Designers Explain How to Spot a Thrift Store Gem

artwork in bathroom


Whether thrift shopping has long been one of your weekly pastimes or is just now becoming a new favorite habit, you're likely aware that you most definitely can score gems while bargain hunting. However, you also probably know that not every thrift store trip leads to extreme success and there is often a lot to sort through in order to find something worth calling home—or posting on Instagram—about. To help you maximize your time at the thrift store and shop like a pro, we polled four designers who are all experienced thrifters and know which pieces are the real deal. Below, they share exactly what you need to keep in mind while strolling the aisles of your favorite secondhand spot.

Meet the Expert

Find Your Go-To Places

First things first: You'll want to visit the various thrift stores in your area to determine which have inventory that best complements your decorating aesthetic. While chain thrift stores will of course offer a whole mix of items, some locally operated shops are more specialized—and depending on what they tend to carry, they may just not be worth your time. As Washington, DC-based designer Shannon Claire Smith noted, "If you're super sleek and modern, you're likely not going to find much in that barn thrift store with rustic baskets hanging out front."

Once you do find a place or two that appeals to your style, keep in mind the following pointer from Smith. "Take the time to get to know the owners or vendors," she explained. "Ask their names and find out where and when they get their goodies. A great thrifting relationship is key to getting the good stuff!"

thrifted mirror in living room


Look for Solid Wood

Ontario designer Tiffany Leigh Piotrowski is "usually on the lookout for solid wood pieces." Why? "Solid wood is easy to sand down and re-stain or paint," Piotrowski added, noting that she coated a wooden dresser with white paint to complement the aesthetic of her beach house. Better yet, secondhand stores are an excellent spot to score such items on the cheap. Explained Piotrowski, "We've found solid pine dressers at garage sales for $25, and an $8 wood coffee table!"


Click Play for 11 Tips on Thrift Store Furniture Shopping

Be Mindful of Quality and Maker

Designer Paige Kontrafouris, who is based in New Jersey, likes to go thrift shopping with a few helpful facts in her back pocket. "Familiarize yourself with different wood types and the history of furniture—how things were crafted during certain time periods, woods they commonly used, and the like," she said. "This will help if the piece doesn't clearly show where it was made or its origin." Why is this intel key? "Knowing these details will help determine if the piece is worth the price and worth refurbishing if needed," Kontrafouris noted. After all, some materials are easier to refurbish than others. She added, "A lot of times newer pieces are made with particle board or veneers, which are not easy to work sometimes."

thrifted pink wine glasses

Lauren Zillinger for Laura Metzler Photo

Build a Collection

Thrift shopping can be an excellent way to build out a collection of special pieces. "I often browse for a special color or shape that stands out to me," Philadelphia area designer Michelle Gage said. "I also look for funky shapes ... I want my thrifted pieces to tell a story. An irregularly shaped item does just that!" The more quirky touches an item has, the better. Gage added, "A little extra curves on a silver or brass piece helps differentiate it from the other items in your home."

Don't Be Wary of Wear

For some, signs of a piece's past life only add to its charm, so don't shy away from that dreamy dresser just because it has a few scratches. "I tend to not really refurbish what I buy," Gage noted. "I like a little age and history to my decorative accessories, so if there’s some patina on a piece, I like it more."