The Biggest Thrifted Furniture Buying Mistakes, According to Pro Flippers

published Dec 4, 2023
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Have you ever had a piece of furniture sit in your apartment for months as you anxiously await the moment when you’ll decide to learn how to use paint stripper, find the perfect hardware, or learn how to do a repair that’s actually far outside your DIY abilities? Sorry to say it, but if that sounds familiar, you can count yourself a victim of furniture flip indecision. While you might have found a great garage sale deal or a promising free sidewalk snag, that’s only half the battle — if you can’t actually finish the project, that winning find is wasted. 

Professional furniture flippers have been in the same spot, again and again. And, for a professional flipper, the decision of whether a piece is worth it is higher stakes than just whether they’ll like the end product — it all comes down to profit margins. As Ruth Gamarra, founder of Unique by Ruth, explains, choosing a furniture piece for a next project “all depends on the market and price that a flipper would try to re-sell it and the time and labor that the flipper is willing to invest on it.” If a piece of furniture will cost more money in labor than a flipper can make on resale, it’s a bad investment.

You might not be reselling your furniture flips for profit, but it’s still helpful to think about the amount of time, money, and skill invested as you assess whether a furniture redo is “worth it.” The solution? Make like the furniture flipping pros, and buy smarter. 

Below, find eight furniture-buying mistakes pro furniture flippers made so you don’t have to. Avoid these pitfalls when shopping for secondhand furniture, and you’ll be able to bring home something that’s actually makeover-worthy (and makeover-ready).

Buying Furniture with Busted Drawers

If a dresser has a drawer that gets stuck or doesn’t slide smoothly, then don’t fret. The fix is simple and even an amateur DIYer should be able to tackle it by watching a few videos. But if the drawer is completely broken, cracked, or split on the bottom, sides, or front, then it might not be able to be fixed — at least not without tracking down a replacement drawer. Skip it and find something that can actually function.

Thinking You Can Conquer Mold

Gamarra warns that a piece with mold is almost never worth trying to salvage, as the mold will likely continue to come back. “Many years ago I received a beautiful mid-century console that had mold on it. We tried many techniques to take it off but unfortunately, we could not save it,” she says. This is a battle that’s simply not worth taking on. 

Buying a Piece That Needs Stripping

Unless you’re a seasoned furniture flipper, stripping paint could be too ambitious of a project. Kandra Sobel of Half Finished Home notes that what the paint hides is often a complete mystery. “Stripping paint is almost always a mistake,” she says. “It’s a horror, it’s time-consuming, it’s messy, and you never know what you’re going to find underneath. It could be gorgeous walnut, or could be tragic plywood. It’s a gamble.”

Taking on Too Big of a Project

Sobel evaluates her own projects based on the amount of her time that will be spent and how much she can sell it for. If a project is too big, it’s not worth buying. “The investment you made, the condition, the brand of the piece, what needs to be fixed, and the potential profit should all be considered before you start a project that could potentially take days, weeks, or months to complete, depending on the level of work required,” says Sobel.

The same goes for someone who’s buying a piece to keep for themselves — if you can buy it for less than the time it will take you, is it worth it? It could be if you enjoy the process, or if the item has emotional significance to you. Otherwise, maybe not — and that’s OK!

Falling for a Deal

“I’ve been suckered into a good deal on a piece only to discover it’s hanging on by a wing and a prayer,” says Grace Imwold of Katie & Grace. She recommends checking whether a piece of furniture is well-made, solid, and has the bones necessary to flip for yourself or to sell. As she notes, “I love a vintage dresser, but they are hard to resell when the drawers don’t have tracks.” 

Buying Anything Particle Board

“I would not try to save pieces that were constructed with cheap materials like particle board,” says Gamarra. A piece that was not well-made to begin with can rarely be saved — especially because the materials may buckle or warp under the pressure of trying to put it back together. If you’re spending any money and time on a redo, go for real wood.

Diving Straight into the Deep End

“I always recommend trying to start small,” says Marielle Conlon of That Table Lady. She had a neighbor who handed off a vintage Stanley faux bamboo credenza — a project that had been hastily painted multiple times by previous would-be DIYers before finally languishing in her neighbor’s garage for another year. “The credenza was back-breakingly heavy, smelled terribly, and needed so much chemical stripper,” Conlon says. “Ultimately, I ended up taking it to the dump but before I did so I took all the hardware from the drawer pulls down to the hinges and even the vintage screws.” 

If someone who was up for the challenge of redoing that credenza had taken it on from the beginning, it never would have gotten to that state — but once it did, it was too difficult to salvage.

Thinking Something Can’t Be Saved

Yes, yes, you’ve received all the warnings about things that aren’t worth it — but if you’re particularly attached to a piece of furniture and you’re willing to put in the hours and sweat equity, don’t immediately discount it just because it’s not in perfect condition.

“Whether it’s a broken drawer runner, stripped screws, chipped laminate — all can be repaired before refinishing,” says Cindy Rayner, a rehabber of vintage furniture. “Products like Bondo and E6000 are life-savers, along with a good orbital sander. Missing pieces, such as drawer runners or pulls, can be found online.”

Rayner has herself taken on a number of projects that seemed hopeless — projects like a yellow-painted dresser covered in stickers and missing its back panel to a funky futurist Googie-style chair that had fallen victim to an iron burn. She has yet to meet a piece that can’t be saved, although she notes that some require a lot more creativity and effort than others. “Each piece of furniture is like a puzzle to me,” she says. “Some may take longer to figure out, but with a little creative thinking, anything is possible!”

The moral here: If you really, really love a piece of furniture and you’re willing to go all-in on repairing or redoing it, you can make it happen. But if your interest is just lukewarm? Better to leave that item behind for someone else.