room — or even through the door!

A vintage suitcase can be a fun, rustic shelf.View in gallery
A vintage suitcase can be a fun, rustic shelf.