The Ten Commandments of Buying Used Furniture

The Ten Commandments of Buying Used Furniture

Dabney Frake
Feb 27, 2014

You see a chair on the curb. It's sitting right in front of your building and it's free. Or, you're at the thrift store and spy a cheap sofa. But something holds you back. You're just. not. quite. sure. If only there were guidelines — holy reminders if you will — of things to keep in mind while looking at used furniture. How do you decide if it's the right thing to re-do? Or if you should run in the other direction?

1. Thou Shalt Look for Tags - This should be first on the checklist: flip the piece over and see if there's a tag. If it says IKEA, boohoo. If it looks like it's from the 70s and reads Thayer Coggin, put a sheet and some caution tape around it as camouflage, then run — don't walk — to find someone help you haul it home.
Random side note: This isn't to say that you can't take home the IKEA item; just don't invest money in re-doing it. See this side table/stool thing? I bought it at some random secondhand store in Burlington, Vermont. I think it was like $20 and it reminded me of these so I quickly bought it. As soon as I got it home, I flipped it over and — lo and behold — there was the dreaded Walmart sticker. Ah well. Live and learn. It's still in my living room, and will do for now, but I shouldn't have even paid twenty bucks for it, and certainly would never bring it to some guy to refinish.

2. Honor Thy Lines - It's all about looking past the baby-puke green or cat-shredded fabric that's on it now, and envisioning what it could look like in a luxurious velvet material, or a solid neutral. Squint if you have to. The top picture is something I found on Craigslist a ways back. I loved the tufting and smallish scale for a Chesterfield-style sofa. I bought it for $40 and got it re-done, and here it is now:
For other inspiration, the women at Chairloom are always doing great work.

3. Thou Shalt Not Worship False Furniture - If you're not sure of its origin, or don't care, then just take a look at the quality of the construction. Does it look like solid wood or veneered MDF? Are the joints dovetailed, or just nailed or held together with hardware? Is it sturdy? In this age of knock-offs, make sure you are looking at the real deal, and not just crappy furniture posing as something nicer.

4. Thou Shalt Sit On It - It's one thing if it's pretty (or has the potential). It's a whole other thing if it's the most uncomfortable thing you've sat on since the concrete amphitheater of 2008. If you hate how it feels now, you'll hate it even more $500 - 1000 later.

5. Thou Shalt Examine Any Cushions - Foam is actually pretty pricey, so if you can re-use existing cushions, it'll save you some money. If the foam is as hard as a rock, and crumbles under your fingertips, it's time to add another line item to the reupholstery budget. If the foam's still firm, then all you'll need is new covers.

6. Be Not Afraid of Simple Fixes - If a table has just a few scratches, and only needs minimal love, consider whipping out your own mouse sander and spending an hour or so on it. Similarly, it's easy to replace a cushion if that's all a chair needs. Chances are good that the results will outshine any effort.

7. Thou Shalt Not Kill Strong Odors & Pests (Easily) - If a cat peed on the sofa at some point, or you suspect bed bugs, then think twice about your find. If there is a strong smell of kitty, or smoke, know that there is vinegar in your furniture's future. In the case of bugs, I don't think you want to touch it with a ten foot pole.

8. Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness to Your Wallet - Don't get swept up in that $60 price tag, without considering the very real expense of getting it re-done. Even with re-usable cushions, you'll still have to purchase yards of fabric, then pay someone to upholster it. Mentally calculate what it will really cost you when all is said and done. Is it worth the expense?

9. Thou Shalt Not Covet - This is easy to ignore in the excitement of finding something that you really like. Do you really need it, and do you have space for it, both before and after it gets redone? (For the record, I'm still working on this one, but I still recommend it to others.)

For example: I got this sofa off Craigslist for free a couple of years ago, and couldn't part with it. I love the chrome against the fabric and it's otherwise very basic, clean and in good shape. For years I moved it around to various awkward spots in my home and garage. Then, as part of the August Style Cure, I finally traded in the Scandinavian crack den look and redid the room, along the sofa. In this instance, I'm glad I hung onto it, even if it did take a while.

10. Remember Your Day of Rest - Make no mistake about it; this will probably be a pain in the ass. If it's a large piece, you'll likely have to find help moving it, and you might have to rent a van to get it home, then again to the re-upholsterer. Is it worth sacrificing a part of your precious weekend, before you even factor in the cost? Do you want to spend your time sanding off scratches? If you work hard and have limited time off, sometimes it's okay to forgo a time-consuming project, and head out to brunch and the farmers market instead.

So there you have it. Now go, live wisely, and may the furniture gods look kindly down upon you.

- Re-edited from a post published on 2/28/2013 - DF

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