A few months ago, I was interviewed for an article for Real Simple about buying furniture secondhand on a variety of online marketplaces. That issue is now available on newsstands (July 2019) if you’d like to grab a copy.
While we’re on the topic, I thought I would share my tips and tricks when it comes to shopping for furniture secondhand, specifically off of craigslist. I’ve been shopping off of craigslist for over 10 years, so it’s my go-to place, even though other online marketplaces have cropped up and are just as good. It’s just what I’m used to and I’ve found some amazing things just by search regularly.
These tips are primarily from a post I wrote a few years ago, but I’ve made some updates and additional comments.
HOW I SEARCH CRAIGSLIST
- I search all “for sale” categories. You can often find furniture, antiques and cool pieces with lots of potential that are listed in the wrong category. Outdoor furniture can be listed in the “farm + garden” section. Antiques can be listed in “furniture” or “household”.
- I use search terms that will hopefully pull up listings that would interest me. Here are some of my favorite searches – antique, industrial, French, pine, old, wood, chair, dresser, farm, cart, and vintage. I try to keep searches general because the average lister might not know the difference between French provincial and Victorian or Empire and Eastlake or even what any of those things are.
- I keep an open mind when I’m searching. I try to look at pieces for what they can be, not just for what they are. It can be comical how long I’ll sit and stare at a piece before I decide to go for it.
This antique dresser was $50 and I found it with the search term “dresser”.
WHAT I LOOK FOR IN LISTINGS
- Beyond just the piece I’m buying, I look for buyers who, based on the language of their post, want to just get rid of something and are flexible on their price. Phrases like OBO (or best offer), “need it out by the weekend”, etc. can tip you off to that.
- I do buy from some dealers, but I try to focus on the listings by owners. Dealers are trying to make money on a sale whereas most owners are just trying to unload something and maybe make a bit of cash out of it.
- While it’s helpful to have lots of pictures and detailed descriptions, sometimes it’s the listings with just one grainy picture and a description like “old dresser, needs some work” that gets overlooked by others and I take a gamble.
- I also am willing to inquire about listings that don’t have a photo. Sometimes people just don’t want to take the time to take a picture unless they are asked!
The hardware cabinet was purchased through craigslist in Maryland and the bookcase on top was purchased in Minnesota a few years later.
WHAT I GENERALLY GO FOR
- Furniture that has cosmetic issues, so the price is lower. Things like chipping veneer, watermarks, wonky drawers, marred finishes, missing hardware, are all things that don’t bother me one bit, but they can greatly reduce the price of a piece. Just make sure you’re buying a piece that is within your ability to fix.
- Furniture that has good lines, but is ugly. This is especially true for upholstery, but it can apply to pieces with really bad paint jobs or not-so-pretty colors, as well or ones that have been neglected.
- There are specific styles I gravitate towards, but I try to keep an open mind with that, too. I click on a lot of listings that aren’t my typical thing, so I can give myself some time to imagine the possibilities.
The table was purchased through a listing in Minneapolis and the sellers were willing to deliver it on a trip to Rochester. The chairs were also a craigslist find from Virginia and they were originally maroon. I had them stripped professionally and then I repainted them and made the seat covers.
- Act fast. If you want something, contact the seller immediately and pick it up as soon as you can.
- Be reasonable with your offers, if you’re going to negotiate. The seller might have other pieces that you’ll be interested in, so you don’t want to alienate them!
- Ask the seller if there is anything else they are planning to list or sell. I have gotten a lot of good stuff by just asking. Sometimes when I’m picking up an item, it’ll be in a pile of other things they want to sell and haven’t gotten around to listing it, yet.
- If you go to pick something up and you don’t like it, don’t feel pressure to buy it. Just say thank you and be on your way.
- Remember to be safe and smart. You are going to a stranger’s home with cash in hand. While most people are just normal people wanting to sell something, it’s a good idea to go with a buddy and, if at any time it feels “sketchy”, it’s okay to back out.
I found this amazing primitive hutch on craigslist in Pennsylvania for $400. That’s higher than I pay for most of my craigslist finds, but I knew it was a very good deal and they were selling it at a loss. I snapped it up right away and didn’t haggle.
THINGS TO AVOID
When you’re buying secondhand furniture, there is always the temptation to buy something just because it’s cheap and you’re there to pick it up. Take a minute and really assess the piece and think about the future of that piece. Will it languish in your garage? Will you really use and love it? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought something just because it was cheap and regretted it later. So, here’s what to avoid…
- Stinky upholstery! Give everything the sniff test. If it smells like smoke or pet urine (sorry, but true), then walk away. Those smells are so hard to remove and it’s just not worth trying. Trust me!
- Chairs that are wobbly and rickety. If a piece shimmies, it’s going to be difficult to repair properly unless you are a knowledgeable woodworker.
- Pieces made of pressboard. You really can’t do a lot with pressboard! It can’t be refinished and repairs are a nightmare. The stuff just crumbles. If the piece is in great condition, then you’re good to go, but if it needs repairs and isn’t solid wood, it’s not going to end well.
- Stuff that you don’t love. I’m just throwing that in as a reminder. Just because you’re buying used doesn’t mean you shouldn’t love it as much as something you would buy new. Giving careful thought to each piece you bring into your home is where good design starts.
Happy secondhand furniture shopping!