Buying used furniture is often an adventure, resulting in one-of-a-kind vintage pieces that add interest, style, and drama to a space in your home. However, there are times when it is best to just walk away to avoid some buyer's remorse.
The single most important thing you can do before buying used furniture is to inspect it carefully for clues that tell you if that piece of furniture is usable and worth buying or not. Returning the item likely won't be possible—most used furniture is sold as-is and without any guarantees.
One good practice for buying furniture, new or used, is to always measure it, as well as the space in the house to make sure there are no ugly surprises. It's important to absolutely love that piece of used furniture or know exactly what is needed to improve it before bringing it home, and sometimes, it is best to avoid buying it altogether.
What to Skip
Rather than go through the steps of ensuring these pieces of used furniture or home items are acceptable, just walk away to save yourself the headache and hassle.
- Used mattresses: Sometimes, used furniture can be bad for your health. This includes used mattresses, which are pretty much a no-go, especially when the seller is unknown. In particular, never buy a used crib mattress for an infant from a garage sale or flea market. A lumpy, smelly, or stained mattress is a definite item to avoid, no matter how low the price might be. It's impossible to know what has made its way into a mattress, along with associated health hazards such as mold, dust mites, and bed bugs.
- Heavily used upholstered furniture: Generally speaking, it's better to walk away from upholstered furniture that has been heavily used. Lumps on a sofa seat or back are enough to tell that it will be uncomfortable to sit on. Saggy pillows are difficult to fix, too. While a worn upholstery fabric can be replaced, it can cost a lot to have it done professionally. Check the sofa frame, too—unless it is a prime vintage piece of furniture with superb lines or an antique, you are better off not buying it.
- Furniture that smells: It can be difficult to rid any furniture of unpleasant smells. Both upholstery and case goods can absorb smells from many different sources, such as smoke from fires, cigarettes, pets, cooking odors, or urine. The rest of the room may end up smelling like that, too.
- High-priced furniture: Don't buy any used furniture that costs more than it is worth. That can be the case where the price tag does not reflect the condition of the piece, and it may cost even more money and time to make major repairs to it. Sometimes, a seller might misrepresent the furniture and ask for a price that is not fair for the condition or type. For instance, often any old furniture is called an antique, but to truly be an antique, the furniture has to be more than 100 years old according to official trade groups (though this line has recently blurred somewhat). Research trusted buying guides for prices if you are going antiquing or looking for an old style that is having a moment, such as mid-century modern.
What to Double-Check
Some items might be worth it—if everything is in order. Double-check to make sure you're getting a good deal.
- Structural problems and missing parts: When buying used furniture, always make sure that the piece is sturdy and has no structural defects. If a chair has wobbly legs, check to see if it can be fixed. Cracks or stapled legs are never a good sign, and it can be hard to replace missing parts, especially if the piece is many years old.
- Signs of damage: Look for signs of water damage and termite or other insect infestation. It's best to look under and behind a piece of furniture to gauge its overall condition. If you're not able to fix a piece of furniture by yourself, it is best to walk away from it.
- Recalls: It is illegal to sell furniture that has been recalled unless repairs specified by the Consumer Product Safety Commission have been carried out. In all fairness, the seller might not even be aware that the piece has been recalled or needs any repairs, but as a buyer, find out. Check out SaferProducts.gov for lists of recalled products to make sure you are not buying one.
Westgarth, Mark. The Emergence of the Antique and Curiosity Dealer in Britain 1815-1850: the Commodification of Historical Objects. Routledge, 2020