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Thrift Store Shopping – A Great Way to Renew, Re-Use, and Recycle

Updated on November 3, 2017

Shopping for Thrift Store Furniture

In any economy shoppers want to get good deals and feel their purchases have value; and if you’re really lucky some purchases, such as an anniversary gift, a piece of art, or engagement or wedding ring, can also have great personal meaning.

One of the beautiful things about thrift store shopping, is that you never know what you’re going to find, or what you can turn your finds into, without having to break your bank.

A lot of my storage furniture has come from local thrift stores. For instance, there is a used furniture store about two blocks from my home. That store's policy is cash only and the store’s owner will make delivery arrangements for little additional cost, also cash only. I recently bought a small, wood armoire in really good shape, from the store. Including delivery, I paid under $100. It fits perfectly in my kitchen and came with “good vibes.” In fact, good "vibes" are very important when shopping used items. More on that later.

When shopping for furniture, it’s a good idea to have a general price range in mind to start with and to have some idea of what you are looking for (i.e. are you a vintage 1950’s kind of person or are you more eclectic? Will Formica do for your kitchen table or would you prefer wood or glass?).

It’s also very good to have an accurate idea of your space measurements. Notice I said accurate as opposed to precise; that’s because when thrifting, you might find something you absolutely have to have and will need to get rid of something else in order to make room for it.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when thrift shopping is the dimensions of the furniture you are purchasing, versus the dimensions of your entryway, hallways, etc., as well as the type of entry way or even stairwell (if applicable – i.e. twisty-turny Victorian or wide-open modern?). This will affect what you buy – will it even fit through the entry way once you get it home?

If you do not own or have access to a car to get your purchases home, then you will also need to inquire about delivery and will need to budget for delivery fees. Large chain stores often have delivery for a fee; however, smaller thrift stores may not, so inquire first before you find you can’t get it home.

Unfortunately, space requirements can be an important reason many people will purchase from big-box stores like Ikea (or smaller, more upscale versions of Ikea such as West Elm); their furniture is modular and made to be shipped in pieces so it will fit through most entry- and hallways. Unfortunately for you, the consumer, it’s rather cookie cutter in style.

I myself prefer to mix it up; I have a decent looking Ikea dining table of a warm birch veneer; it’s great for lightweight dining.However, being an artist without a detached, separate studio space, it’s not great for any kind of heavy duty art project. Yet I like this table so I've kept it. One day I may update it but for now it suits my needs.

On the other hand, the recently purchased cupboard I mentioned, coincidentally goes nicely with the table I already have. I didn’t have to do too much cleaning to satisfy my concerns about who might have owned it before me, and I really love its practicality and looks.

Speaking of concerns, some common concerns about thrift stores are:

Check for Damages: Inspect the legs for instance, to make sure the piece is not going to topple over. Check the back of the piece too, to ensure there are no holes or splits in it. For instance, when inspecting the back of furniture from time to time I have found there not only may be holes in it, but it may be really filthy, moldy, or cracked. Check the insides too; look for signs of rodents or bugs having recently encamped in there. I know, gross – but necessary; you don’t want to bring home these types of pests.

Check for Cleanliness: I would prefer not to purchase upholstered furniture from a thrift store, for the most part, due to fears of things like fleas, bed bugs, scabies, and who knows what else. I did, however, purchase a big, stuffed chair of good quality and in good shape, with washable covers, a couple of years ago, which I’m quite satisfied with. However, normally I wouldn’t recommend purchasing upholstered furniture due to its unknown origin and potential ick-factor when dealing with stains, odors or anything else that may be associated with used upholstery fabrics. Of course, if you are handy and crafty, you may be able to re-upholster it – or have someone else re-upholster it – providing it has passed your high standards of inspection.

Don't Buy Just Because It's Cheap: Look for quality first, price second. If you can get new it for good quality and less cost by all means - why not? I would stay away from something just because it’s cheap though, whether new or used. If you have to live with it I suggest you at least like it if not love it, or at least select something you can alter to suit your needs. Therefore, unless you are an antiques expert and can truly spot the hidden, 100 year old plus gem of a piece, over in the corner of the store, I would go for something that either pops out at you in a good way and makes you want to take it home and use it as focal point, or go with something nice, with good bones, not in need of too much (if any) repair.

Remember, if a piece has good bones, you can dress it up with fresh paint, or a tablecloth if it's a table, or a refinish of the surface. For wood pieces, use some Murphy’s oil soap and/or Lemon Pledge. For anything that might actually be a somewhat valuable find, stick with Lemon Pledge first and use a soft cloth to wipe it down; you want to avoid scratching the surface.

Which brings me to another point on my list of reasons why thrifting is worth it over new furniture in some cases; the whole recycling thing. Antiques are the original recyclables. They didn’t call it recycling then, they called it antiquing. However, being somewhat of a lay person when it comes to antiques, I have read that most of the so-called “good” antique pieces from prior to the twentieth century, have been taken. However, I was never that interested in antiques unless they were ancient – i.e. 17th century or before. And who has money for that? I also like Stickley style furniture (though not exclusively) and some 20th century era furniture but my tastes are eclectic. With my thrift store finds I can be eclectic. And since it doesn't cost too much in the first place, I can swap it out for something else when I'm ready for a change.

Another good reason for thrift shopping is that in any economy you can find good deals that you’ll be satisfied with. I know for some people, the thought of thrifting brings up certain social stigmas about having some stranger's cast offs in their living (or other) room. Not true; savvy shoppers find good deals wherever they go; they are in touch with their own personal tastes and preferences, and are willing to think outside the box to have decent stuff to hold their – well – stuff.

Getting back to upholstered furniture, assuming you’ve checked underneath the cushions and underneath the piece itself, have not found any rips, tears or major faults, nor signs of rodents or other pests, once you get it home you should “Lysol” it by removing the slip covers if possible and throwing them in the wash cycle. Lysol the inner workings of the upholstered piece (it will make you feel better about the whole thing – trust me). Wipe down any wooden parts such as chair legs also. Once the newly washed slip covers are dry, place them back on the furniture and you’re ready to go.

If the covers are not in good enough shape, you can hire someone to re-upholster it or do it yourself. Here is where I’d recommend caution. If you hire someone to upholster the piece, that can get expensive thereby defeating the purpose of your thrift shop purchase in the first place. If you think you’re going to reupholster it yourself, think again: Will this be one of those projects you never get to? Do you really have the time and skills to complete this? I’ve had my share of unfinished projects; sometimes it’s not worth the price of admission as your piece ends up in the dumpster having never seen its transformation come true.

Good Vibes Vs. the "Ick" Factor

So what led me to actually take a risk and buy that piece of upholstered furniture? What led me to overcome my personal "ick" factor on that one? For me, it was an over all feeling of generally well-made furniture coupled with decent, fairly clean upholstery, along with no rips or teats. The underside and backside of the piece also passed inspection. And - it was exactly the chair I'd been looking for, for a long time prior but didn't want to spend $400 on. I ended up spending $50 on that chair (I purchased it along with an actual antique "pie shelf" made of solid oak) and had them both delivered the next day. An added bonus was that the slip covers for the chair were all washable and cleaned up even nicer. I still love this chair - it's sturdy, comfortable and incorporates my favorite color.

So that brings me to the ick-factor, the infamous deal breaker in any thrift store furniture (or clothing) find. Even if it's something you think you "should" buy - but somehow it just doesn't feel right - TRUST THIS!!!!! Warning - I'm about to get all woo-woo feely-new agey on you here: Your body is a barometer of everything in your environment, so why wouldn't it be a barometer of ick-factor as well? I have read that intuition is simply a matter of too much information coming into the brain at once, to be sorted out immediately; therefore the brain sends a signal to the body in the way of feeling-sensation: unease, mistrust, uncomfortableness, etc.1

Payment Methods

One thing to keep in mind when thrift shopping; some thrift stores may not accept credit, or even checks – cash and carry only. Therefore come prepared with lots of cash but do stay within your budget. If you don't have enough cash on hand to buy the piece outright, you can ask the dealer if he/she will let you make a quick down payment in whatever cash you do have on hand to hold the piece. However, I recommend you go to your nearest ATM and get the cash to cover it, and return to the dealer ASAP cash in hand. In the world of thrifting, finds can be bought out from under you; it can be highly competitive. Again, I strongly recommend you really inspect anything you wish to buy first and be realistic about your skills and time available to work on any unfinished piece. Yet if it's something you've been looking for, it fits in your doorway, hallway, and entryway, and it's in your price range, by all means - go forth and purchase!

Once You Get the Piece Home...

Relax and enjoy! Hopefully you've done your due diligence on what you are looking for balanced with what you purchased. You can now make any minor repairs (remember - unless you are really that handy, only buy pieces that need minor or no repairs), do any clean up or refinishing, or small change outs (e.g., if it's the ugly pewter drawer pulls you hate but you love the furniture itself, if you can, spring for some replacement hardware from a big box home store, such as Home Depot or Ikea).

Now that you've cleaned your new/old piece up, swapped the hardware, given it a good dusting and/or coat of paint, take a step back and admire your handiwork! I bet you didn't know until you tried just how savvy and creative you could be! There is something really satisfying about hunting for and finding just the right piece - at a bargain price too! And unlike Ikea, for instance, it's generally already put together! All you have to do is "paint the door" so to speak.

So the next time you're having a budget crunch but you need something for your house, consider thrift shopping as a possible alternative to breaking your bank. You'll be glad you did!

© 2013 Art Girl 27


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    • Art Girl 27 profile imageAUTHOR

      Art Girl 27 

      6 years ago from East Coast USA

      Hi rcote and faythef - thanks for comments - great suggestion too about ReStores thanks for bringing up.

    • faythef profile image

      Faythe Payne 

      6 years ago from USA

      great article...I love thrift Store shopping..

    • rcote profile image


      6 years ago

      A great source for building materials is ReStores, set up by Habitat for Humanity. You could consider researching this to expand this inclusive article or start another. I love your topic!


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