7 Secondhand Furniture Shopping Secrets Professional Flippers Want You to Know

old vanity being flipped into new furniture

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Taking an older piece of furniture and giving it a new look—and new life—has become a popular way for crafty people to have a creative outlook. A quick look at Instagram and TikTok shows this trend has staying power.

If you look at some of the before–and–after photos for these pieces and think, “I could do that,” you’ll want to do some prep before you head out to scour second-hand stores for solid pieces. Pros who have made this a satisfying hobby or a lucrative career offer some tips on how people who are new to the game can find furniture that’s worth a flip.

Have a Plan

One of the first things you need to have sorted before you hit the stores is whether you plan to reinvent a piece of furniture for your own home or to sell to someone else. Furniture does more than provide a place to sit or a cabinet for your dishes—it also speaks to your personal style.

Figure out the logistics and practicality before you start such a project. “Keep in mind your needs,” says Bonnie Borromeo Tomlinson, an author and decorator with a flair for flips. That means carefully considering a piece’s size, how you will use it in your home, and where it will go. 

First time reimagining furniture? You will find yourself much less frustrated if you set yourself up for success with something smaller, like a hall table. If the ultimate goal is to sell your project for a profit, you will have other considerations to check off the list, which will be discussed later.

Do Your Research

Strolling through a thrift store or estate sale and waiting for the perfect item to appear can be fun, however, learning about what will be more likely to resell in your area is worth the time investment.

Going with a refinishing that is completely unique will be a harder sell than one that fits in with local looks. “If you live near the ocean, a coastal look may sell best,” says Maggie McGaugh, who teaches a course on flipping furniture. “If you live in a big city, you'll need to stay on top of the trends.”

Research should include more than just the style. Peruse online listings in the area for an idea of exactly what pieces are drawing interest and which ones might not be worth the trouble. This will vary according to your location and also by the time of year. For instance, McGaugh says she and her students find things like dressers and matching end tables sell well, but she cautions, “I would avoid single chairs, single end tables, and desks—especially when school isn’t about to begin.”

Inspect Everything

When you find a piece of furniture that you can envision flipping, be sure that your excitement or instant love for it doesn’t push you to the cash register too quickly. A lot of things can affect the success of your project. 

Of course, you will want to check for any broken parts or wobbly legs. Both would add extra tasks to your rehab that you might not want to undertake. Be sure to thoroughly inspect the item for any damage or signs of wear and tear. This will give you a better idea of how much work will need to be put into restoring the piece. “Be mindful to look at all sides, top and underneath,” says Tomlinson. “If loose pieces can be attached with some wood glue or small nail, then go for it.”

She advises hopeful flippers to also look for maker’s marks before making a purchase. A maker’s mark is just what it sounds like: a mark engraved onto a metal plate on the furniture, burnished into, or stamped onto the wood to show who made it. This can be used to authenticate pieces from more popular manufacturers from the past. It might also give you an idea of whether you should pass. “You may have something that should not be upcycled,” she says.

In addition to a visual inspection, let your nose do its part. “Stay away from heavily upholstered pieces unless you are more experienced and have the necessary tools,” says Tomlinson. “I suggest avoiding them altogether because of possible stains and odors.” Any hint of mildew is a good sign you should leave the furniture behind.

Quality Matters

Once you have studied a potential flip by sight and scent, consider the actual materials that make up the piece. Solid wood and metal have the most staying power and will give you a more attractive finished product than compressed wood, for instance. A new coat of paint might not adhere to a cheap material, and no matter how much you try to add some elegance and style, poor quality remains poor quality. William Lowery, a furniture enthusiast, says, “always aim for quality over quantity.”

Name a Price

When you fall in love with a particular piece, it can be tempting to snap it up for the price on the tag. However, don’t assume that this price is the final one the seller will accept. Lowery urges future flippers to try a little back and forth. “Don't be afraid to negotiate the price. Haggling is expected in the secondhand market, so don't hesitate to offer a lower price.”

This is another time when doing research on the front end can literally pay off. If you have gotten a good feel for how much similar pieces sell for online or in second hand stores, you will know if your future flip’s asking price is too high. 

Know Your Limits

This goes back to the inspection rule. Take note of every repair a piece needs before you even begin the transformation. It adds up quickly. “The best pieces require only some love and cleaning," says Tomlinson.

Consider the finish on the item as well. If it is painted, you will have to do the harder work of stripping it if you want a stain. Painting over the exterior would be an easier change. “Steer clear of furnishing with veneer or heavy lacquer unless you are more experienced and have the necessary tools,” she says.

Biting off a job that exceeds your experience or skill set can not only lead to disappointing results but could also cost you your time and, ultimately, money.

Set Realistic Expectations

Just as you should work to get the best price on the item you plan to flip, you should give careful consideration to how you price that item for resale. This brings the focus back to the purchase of quality furniture. Original composition and the quality of your restoration work both factors into how much money you might expect from the sale. 

Andre Kazimierski, CEO of a painting company called Improovy, points to the idea again that time is money. “Skip items that will require a large amount of time to reupholster, repaint, or refinish—even if you think they’ll be worth quite a lot once restored,” he says. “You’re more likely to sink a bunch of resources into these types of things and the return on your investment is likely to be less than you’d imagine.”

It is tempting to set an asking price for your finished flip that reflects all your hard work. Again, just because the renovation might have had a big learning curve and taken up a lot of time doesn’t mean that buyers will be willing to compensate you for the effort. That said, there are some things to keep in mind when deciding on a number. “Do your research and price your item competitively,” says Lowery. “Be sure to include any costs associated with the renovation, like paint or hardware, in your pricing.”

Taking care to do research on the front end and following a clear vision for your furniture finds can certainly pay off. Follow experts’ advice and your experience will have you hooked on the hunt and the flip.