Sustainability

11 Expert Tips for Thrift Shopping (Secondhand Treasures Await!)

How one writer extends the “nothing new” mindset to almost every home purchase.

April 12, 2021
Photo by Weston Wells

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:

An entryway full of secondhand scores: The console is vintage Paul McCobb bought on Everything But the House, the mirror was a $20 Craigslist score, and the alabaster lamps were $25 for the pair at a barn auction. Photo by Weston Wells

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.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Buying children new and sometimes unaffordable shoes are not only unpractical but a complete waste of money. Before you turn around, they need a bigger size. Helmets on bikes with training wheels, in my opinion is just ridiculously overprotective and the kid needs to fall down, scrape a knee, get up and get back on the bike. Such as life. Entirely why we have this problem with people being so sensitive and not able to take a comment without getting offended. It’s pathetic and not how a strong social society can and should be seen. ( I did go off track without the thrifting comment, but that reply was just one I couldn’t ignore )”
— CTbykrchik81
Comment

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.

A handmade vintage wooden race track. Photo by Weston Wells

Ask questions

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.

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sandra Roberts
    Sandra Roberts
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    Meg McCulloch
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  • Gammy
    Gammy
Laura Fenton

Written by: Laura Fenton

Laura Fenton is the A Full Plate columnist at Food52. The author of The Little Book of Living Small and the former lifestyle director at Parents magazine, she covers home, design, and sustainability. Laura lives in Jackson Heights, Queens in a 690-square foot apartment with her husband and son. You can follow her on Instagram @laura.alice.fenton.

14 Comments

Sandra R. April 20, 2021
A critical step to buying second hand furniture is to TAKE YOUR MEASUREMENTS BEFORE HAND and bring a tape measure with you. Include any door frames, stairwell dimensions, or elevators your furniture must be moved through to get to your space. I came very close to buying a gorgeous set of bookcases with glass doors that would not have fit through the doors to my home. My husband saved me on that one.
 
soniacooksfood April 29, 2021
Sandra, thank you for mentioning about the importance of taking measurements! Make sure to measure your vehicle's dimensions, too. I've had too many close calls with larger pieces of furniture during my early days of Craigslist-ing where the furniture BARELY fit in the car (and two times the sellers ended up transporting the pieces to my house because my car was too small).

Laura, thank you for this thoughtfully written piece with super practical advice on secondhand shopping! I've been a longtime buyer of secondhand furniture (almost my entire house is Craigslist-ed); I love that it makes my home more "lived-in" and unique. (also the quality is so much better than what you find online, plus I HATE putting furniture together) The thrill of the hunt is also undeniable, it makes my whole week scoring a great find! (my latest bargain was finding a $1300 retail bar cabinet for $150!!!)

I am also a new parent and I so appreciate the "buy nothing new" mindset - I've been super fortunate to inherit a motherload of hand-me-downs from family members and it makes me feel better to not give in to the baby industry (and keep it environmentally friendly, as you wrote).
 
Author Comment
Laura F. April 29, 2021
Yes, so true, I have had some CLOSE calls on fitting things into my trunk. Glad to hear there are other happy-to-hand-me-down moms out there!
 
Meg M. April 18, 2021
Interesting that you so value the "estate sale" terminology. Maybe that's a regional thing. In my experience the exact OPPOSITE of what you say is true: estate sale means yes a family member has passed and entire contents may be for sale but often a third party company has been hired to sort, price, manage the sale so the prices are no bargains after their markup is added.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. April 29, 2021
Yes, often a third-party on the East Coast too--BUT I find that the third party seller is WAY more open to negotiations than individuals who have sentimental attachments to the things. Usually the estate sale company's objective is to GET RID OF IT ALL.
 
Ted1132 April 18, 2021
Being self - sustaining is okay. Had to learn the hard way, but did in underdeveloped countries of the World. Found out one can be "happy" with little. Not fun, but Happy.

Big diff for Americans, and not poor just to act poor.
 
T D. April 16, 2021
Check out www.EstateSales.Net for estate sales in your area. Just enter your zip code.
 
Gammy April 16, 2021
Shop the thrift stores of local non-profits you would support anyway, such as those helping the homeless, abused women, animals, church groups and hospitals. The ones staffed by passionate volunteers and run on a shoe string, rather than the national "big guys" who's CEO makes millions. They are the ones really needing your help and often have better goods at better prices than the larger, more well know stores.
 
Author Comment
Laura F. April 29, 2021
YES! Such a good point. I feel like those smaller shops are way more likely to get the products onto their shelves than into a dumpster too.
 
Gail D. April 15, 2021
Her comment about no more projects hit a nerve. And I'm not offended, In my den I have all of a Hoosier cabinet that needs a lot of the plywood replaced, and an art deco Dentist's cabinet I've seen on 1st dibs for over $700. But they need work and are just taking up space. And three oak chairs out in the shed. And the list goes on. On the other hand, the prospect of finding TREASURE, and the good feeling that comes from RESCUING something keep me coming back. Oh, and years ago we sold our unique Dining set and other Guatemalan furniture we'd inherited. Regretted it ever since, but a couple years ago I stumbled across the china cabinet in a thrift shop.
 
Arati M. April 15, 2021
You've got me looking for vintage star charts now, Laura!
 
Author Comment
Laura F. April 29, 2021
I'll send you a message if I see any for sale!
 
Melanie April 13, 2021
Children should not wear used shoes. Also helmets like for bike riding should be new.
However I don't have children anymore so I will buy anything I can wash. I don't like used upholstered pieces. But that is just me. I live in a nice neighborhood and the thrift stores and garage sales are overpriced. Less nice areas of the city have better prices. I've been going to garage sales my whole life. My family is garage sale crazy. Growing up we were poor so they were essential. I moved to Arizona 2 years ago and I can't get over the fact that sales start at 5 am and are over at 11 am. I know by noon it's a 100° but I am just not a morning person.🙄
 
CTbykrchik81 April 13, 2021
Buying children new and sometimes unaffordable shoes are not only unpractical but a complete waste of money. Before you turn around, they need a bigger size. Helmets on bikes with training wheels, in my opinion is just ridiculously overprotective and the kid needs to fall down, scrape a knee, get up and get back on the bike. Such as life. Entirely why we have this problem with people being so sensitive and not able to take a comment without getting offended. It’s pathetic and not how a strong social society can and should be seen. ( I did go off track without the thrifting comment, but that reply was just one I couldn’t ignore )