Here's How to Shop for Secondhand Decor

11 Tips for Successful Thrift Store Shopping

Bedroom with vintage suitcases.
Show off your personality with creative thrift store finds. Photo courtesy of Decoist

Whether you call it thrift-store chic, vintage décor, or eclectic style, the thrill of the hunt – and eventual capture – of can’t-beat-the-price, one-of-a-kind, DIY-makeover, second-hand gems is hard to beat. You might decorate with flea market finds to compensate for a small budget, or perhaps you love vintage style, or maybe you simply enjoy transforming what someone else considered trash into your own treasure.

Likely, it's a combination of all three. But whatever the reason, when it’s done well, the end result is the same: a bedroom that looks wonderfully quirky and delightfully full of the owner’s personality.

But even a bargain is no real savings if it isn’t useful, isn’t safe, or isn’t you. So here are 11 tips to help you successfully shop for secondhand treasures.

Establish a Budget

Sure, you’re looking for rock-bottom prices and the best place to find them is at garage sales, flea markets and thrift stores. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still overspend if you’re not careful. A dollar here and a dollar there can quickly add up to a lot of dollars. Before heading out, know how much you can afford and stick to that amount. Make it easy by carrying cash instead of credit cards -- it’s easier to track how much you’re spending and if you’re visiting garage sales or flea markets, you’ll need cash anyway.

Keep an Open Mind

The fun of garage sale or thrift store shopping is that you never know what you’re going to find (Of course, that’s also what makes it frustrating!). Maybe you are looking for a new nightstand, but spot the perfect bench (well, it’ll be perfect after you give it a fresh coat of paint) for the foot of your bed instead.

Be ready to change gears on a moment’s notice.

Don’t Hesitate

If you spot something you love at a thrift store, either ask them to hold it for you or go ahead and buy it. Waiting means that you’ll likely lose it to the next person who loves it enough to buy it on the spot. That’s even truer at a garage sale or flea market.

Let Your Creativity Out to Play

If you let your imagination run free, you’re far likelier to see the gold hidden underneath the garbage. Keep a repurposing mindset; how can you use this item in a way that is different from its original purpose? A bass drum as a nightstand? An old wooden ladder as a magazine rack? Vintage clothing as wall art? The sky is the limit when you get creative.

Be Prepared

You never know when you’ll drive by a treasure on the side of the curb, or spot a garage sale or secondhand shop too good to pass up. Keep a tape measure, bungie cords, and an old towel or blanket in the trunk of your car. You’ll be able to determine if that funky chair will fit in the corner by your bed and you’ll be able to secure the car trunk shut while driving it home.

Go Where the Pickings are Good

While you might find a treasure anywhere, it makes sense that upscale areas often have thrift stores filled with upscale castoffs.

While this is especially true with clothing, you’re also likelier to find quality furniture, nice artwork, and desirable accessories where people can easily afford – and therefore, easily afford to replace – these items. It can be worth the drive to visit secondhand shops in affluent -- or relatively affluent -- areas.

Know Your Limits

Generally, secondhand purchases need a little love to bring their good qualities back to the surface. Sometimes, however, they need a lot of love. If this is the case, make sure you are ready and able to tackle the project yourself. If you’re new to flea market decorating, start with something easy; it’s a lot easier to hone your painting skills on a small, simple bookcase, rather than an ornate mirror or dresser.

Pass Up the Truly Questionable

While many pieces of secondhand wooden furniture only need cosmetic help to be serviceable, some are broken beyond easy repair.

Leave behind anything that is missing a vital piece, is cracked or warped, has severe damage, or smells strongly of smoke or cat urine. And think long and hard before buying an upholstered piece that needs new fabric – while recovering the fabric seat of a chair is generally a simple DIY job, reupholstering an entire armchair is a challenge best left to a professional.

Never Risk Your Health

It goes without saying that buying a used mattress is a no-no – you don’t want to share your bed with anything that might endanger your health, including allergens, germs, pests, or stuff that’s simply to gross to think about. But you should also be careful about buying any upholstered piece of furniture secondhand; bedbugs don’t only hide out in beds. Check fabric furniture carefully for any sign of pests, mildew, questionable stains, and odors that aren’t likely to easily dissipate.

Go Often, but Don’t Overdo It

It takes patience and perseverance to succeed at the secondhand hunt. That means you need to hit up the thrift stores on a fairly regular basis and keep your eyes peeled for stop-worthy garage sales, flea markets, or even curbside treasures. However, be careful not to cross the line from “Wow, my room looks great!” to “Wow, my room is so full of stuff!” Too many secondhand purchases can easily push you over that line. Once your room feels done, you’ll either need to resist the desire to keep adding new things, or else get rid of something old each time you bring home something new (or at least, new to you.)

Know Your Style

Yes, combining a variety of decorating styles is a fantastic look when done skillfully. But eclectic style is well planned, not a hodgepodge of mismatched accessories and furniture. Avoid decorating seasickness by considering whether or not the item in question really works with your existing style. If the answer is no, leave it on the shelf for someone else.