Secondhand furniture is a great alternative if you want to add vintage pieces to your home, especially if you’re on a budget.
“Buying vintage or gently used furniture is smart, chic and kinder to the Earth,” says Noel Fahden Briceno, vice president of merchandising at Chairish, an online marketplace for high-end vintage furnishings. “People tend to lean towards buying new because it’s been culturally ingrained, but in many cases vintage furniture costs 70% to 80% less and it’s actually better made. Vintage also brings character, uniqueness and style to a room.”
Finding the right item can be challenging, and even more so if you’re buying online. Here are some important tips to keep in mind while shopping for secondhand furniture:
“It’s important to only shop at reputable retailers,” Briceno says. Having a team dedicated to vetting each piece as well as a fair return policy are vital assurances to help build trust and confidence with shoppers.
In addition to secondhand furniture stores, Briceno recommends flea markets. “You’ll find a wonderful high-low mix of art, textiles, tableware, decor and furniture, and at great prices. I have made the pilgrimage many times to Brimfield (Flea Market in Brimfield, Massachusetts) and Round Top (Antique Fair in Carmine, Texas), my favorite antique fairs,” Briceno says.
Jennifer Ma, principal designer of Dwell & Oak Interiors based in San Mateo, California, recommends Facebook Marketplace, which is her No. 1 go-to place to find local vintage or secondhand furniture. “You can snag some pretty sweet deals or high-quality vintage furniture on there.”
If you do decide to purchase online, be on the lookout for scammers, especially on websites where individual sellers can list goods and arrange a sale with potential buyers. In the absence of a physical store, sellers can stay anonymous and upload images that look nothing like what they’re actually selling – if they’re selling anything at all.
When shopping for secondhand furniture, always read the description. Some pieces may look authentic, but they could be a replica.
“When a description says ‘in the style of’ that can mean a number of things,” Briceno says. “It can be a modern-day reproduction, or it can be an authentically vintage piece that was made in the style of an iconic design or maker. A vintage ‘in the style of’ piece can still offer great quality at a more approachable price point; it’s really a matter of what provenance and price you are looking for.”
If the description says it’s authentic, auction houses and vintage dealers typically have the paperwork that proves they were authenticated. Request to see their authentication papers and make sure to ask for additional information, such as if it was refurbished and if there is any damage.
When you’re shopping for used furniture online, look at each photo closely, especially for vintage pieces. “Minor scratches are part of the aging process and will most likely add character to the piece,” Briceno says. “When looking at silver or brass decor pieces, aging adds a wonderful patina.”
That used mattress may be cheaper, but it’s considered one of the worst items to buy secondhand. Not only can mattresses absorb smells and stains, but they can also carry bacteria, mold, dust mites and bed bugs.
If the mattress has already been slept on for several years, this also reduces the length of time it will last. Over time, a mattress can lose its shape and begin to sag, interfering with your good night’s sleep.
While it’s possible to fix damage or imperfections, some may be there to stay. Deep gouges on wood typically can’t be removed, Briceno explains, and upholstered pieces can absorb smells. “Be cognizant about whether or not the person smoked, because cigarette smoke smell does not go away,” Briceno warns. “You’re in the reupholstery zone.”
You should also check the connection, like where the table meets the leg, to see if it’s sturdy. “Avoid anything with a broken frame – I’m talking chairs or tables – that is not repairable,” Briceno says.
It may take some work, but the old coffee table with water stains on its surface and the upholstered chair with a few stains can still be restored.
Briceno says that most pieces of furniture can be refinished or reupholstered. Furniture refinishing can help retain and preserve its original beauty; however, if you think it may be a valuable antique, you may want to consult with a professional first.
But small imperfections can give a piece some character. “Sometimes you want that old farm table that has the gouges and the black rings because it looks cool – it was a working farm table,” Briceno says.
Your ability to negotiate the price of furniture depends on the item as well as the seller. “Often, we see sellers accepting offers of 10% to 20% off the listed price,” says Briceno. “My advice is if you don’t like the price, make an offer.”
If you’re looking to bargain, point out any problems or flaws that you see with the piece. Start off with a low price, but be reasonable. Be willing to compromise if the seller isn’t willing to lower the price more. However, if you aren’t 100% set on the item, you can always check back later or walk away.
There’s no set price for vintage items, so finding the best bargain may require doing some homework. “I would research the piece online and see if there are any comparables and look at the construction, materials and brand. Take a look at the retail price and manufacturer to see what others have to say,” Ma says.
You don’t have to buy the first piece of furniture you see or even everything you need at the same store.
“Quality over quantity,” Briceno says. “Look for original pieces by iconic makers. While these pieces might be an investment – unless you’re a grade-A bargain hunter – it’s a great place to start because these pieces were built to last.”
Ma also suggests looking for quality materials that are sure to last a while. “You’ll want to look for solid wood pieces versus pieces made of MDF or pressed woods. Look for areas where the wood has buckled, as well as any deep scratches in the finish. These flaws can be difficult to repair,” Ma adds. MDF furniture, or medium-density fiberboard, and pressed wood are both engineered wood furniture construction materials and can be easily damaged.
Along with avoiding MDF and pressed woods, Ma says to stay away from wood laminate or veneer. “This is a layer of plastic or paper that has been printed with a reproduction of wood grain and glued on top of cheaper materials, such as particle board. Over time, this will eventually peel away from the base and bubble up,” Ma clarifies. “Also, if you see pieces that have an uneven frame, a lot of glue or staples, it’s perhaps an indication that it is not good quality.”
When you’re shopping in a brick-and-mortar store, you can see exactly how big the furniture is and get the chance to inspect it for any imperfections. But online, it can be more of a challenge.
“There’s nothing worse than getting a piece and finding out it’s too big or too small for your space. Always measure your space in advance,” Briceno suggests. “Take the extra time to tape out the measurements on your floor to really understand sizing.”
There are also apps you can download that use augmented reality technology, Briceno says, so you can virtually test out items in your space before you buy.