Don’t waste money on a brand new price tag when you can find something secondhand that’s better – and cheaper!
The first time I had to furnish and decorate an apartment as an adult, I looked around at the empty rooms and immediately became overwhelmed by the task. Where on earth was I supposed to find all these items? My then-girlfriend and I ended up scrounging some home goods (a bedframe and mattress from one friend, a futon from another) and buying whatever else we needed (mismatched flatware and dishes) at the local thrift store. We were college students, newly living in the United States, and we didn’t have the funds or the know-how to buy brand new furniture. Besides, the only store we knew about was IKEA, they didn’t deliver, and we didn’t have an American license.
Twelve years later, we’re married with two kids and have learned a lot more about decorating a home, but we still choose to thrift a lot of things. We’re not alone, either. The preference for used goods over new has seen a huge rise in popularity in recent years, likely due to a combination of pandemic-era frugality and heightened awareness of consumerism’s impact on the climate crisis. A study conducted by GlobalData and aggregated by thredUP, an online resale marketplace, shows that the resale market grew 58 percent in 2021, rising to a massive $35 billion of overall worth. The same study projects that, by 2026, the resale market will be worth $82 billion. Among respondents to GlobalData’s consumer surveys, 50 percent of consumers are aware that “fast fashion” (inexpensive, mass-marketed clothing) is harmful to the environment and 63 percent chose to buy secondhand items in order to save money.
And that’s just clothes. With rising prices and a growing awareness of the impact rampant consumerism has on the planet, more folks are turning to their local secondhand shops, flea markets, and Facebook Marketplaces for perfectly good home goods that are less expensive and better for the environment. These consumers aren’t just doing good for the planet—they’re saving a lot of money for themselves, too. According to a study by Coupon Follow, people who opt for secondhand goods save an average of $1,760 a year.
The only problem, then, becomes extricating the worthwhile pieces amid the shelves and shelves of potential finds. One person’s trash may be another person’s treasure, but some things are too run-down to take home and can end up adding unnecessary clutter to your home. So, what should you thrift? What should you avoid? Below are some tips for finding the best pre-owned home goods.
For the First-time Thrifter: Books, Pottery, and Hard Furniture
“Books and pottery are easy to pick up, don’t need careful planning or measuring, and are versatile,” says Bex Massey of Bramble and Fox, a hygge and vintage shop based in the UK. “A shelf, a table or a little stool always looks good dressed with a stack of books and a stoneware jar of blooms.” Other interior designers echoed this sentiment, adding that it’s best to start just by perusing a few shops to get inspiration.
Massey also recommended that first-timers make a list of items they need or want so that they’re sure to be “thrifting with purpose.” Start by checking out price ranges on eBay or Etsy for extra shopping savvy and be sure to carefully examine any piece you consider buying to check for signs of damage. “All vintage items have signs of wear and, in most cases, these add to their story and character,” Massey says. “Ultimately, you need to decide if you’re comfortable with the item’s level of wear, whether it represents value to you and, if you’ll be repairing it, whether that repair is in your budget.”
Tor Rydder, a professional home organizer from Norway and creator of the YouTube channel Organizing TV, also recommends starting small when you’re new to thrifting. “Always look for hard furniture first, preferably small hard furniture like a bookshelf or a bedside table,” he says. “As long as you can see that the wood isn’t rotting or too chipped, then you can’t really go wrong with hard furniture and it can last you a very long time.”
Rydder encourages everyone to buy second-hand, especially when it comes to furniture, calling the price of new furnishings “exorbitant.” According to his view, most things are durable, can be made to look as good as new with minimal work, and are just more attractive. “There are some truly special finds to be had in a thrift store,” says Rydder, “and these items can really make your home feel as if it has depth and character.”
Other items that are great for a newbie in this space are dishes. Ashley Poskin, Chicago-based vintage stylist and thrifter extraordinaire says Pyrex containers and glassware are some of her favorites. In addition to vintage dishes and cookware, picture frames and mirrors are more items that take minimal planning and are certain to be less expensive, sometimes better made, and even more attractive than many options you’ll find at a big-box store.
For the Seasoned Secondhand Shopper: Upholstered Furniture and Light Fixtures
So, you’ve done a fair amount of thrifting and you’re ready to take things to the next level. That’s great! It’s time to tackle things that involve a little more time and elbow grease. “One thing I think is truly better to buy [second-hand] is a table lamp,” says Poskin. “[In a] big box store you’ll spend $30-60 on an interesting table lamp, but it’ll be the same one that everyone else has. Or, you could go to a thrift store and find something individual. For example, I have a super rad tiger lamp that I bought for $4.99. It did take some DIY-ing—I paid $13 for a kit to rewire it. Still, for under $20 bucks I have an item no one’s ever going to have.” Plus, Poskin says she felt good about preventing her now beloved lamp from ending up in the landfill.
When it comes to bigger items, like a sofa or an upholstered chair, Massey recommends considering what exactly you find attractive about the piece you’re considering. “Is it the shape, the fabric, or how it feels when you sit on it?” she says. “Because there’s a distinct difference between recovering a chair in new fabric and reupholstering it. Reupholstering is more expensive and involves the structure and support of the chair, so that squashy 1960s armchair that felt like an old friend in the thrift store could end up feeling hard and unfriendly when you get it back.”
Massey adds that you may also find yourself spending more money than you intended if you mistakenly take your new item somewhere to be reupholstered when you really just wanted it to be recovered in new fabric—so it’s important to know the difference between the two.
Don’t just go off of appearances, either. If you like a furniture item, make sure you give it a bit of a test run before you decide to take it home. “You always want to test [chairs and tables] at the store to make sure that they’re sturdy and safe,” Poskin says.
Each of the designers recommended considering the total price of a piece—including any potential repairs—before making a purchase, and checking all crevices for any unwanted stowaways. “I actually carry a dry brush in the back of my car, so if I buy a piece I can dust it off really well before taking it anywhere,” Poskin says. While none of the experts I spoke to had ever had an incident with bedbugs or any other undesirables, they all encouraged vigilance—just in case.
What You Shouldn’t Buy Secondhand
Despite the many advantages to bargain hunting at your local Goodwill or Savers, not everything is best bought secondhand. Across the board, everyone warned against opting for a second-hand mattress. “Due to the amount of use they get, mattresses pick up a lot of dead skin, mold, and mites,” says Rydder, “and you don’t know who owned your mattress before you. Not only does this sound a little gross, but [an old mattress] can also actually have an effect on your immune system and make you quite ill.”
Poskin’s list of never-thrift items also includes stuffed animals, pillows and “anything soft that looks like it could have collected decades of dust that has sunken into it.” If she sees a vintage throw pillow that’s speaking her language, she only buys it if she can remove the cover and replace the stuffing. She also recommends buying linens, blankets, and the like only if you’re able to wash them. “I have a huge vintage wool blanket collection,” she admits, adding that she actually washes these in the freshly fallen Chicago snow.
Expert Thrifters’ Favorite Finds and Tips
Secondhand retailers—whether a chain store, a local shop, or an eBay user—allow shoppers to find one-of-a-kind things they’d never have located elsewhere. “I have a 1930s electric Singer sewing machine that reminds me of my Nan,” Massey says, “and I feel very connected to her when I use it.” The vintage lover also found a late Victorian piano she loves, which used to live in a pub. “It has a few battle scars and our piano tuner isn’t a fan, but I love that it holds many stories, secrets, and memories in its 120-ish year old frame,” Massey says. “Pretty much any time my husband or little boy walks past they play it.”
Linda Morey-Burrows of Studio Morey, a UK-based design firm, likes to focus on “reusing over buying new and mixing thrifted pieces alongside modern items for a fresh take on vintage-style.” Changing the frame on vintage artwork to something with a more modern aesthetic, for example, or changing the handles on a hardwood vintage dresser can bring a lot more character to a piece with minimal investment. What’s important is to look for items with good bones and personality. “Purchasing items at a second-hand store should be about sourcing pieces that make you feel something,” says Morey-Burrows.
One of Poskin’s favorite thrift finds also involved some remixing. She was ecstatic to find a pair of unopened Schiaparelli women’s stockings at a small town thrift store because she knew they were exactly her style. She bought the designer stockings not for wearing, but for framing and hanging on the wall. “I like considering items that aren’t specifically in the art or home decor section as art,” she says. This penchant for unconventional art-hunting has also led Poskin to frame a vintage swimsuit and paint a vintage fridge pink. “If you need large scale art and it’s not in your budget to pay an artist for a piece, you can find a really interesting item in a store—like a swimsuit or a flag—and frame it,” she recommends.
Whether you’re trying to zhuzh up your home’s aesthetic, save money, or be more sustainably-minded, there are plenty of good reasons to explore the world of pre-owned purchases. If you’re more of an in-person shopper, head to Goodwill or a smaller, local store. Or, if you prefer the convenience of the web, sites like eBay, Facebook Marketplace, and The Freecycle Network have you covered. Whichever way you choose is good for your wallet, good for the planet, and just a lot of fun.
Mikhal Weiner, Real Simple