A Full Plate is a column about family life and the home by contributing writer Laura Fenton, who explores the intersection of thoughtful living and home design through a mother’s eyes.
When I was pregnant with my son, a college friend told me, “I have one piece of advice for you: Don’t buy anything new.” He was a dad of two by then and knew how quickly kids grow out of things, and how short a time we’d actually use our baby gear. I was already a flea market shopper, but I took his advice to heart as we added to our home to accommodate a child: buying a vintage rocker and dresser to furnish our son’s nursery and saying yes to all the hand-me-downs. Six years later, this “nothing new” mindset extends to almost every purchase I make.
In fact, if you take a look around my home, you’ll discover that almost every piece of furniture I own (with the exception of my 10-year old couch), all my dishes, and many of my clothes are things that I have purchased secondhand or inherited from a family member! I love the thrill of the hunt, but I’m also happy to know that secondhand finds keep my environmental impact low. I’m not creating demand for new things to be produced, keeping previously-owned items out of the landfill, and reducing the transportation miles for my purchases. Shopping secondhand has saved us money, too. Here are my top tips for secondhand shopping success:
Become a regular
Visit your local thrift or secondhand store often. If you make short frequent trips to see what’s new, you’ll be more likely to stumble upon a treasure. Plus, you’ll get to know the staff who may point you to cool items, or even call you if what you’re looking for comes in.
Set up eBay alerts
If you have something specific you’re hunting for, set up an alert for it on eBay—and wait. I had my eye on a vintage Rand McNally star chart and after four years one turned up! eBay’s alerts have also helped me score mid-century furniture, my out-of-production china pattern, and my favorite brand of kid clothing at low prices.
Thrift in the fancy zip codes
Think about it: You’re likely to find the best cast-offs in the areas where people can afford the finer things. I have always had amazing luck with the thrift shops on the Upper East Side of New York City and, in the days of travel, in resort towns like Palm Springs, Nantucket, and the Hamptons. Plus, those well-to-do neighborhoods are also often the places where older residents are downsizing.
Look for the magic words ‘estate sale’
If you are scouring yard sale listings in a local paper, make a beeline for the ones labeled an ‘estate sale.’ This means that the entire house’s contents are being sold, so there will be lots to choose from, and the sellers are often happy to make deals in order to empty out the home.
I’ve had particularly good luck with kitchenware at these, including a vintage Le Creuset lasagna pan, a salad bowl that’s big enough to serve 20, and a Tiffany(!) vase—all for $5 a piece. I’m also the proud owner of a 1980s coffee maker and toaster oven.
Sniff out the sleepers
Another tip for yard sales: Look for the most understated yard sale descriptions, the ones with just a time and an address. These are often the ones that other shoppers will skip. And again, location counts: zero in on addresses in the parts of town or a neighborhood you have a hunch will have your preferred style.
Get in the value mindset
If you find yourself thinking that a secondhand find is “expensive,” ask yourself compared to what. Buying previously owned furniture isn’t always cheap, but it’s almost always great value. You can find hardwood dressers with dovetail joints that will last for another hundred years for approximately the same price as a new particle board dresser. Likewise, the dozen blue and white dishes marked at $40 may feel pricey, but consider that you’d be paying upwards of $10 a plate in most mid-range retails stores.
But be wary of a project
My husband and I actually had to make a “no more projects” rule after becoming parents because, more often than not, we couldn't get around to it. So think carefully before bringing home an item that needs considerable repair or alteration.
Don’t fear patina
It is rare to score a piece in mint condition, but those signs of its previous life are a good thing. The natural imperfections in real hardwood and the nicks and grooves of time give your texture and interest. Plus, you’ll be less fussed when a piece inevitably gets a nick or a scratch in the course of your daily life.
When you’re shopping at antiques stores or flea markets, engage the vendors. I wish I’d done this more when I was younger. They are likely passionate about what they are selling, so you may learn something about the piece’s history, how to care for it, or how to find more of what you’ve newly discovered. I have a Victorian quilt that the seller noted was made mostly from pieces of men’s silk ties, a detail which would have eluded my eye.
Keep safety in mind
There are some items you should not buy used like car seats and cribs. Safety standards for these items have changed and improved over time, so you want to make sure you’re not buying something potentially dangerous. (A gently used gift from a friend who bought it new is fine though!)
Bring the kids
We take our son with us when we visit flea markets and yard sales. To keep him engaged, we let him pick out a toy or a book. We’ve found some wonderful things, including a handmade wooden race car track, and I am hoping that this will set him up to see the value in secondhand things.
What is your best tip for scoring secondhand treasures? Tell us in the comments below.