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How to Buy Used Furniture: 9 Tips to Score Second Hand Treasure

Buying used furniture is a great way to save money, keep reusable items out of landfills, and have a little shopping adventure while you're at it. While some pieces of furniture have years of life left in them, others might need a light (or heavy) makeover. How can you tell the difference?

An interior view of the ReStore home improvement outlet in Minneapolis, MN
An interior view of ReStore home improvement outlet (Minneapolis location)

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid lemons when you shop for used furniture at a thrift store, resale shop, or yard sale. Here are 9 tips from ReStore pros about how to buy used furniture to make sure you're getting a bargain for your buck.

Measure the space you have and the furniture you want

Eyeballing has its virtues, but trust the specifics to a tape measure. Whether you’re in the market for a bookshelf, chair, sofa, or end table, measure the height, width, and depth of the area you've picked out for it. Spending even a few bucks on a corner shelf with beautiful curves could be a waste if it doesn’t fit into the corner you want to put it in. 

Also, pick out a few different spots at home where you might want to put the piece. That way, you've got a fallback if you find something that looks perfect but is just a little bigger than your preferred spot. Forgot to measure your space? At ReStore, we'll hold a piece of furniture for two hours to give you time to head home and map it out.

Test it out then and there

There's nothing worse than finding out something doesn't work right AFTER you bring it home. A lot of used furniture is sold as-is with no return policy, meaning you can't return it for any reason. To avoid disappointment, test out used furniture in the store. Sit on the couch to make sure it's comfortable for more than a few minutes. Open the dresser drawers to make sure the handles don't fall apart after a few uses. Peer in the cabinets and get a good look at the shelving inside.

Some resale and thrift stores have policies about testing out furniture in the store. Be sure to ask first to avoid any unfair "you break it, you buy it" policies.

Assess the quality

It's hard to know how long a piece of furniture will last, but a good once-over can give you an idea. Use these criteria on how to buy used furniture to separate "worth it" from "worthless":

  • Investigate the material it's made from. You don't need to know exactly what kind of wood it's made from (though that's a plus). It's more about the quality than the type. Is the wood solid, pressboard, or veneered? Are the cushions made from something durable or do they seem fragile? Is it patched together or is it all one kind of material?

  • Check out the construction of the furniture. Look for dovetailed joints rather than pieces that are cobbled together. Squashy cushion foam could be a sign that it's either old or there's something missing from underneath. Know what you'd need to get it back into shape.

  • Ignore the imperfections for a minute. Surface imperfections like shallow scratches and chipped paint can be fixed – construction is much, much harder. Rather than get hung up on blemishes, focus instead on the integrity of the piece.

A look at some desks with the drawers open at ReStore Minneapolis

Use the sniff test (yes, really)

It may sound silly, but bad-smelling furniture might be a deal breaker, no matter how much you love it. It's hard to tell where a mystery smell came from, and even a light stench can take a long time to fade. For example, a faint trace of cigarette smoke on a piece sitting outdoors at a flea market will intensify once it's indoors (and it can soak into your clothes and other fabric in your home, to boot). New fabric, paint, and stain can do wonders, but once an odor sets into a piece of furniture, it's often permanent.

Check out the back of the furniture

Make sure the backside of the furniture is in good condition (you'd be surprised how many people never give their second-hand furniture a 360 before bringing it home). Even if it's going to sit up against a wall, a quick check of the 'unseen' side can reveal deal-breakers like broken supports, holes in the back, and more.

Find out how much it weighs

You may absolutely love the look of a 60-inch-tall solid oak dresser you found, but you might want to go with something lighter weight if you want to get it home without injury. (Furniture can be deceptively heavy, too – even little pieces can weigh a lot.) Before you lay down the cash, carefully lift or tip a piece of furniture in the store to get a quick idea of the kind of muscle you'll need to get it home.

Have a game plan for getting it home

Speaking of moving, make a plan to get it home from the store. If you have a pickup truck or trailer, you're in luck! If not, find out if you can rent one or borrow a friend's. At ReStore, we'll store any item you buy for up to three days to give you time to pick it up. While ReStore doesn't offer delivery services, we can recommend pickup and delivery services (not affiliated with Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity or ReStore).

Two people loading a car's trunk at the ReStore in New Brighton.

Unleash your imagination...

When buying second hand furniture, it's important to picture the possibilities. You're rarely going to find a piece of furniture that doesn't need at least a little work. While you're thinking about how to fix up a piece of furniture, think about how you can make it yours while you're at it.

READ: 5 Tips for Refurbishing Any Kind of Furniture the Right Way

Again, try not to focus on cosmetic defects like light scratches wood, off-kilter handles, or damaged casters. Think about how that pink pelican fabric would look much better as a sky blue canvas, or how you could remove old inlay and paint over the crevice with a complementary color. If you open your mind to the possibilities of each piece, you'll find a lot to love while shopping for used furniture.

paint and supplies at new brighton restore
Paint and other materials you can use to spruce up used furniture (New Brighton ReStore)

…Then do the math

Part of what makes buying used furniture so compelling is the potential for sprucing it up – but you should factor in the cost of your work into the price you're willing to pay for the furniture itself. Add up the cost of the fabric, sandpaper, stain, handles, cushions, and anything else you'll need to fix it up, add 10% for good measure, then add the sum to the price on the tag. Consider THAT number the real cost of the furniture. (You can even factor in the cost of your labor, if you've got a number in mind.)

To many people, buying used furniture is a little like going on a treasure hunt. Every day, team members at ReStore see hundreds of treasure hunters leave with their next big score. Join the hunt at ReStore.

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Topics: Tips and Tricks, Shopping Tips, 2021

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