11 Thrift Store Furniture Tips and Considerations

Shopping for secondhand furniture requires a good eye.

Secondhand decor shop with different lamps and lamp shades next to brightly-lit window

The Spruce / Sarah Crowley

Whether you call it thrift store chic or vintage décor, the thrill of finding one-of-a-kind secondhand gems is hard to beat. Thrift store furniture is great for those on a budget, those who wish to sustainably reuse and repurpose items, and those who simply love an eclectic and unique style.

Here are 11 thrift store furniture tips to help you successfully shop for secondhand treasures.

Establish a Budget

Sure, the best place to find rock-bottom prices 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. So before heading out, know how much you can afford, and stick to that amount. Consider carrying cash instead of credit cards. It’s easier to track how much you’re spending, and some sellers might only accept cash anyway.

Keep an Open Mind

The fun of thrift shopping is you never know what you’re going to find. (Of course, that can also make 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. Part of thrift store furniture shopping is being ready to change gears at a moment’s notice, so you don't miss any treasures.

Don’t Hesitate

If you spot something you love at a thrift store, don't hesitate with your purchase. Waiting means you might lose the item 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 where vendors are motivated to sell and might start cutting customers some great deals. If you want an item but don't have a way to transport it at the moment, ask employees to hold it for you rather than just hoping it will be there later.

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 road or spot a garage sale or secondhand shop that's too good to pass up. Keep a tape measure, bungee cords, and an old towel or blanket in the trunk of your car. That way, you’ll be able to determine whether that funky chair will fit in the corner by your bed and you’ll be able to secure the car trunk shut to drive 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 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. If you’re new to flea market decorating, start with something simple. For instance, it’s a lot easier to hone your painting skills on a small 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 has a strong odor. 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 that's often best left to a professional.

Make Sure It's in Good Condition

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. And be sure to clean anything that you buy secondhand, preferably before you bring it into your home.

Go Often but Don’t Overdo It

It takes patience and perseverance to succeed in 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, and 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. So resist the desire to buy something just because you like it if you don't have a space in mind for it.

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 mishaps by considering whether the item in question really works with your existing style. If the answer is no, leave it on the shelf for someone else.

FAQ
  • Should you buy a couch at a thrift store?

    Upholstered thrift store furniture is a mixed bag. A couch with no visible stains, smells, bugs, and tears can be a great find. But a soiled or damaged couch probably isn't worth the cost to fix it up.

  • How do you clean furniture from a thrift store?

    Different furniture surfaces require different cleaning methods. For example, baking soda can help to remove musty smells. Also, it’s a good idea to clean and let thrift store furniture air out outside before bringing it into your home.

  • What are the rules of thrifting?

    One golden rule to thrifting is to be patient. You might not find the perfect item for your space even after a few trips. But inventory constantly changes, so don’t give up hope.