Shopping Guide

6 Tricks to Score Big at Any Flea Market or Estate Sale This Summer

May 29, 2018

If you’re thinking about redecorating your home, but don’t want to splurge on all-new furniture, you’re in luck because it’s almost summer. Why should the season matter? Well, when the warm weather rolls around, flea markets, yard sales, and estate sales will start popping up everywhere, and they’re all great places to find high-quality secondhand furniture.

However, not every secondhand item is worth your buck, so we asked interior designer Katie Mundo of Highwood Home to share her tips on finding the best used furniture. Mundo is known for using upcycled pieces from Facebook Marketplace in her stunning home designs, and she has some helpful advice to guide your secondhand shopping this summer.

1. Plan Before You Buy

Many people like to aimlessly browse flea markets and yard sales “just to see what’s there”—sound familiar? (We’re guilty!) However, Mundo says this is a good way to end up with furniture you don’t have a home for.

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“You need to have a purpose for the item,” explains Mundo. “Whether it’s a DIY project you plan to flip or a piece for your bedroom, it’s good to have a designated plan in mind because otherwise you might just end up with something you don’t need.” With that in mind, it’s best to plan, then shop. Make a list of items you want/need and measure your space before you head out thrifting.

2. Real Wood = Real Good

So how do you tell if a piece of secondhand furniture is worth the buy? It’s all about the materials. “With furniture, it's all about real, quality materials,” says Mundo. “I usually have my eye out for solid, real wood pieces of furniture because those are the items that can stand through time and are hard to damage.”

While we always want to take people at their word, it’s best to ensure pieces are truly made of wood—not particle board or a composite. “Even if a listing says it’s real wood, I always double-check to make sure because faux wood can be deceiving. It’s hard to work with faux wood if you want to stain, sand, or paint,” Mundo explains. An easy way to tell if it’s real wood? Try to pick it up. Solid wood furniture is much heavier than imitation pieces.

3. Do Your Due Diligence

Regardless of whether you’re shopping online via Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist or in-person somewhere, you’ll want to get up close and personal with any furniture before finalizing a sale. Go over it with a fine-tooth comb to ensure there are no big issues.

Mundo recommends testing out doors and drawers: “I’ll make sure it’s working properly: doors or drawers open and close, legs are straight and not wobbly, and there aren’t any major splits or fractures in the wood. I’m mostly looking for things that can’t necessarily be repaired without an expert,” says Mundo.

4. Be Wary of Big, Cheap Items

There are definitely some red flags you should look out for when shopping secondhand, one of which is large pieces of furniture with miniscule price tags. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. “I tend to second-guess items that are super cheap but large in size,” says Mundo. “Chances are it’s not a good buy and you could probably get something similar or brand new at IKEA.”

You might be able to score these mega-deals at yard sales if it’s an everything-must-go situation, but even then, refer back to tip No. 3!

5. Steer Clear of Upholstery

Of course, there are certain items that Mundo wouldn’t recommend buying secondhand. “Be very cautious of upholstered furniture,” she says. “There could be things living in the fabric or stains that aren't easily observable in regular lighting.”

The exception to this rule is if you know where the furniture came from—if it’s a friend selling it, for instance—and are sure there are no creepy crawlies lurking: “If you have thoroughly inspected it and are very confident it comes from a clean home, go for it!”

6. Negotiate… Nicely

Negotiation is a key part of any secondhand shopping experience, so don’t be afraid to haggle a little. That said, you don’t want to go in guns blazing—be tactful and respectful if you want to score big. “My number one tip is to be polite!” says Mundo. “You never want to be overly aggressive, emotional, or bitter in negotiations because it will go south quickly and neither party will be happy.”

Further, low-balling isn’t always the best option: “I know everyone's looking for the best bargain, but also be realistic when negotiating,” Mundo recommends. “Don’t offer $10 for an item listed at $80, unless you truly think that’s what it’s worth.”

The Perfect Way to End a Day of Antiquing

Do you enjoy shopping secondhand? Let us know your best tips in navigating the once-loved world.

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Freelance writer, product tester & baking enthusiast.

1 Comment

Smaug May 30, 2018
MDF (medium density fiberboard), so commonly used in modern furniture, is actually much heavier than any wood you're likely to come across in furniture. Plywood isn't much different in weight from common woods; I doubt many could assess the difference in a finished piece. One good way to assess used furniture is by how drawers are constructed; hand cut dovetails may hint at a hidden gem; perfectly formed dovetails or other interlocking joints hint at modern machine production- probably a well made piece, but not of historical worth. Nailed together joints or false drawer fronts indicate, at best, a utilitarian piece, as do metal drawer slides. In a high quality piece, the drawers will be made of good, straight grained hardwood. Also, of course, they need to operate smoothly without rattling around. Door construction is another good indicator, but that's a whole 'nother treatise.