8 Things Smart Shoppers Look for When They Thrift

published Sep 27, 2020
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When my kids started piano lessons a couple of years ago, my husband and I began searching for a used piano. Because friends of ours had had an issue with dry wood termites—they had to tent their entire home—we were wary of bringing anything with the potential to house termites into our home. Still, even though we were on hyper alert… we forgot to look inside the piano when we got it.

A day after we moved the piano into the house, which is absolutely not an easy task, even with a spinet style, I lifted the lid and—horror—there were piles of wings and bugs’ bodies in the corners. We got the piano out of the house, and had pest control come out for an inspection. Sure enough, it was exactly what we’d been afraid of: dry wood termites. The really awful thing about spotting dry wood termites—besides the obvious fact that they are bugs that eat your house—is that our termite bond doesn’t cover them because they aren’t indigenous to where we live in Florida.

Out went the piano again, with assurances from the bug guy that the bugs had been happy to remain in the piano (still plenty of food there—thank goodness—or our simple mistake could have been really costly). We had the piano picked up by the sanitation department (it wasn’t worth the cost to fumigate) and we began our search again.

If there’s anything we learned, it’s caveat emptor, or “let the buyer beware.” The onus of the trouble caused by used items that are not, shall we say, up to par, lies squarely on us.

If you’re a dedicated thrifter who would like avoid ending up with a problem like ours, the best thing you can do is inform yourself about what dangers may be hiding behind that stellar second-hand find:

Upholstered furniture: Look for signs of bed bugs or mold

Bed bugs often leave small, dark stains, especially near the seams of the upholstery. Excrement stains (eww!) are dark and bleed like marker stains would, crushed bugs leave reddish stains behind. The EPA has photos of what different bed bug stains and detritus might look like, if you care to look.

Mold can typically be seen or smelled. If you’re not sure if dark spots are mold or dirt, you can try dripping bleach (on an inconspicuous spot!) for a test: If the spots are lighter after a minute or two, you’re dealing with mildew, not dirt.

Credit: Anna Spaller

Wood furniture, or any furniture with wooden components: Look for signs of termites or mold

Look for visible signs of mold and do the sniff test. Inspect wood with a flashlight for any suspicious holes, wings, or pellets. Be sure to look inside, if applicable, such as inside a desk or inside dresser drawers.

Kids’ items: Search for manufacturer recalls

Before you buy a crib or a car seat or even just a toy, you should check for any safety recalls. The Parents magazine website has a toy and product recall database you can search, but you can also check SafeKids.org, or just search the product name/model + “recall.”

Salvaged items: Look for signs of wood rot, termites, or mold.

Wooden furniture, such as picnic tables or Adirondack chairs, for instance, or a piano (!) are susceptible to rot, termites, and mold. Knowing the telltale signs of these problems can help you decide if that castoff piece you found on the side of the road is treasure or best left for the sanitation department to pick up.

Dry rot in wood is actually a type of mold that has taken hold in the cellulose of the wood fiber. Dry rot might show up in wood as a cracked, dry appearance. The wood may look like small cubes or like it’s shrunken. It can also be darker than surrounding wood or be crumbly to the touch. The only way to treat dry rot is to remove all the affected wood so the problem doesn’t spread.

Furniture infested with termites also exhibits some particular signs, if you know what to look for. Wooden furniture housing these pests might have small piles of feces near it, might have weak spots or visible rows in the wood, or may have sawdust nearby. Steer clear of any used furniture with signs of termites.

Musical instruments: Make sure they’ve been cared for properly

Buying a used instrument can save a good deal of money, especially when you aren’t sure how long your kid is going to stick with the flute. The types of problems you could encounter with a used instrument vary according to what it is, of course. For instance, a used guitar could be plagued by a warped neck and used brass instruments could suffer from bent slides or broken valves as described on Get Tuned. While you should certainly become educated about the specific issues that may show up in your instrument of interest, looking for more general signs of how well the instrument was cared for can give you insight about its current condition.

Bicycles: Look for signs of wear

In much the same way that you’d inspect used musical instruments, inspect any used bike that you’re thinking of buying for general signs of how well the previous owner cared for it—because you’ll be taking on the repercussions.

Dents and rust indicate that the bike may not have received much careful care. Look for cracks if the bike is carbon. Next, check the alignment by seeing what happens when you take your hands off the handlebars as you ride. A loose headset, indicated by a knocking noise when you move the bike back and forth while holding down the brakes, may also indicate a lack of care. Squeezing the brakes and making sure they spring back tells you if they are in good shape.

Books: Look for mold

Any musty smell emanating from books indicates mold, as does as any visible signs mold, such as spots or stains or visible mold on the covers. You can clean mold from the covers of books with alcohol, and you can do your best to cover up the musty scent by placing dryer sheets between pages or setting the books outside in the sun. But these methods are best suited to books you want to salvage, maybe from a relative’s collection. If you’re buying used, skip books with any signs of mold.

Credit: Minette Hand

Dishware: Look for cracks (and consider using it decoratively)

Crazing (cracks in glazed dishware) or hairline cracks can harbor bacteria. In older pieces, crazing could also potentially leach lead into your food. Also be aware that vintage crystal and dishware could contain unsafe levels of lead or other dangerous substances. Keep these items for display, but think twice about eating from them.