Toronto furniture flippers turn pandemic hobby into side gig

After Vanessa Lee lost her job in the hotel industry at the beginning of the pandemic, she knew she likely couldn’t splurge for that new pair of nightstands she wanted for her bedroom.

So, after watching DIY furniture-repair videos online, she decided to restore a pair of old country-style nightstands a relative had given her, adding drawer liner and installing new hardware. She liked the results so much, she put the pieces up for sale.

Lee unloaded them on Kijiji for $160.

“It just made me really excited,” Lee says. “Like, ‘Wow, someone really liked something I did.’ And then, one by one, I just started doing a piece here, a piece there, and then selling it.” The positive feedback motivated her to do more. She now sells pieces through her business, Vintage Visions Design Co.

Furniture flipping — giving second life to old, beat-up furniture — has gone viral on TikTok and Instagram since the pandemic started and boredom set in for many. Clips with the hashtags #furnitureflip and #furnituremakeover have amassed 5.6 billion and 1.1 billion views on TikTok, respectively.

South of the border, a June 2022 New York Times article dove into how the business of furniture flipping was amplified during the pandemic and profiled multiple practitioners, including one woman who started flipping in 2019 and is now the co-founder of a second-hand furniture business that brings in six figures a year.

Many flippers, like Lee, are self-taught, watching tutorials on YouTube and social media —learning, say, how to strip furniture to prepare it for refinishing and what paint or stain to use on solid wood and plywood.

Ajax resident Rebecca Carey, of A to B Creations, decided to try flipping furniture in winter 2021, almost a year into the pandemic. She was working as a COVID-19 screener and felt frustrated at times. Hospital staff, she says, encouraged screeners to find something creative to do.

“I’d be done (working) by 2 p.m. or 3 p.m., then (I’d) go home and just work on furniture, especially after not having a great day,” Carey says. “You just go relax, take your mind off it.” She admits, however, the labour can be exhausting.

For Lee, who says she’s prone to anxiety, furniture flipping is therapeutic and more productive than scrolling on her phone or watching Netflix.

“It’s just nice to have something different to do and a project to look forward to separate from work,” Lee says. “You have the satisfaction when it’s finished, and someone buys it and they love it. It’s really rewarding.”

Her small workspace doesn't deter Lee, who suggests hacks like attaching a shop vac to a sander, to avoid dust, and using water-based paints instead of ones that smell.

Ania Harmata, who works full time in the arts and event industry and lives in Mississauga, describes the process of furniture flipping as slow but meditative.

She started acquiring thrifted and hand-me-down furniture about five years ago and saw flipping as a way to furnish her home without spending a lot. She eventually began selling items through her business,

“It became kind of an obsession,” Harmata says. “Every time I found this gorgeous vintage piece, I could not let it go to the trash.”

Furniture flippers are also saving items from ending up in landfill. Carey, who flips out of her parents’ backyard, says she’ll drive to different parts of the GTA looking for discarded furniture sitting outside houses. “People throw out the craziest amount of stuff,” Carey says.

“What I really love finding,” Harmata says, “is a piece of vintage furniture that maybe needs a little love or (has) just a scratch on the surface.”

Since furniture waste is not tracked by the federal or municipal government, it’s difficult to pinpoint just how much winds up in landfills.

“About five per cent of our overall waste stream is made up of textiles,” says Calvin Lakhan, a York University professor and co-investigator of the Waste Wiki project, a group of faculty members and students that researches waste management and policy. “So, it wouldn’t surprise me if furniture waste is somewhere in that ballpark — say, five to 10 per cent of overall waste stream, based on weight.”

Lakhan says that while furniture takes up a lot of space and can’t easily be broken down, that’s actually good for the environment, because when wood decomposes it releases embodied carbon.

“It’s kind of this trade-off between, ‘Do we have enough space?’ But if we do have enough space, we don’t want the wood or any sort of biodegradable product to break down,” Lakhan says, “because that means it’s releasing its embodied carbon, which contributes to climate change. So it’s a complicated issue.”

The reuse economy, in which people either donate items to organizations like Furniture Bank or sell them, can help keep furniture from becoming landfill.

“For every piece of furniture that you can repurpose in some way,” Lakhan says, “you are not only keeping this material out of the landfill, but you’re also diverting the need to use a virgin sources of wood or manufacture new products.”

Lee's favourite piece to work on was this dresser that had languished in a garage. She painted it white and added black hardware.

You’re also, if you’re lucky, making some money. Lee, who sometimes gets furniture for free, which cuts down significantly on her expenses, estimates she brings in $1,300 monthly by flipping one to two pieces.

“It just depends how consistent you are, how good you are, and honestly how you stage your pieces,” Lee says, adding that a poorly lit photo can keep a nice item from selling.

The first piece Harmata flipped was a vintage Victorian-style vanity that she got for free from someone who was planning on tossing it. After she refinished it, the vanity sold for $250.

As increased wait times for new products during the pandemic led to more people buying used and refinished furniture, Harmata estimates she made $2,000 in the first six months of flipping.

When Lee started out, it would take her about two weeks to refinish a dresser. Now it takes her three days. Her new challenge is working on pieces from a studio apartment in the Beach, where she recently moved, instead of a garage in Etobicoke. Though her former space was bigger, Lee says the warmth of her apartment motivates her to flip in the cold months.

Lee has found ways to get around issues of space and mess, like attaching a shop vac to a sander, so dust doesn’t get everywhere, and using water-based paints instead of ones that smell.

“If you have a small space,” she says, “you can do nightstands, you can do tiny three-door dressers. There’s a market for everything.”

Of all her projects, Lee says her favourite is a dresser that literally had been held together with tape. The piece, which she got from someone who was cleaning out their garage, had spider eggs all over it, inside and out.

“It was really rough,” she says. “But those (flips) are so satisfying because once you have them done, you see the before and after.”

Lee replaced wooden guides, used a syringe to glue dove-tailed drawers that were coming apart and applied wood fillers to fix large scratches.

Her advice for those thinking about taking up furniture flipping: start small with hand-me-down pieces from family or friends.

And for those wanting to turn a profit, Lee advises not to sell anything you wouldn’t be proud to have in your own home.

“That,” she says, “can easily ruin your brand.”

Lee, who has since found full-time work, says losing her job in 2020 was a blessing in disguise: “Now I have the opportunity to do something I really love, instead of just working for someone else always.”


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