Before You Buy: How to Shop for Vintage Patio Furniture

How to Find Inexpensive Outdoor Furnishings

Vintage sofa and crate for patio
Lisa Hallett Taylor

That vintage patio glider, wrought iron dining set or outdoor light would look great in your yard, but how do you know you're getting a good deal? Before heading off to a local flea market, estate sale, or yard sale, know what to look for, how to inspect a piece of furniture or accessory, and the best techniques for bargaining.

Be prepared for surprises and impulse buys, and whether or not you should negotiate or walk away. Research and a little know-how can go a long way when hunting for older outdoor furnishings, lights, pottery, or lawn ornaments.

Do Your Research

If it's vintage outdoor furnishings you're looking for, do some research before hitting a major flea market or rummage sale. When you think about it, any piece of patio furniture left outside for a couple of years is going to weather and look old -- quickly.

So, how do you know you're getting an authentic piece of old garden furniture? Educate yourself. Look through vintage home and garden magazines, old DIY patio and furniture books (like those from Sunset or Lane Publishing), or online sites like eBay.

That way, you'll become familiar with the materials and design features of older outdoor garden furniture.

Get Ready the Night Before

So that you won't be scrambling in the morning, get your cash, checkbook, hat, sunglasses, comfortable shoes, layers of clothing (you'll most likely be removing layers, not adding, as the day gets warmer), backpack, water, protein bar or trail mix and a small bottle of sunscreen. Print-out directions beforehand, and study the flea market map on the website if provided. Make sure you have plenty of one- and five-dollar bills: you can negotiate better with the exact amount in hand rather than giving the vendor a $20 for a $3 item you just talked him down to.

Arrive Early or Late

Early birds catch the worms, but those who arrive late might be able to score a deal with a seller who doesn't want to reload bulky patio furniture back into their van. There will be more of a selection at the beginning of the sale, but dealers grow weary and easier to negotiate with by the end of the day.

Try it both ways on separate occasions and see which you prefer.

Make a Beeline for the Vintage Furnishings Area

Whether it's a flea market or estate sale, you're there for a reason -- to look for and, hopefully, buy outdoor patio furniture. Some larger venues, like the Rose Bowl Flea Market in Pasadena, try to group similar vendors together, making it easier for you to shop for vintage outdoor garden furniture all in one section. So go there, look, inspect, negotiate and load up your car.

Then go back and check out that fringe suede jacket or the Brady Bunch album you saw on your way to the patio furniture area.

Eureka! You Have Found it!

Now it's time to investigate. Your sharp eyes have targeted that Salterini wrought-iron patio dining set that resembles the one you saw in a home and garden magazine from the 1950s. At least it looks like Salterini.

Try to subdue your enthusiasm and coolly inspect the piece: crawl under the table, check for cracks, flaws, broken or missing pieces. Try and find an engraving or marque with the brand name; hopefully, you will have become familiar with the label and be able to ID it during a quick once-over. If it's a dining set, make sure all the pieces match and everything seems to check out OK.

Ask Questions

A polite-but-not-timid "How much for the cast iron patio set?" should start the conversation between you and the dealer. Ask a few questions about it: "Do you know the manufacturer?" "What's it's history; did you own it or acquire it from someone else?" "Was it left outdoors most of the time or kept inside during off-season?"

By now, you will have gotten a feeling from the dealer as to whether she's giving you a story or seems to be telling the truth.