6 Things I Learned by Decorating My Living Room with Only Free and Secondhand Finds

published Jun 18, 2021
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Credit: Erin Johnson

When I moved into a new apartment this year, I knew I wanted to furnish it with as many free or secondhand items as I could.  There are a few reasons for this.  First of all, I live in Brooklyn, and the streets of New York City and the surrounding boroughs were gold mines during the pandemic as residents fled the city and emptied their apartments (and beautiful vintage furniture) onto the streets, all free for the taking. (Just take a look at Stooping NYC’s Instagram feed for a little glimpse of the goodness.) Secondly, I wanted to save money. I’ve moved several times and I know how disposable furniture can feel and I just don’t have the money to buy new items just to get rid of them when moving again because they don’t fit the new place or the design style that I’m currently into at that moment.  Lastly, I work as a professional organizer and I have a small… I don’t want to say hatred, but something close to that word, for “stuff” — so I’m constantly purging and then consequently on the search for items that bring me true joy. 

As I began my journey of taking another (wo)man’s trash for my treasure, I learned a few things along the way.

Credit: Erin Johnson

“Free” doesn’t always mean free.

In fact, “free” has yet to really mean free to me personally.  To someone who perhaps has an able-bodied partner or close family member with a car, plus a lot of free time to scour the streets and online market sites… maybe free really would mean free for them.

For me, that is not the case.  I’m a single woman without a car who lives in a fifth-floor walk-up, so if I score a big free item, I still have to pay someone to pick it up, transport it, and then help me get it up five flights of stairs.  Fortunately, there are plenty of apps that offer that kind of service, and I’ve been known to wrangle friends into helping me drag things up all those stairs — but I’d like to keep my friends, so I try to limit those asks.

However, if the option is paying more to buy something new and then still having to get it delivered and up five flights of stairs (those unfortunately are not going anywhere!) or snagging a unique free item and paying someone $50 to get it to my doorstep, I’ll take the second option.

It’s worth asking for a discount.

I’ve sold some really amazing stuff on Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace, and I know sometimes it’s more about the timing than the price. Maybe you wanted $100 for that mirror, but now you’re moving tomorrow and you need it out, so $25 will be just fine. I now use this information to make smart decisions as a buyer.

If an item is being sold by an individual (not a business) on one of those sites, the price is almost always negotiable.  I scored my 48-inch flat-screen TV off of Facebook Marketplace for $45 and that included free transport from their house to my street once I asked for a discount in order to take into account transportation costs.  I could have easily accepted the already-low asking price and arranged transportation for myself, but they were happy to get it out of their house and bring it to me.  Being upfront about my cost concerns made us both winners in this situation.

You can stay committed to your design aesthetic with free and secondhand finds.

This is what I was most concerned about when deciding I wanted to go the repurposing route.  I have a pretty specific aesthetic (Dolly Parton meets Lisa Frank is how I usually describe it), and I had a few big-ticket items that I really wanted to score.

One of those items was a sleek leather couch. Beggars can be choosers!  I typed in “leather couch” to every website I could find and then got more specific by typing “Article leather couch” and “West Elm Hamilton leather sofa” until I finally found someone to agree to sell me one for $350. For reference, the 81-inch West Elm Hamilton leather sofa in Burnt Sienna retails for $2,999. This was definitely my favorite score so far, but I have to be totally upfront here:

I paid $350 for the sofa; $30 for the Uber to go meet the seller immediately before they sold it to someone else (here today, gone today, as they say); and $300 for movers to come day-of to transport this couch and get it up five flights of stairs, remove my door, and then try to get it through the door. (At one point it didn’t seem like it was going to fit, so I had Couch Doctors on call and they quoted me somewhere around $600 just to get it through the door — so I asked the movers just to push and they finally got it through.)

Then I had a moment where I regretted it all. Yes, I had just saved $2,400 on a leather couch, but it was used, had some scratches and stains, and I had just spent almost $700 in such a short amount of time (I had to move fast to get this couch, so there wasn’t time to sleep on it), and I was feeling a little bit of buyer’s remorse.  

Fortunately, one application of Leather Honey conditioner reversed that feeling pretty quickly, and now my couch looks great and I’m really proud of that find. 

If you’re looking for something specific, ask for it!

I really wanted a disco ball to mix in with my planters.  I’d seen a friend do this and I loved the way it looked. Since I was committed to free and secondhand find furnishing, ordering a disco ball off of Amazon was off-limits, so I put out a call on my Instagram: “Does anyone have a disco ball they’d like to get off their hands?”

Sure enough, my aunt responded that she had one in her attic that they’d used for someone’s birthday party years ago and she’d love to hand it over. There’s no way that would have come up in a conversation, so I’m glad I made my wish for this specific item public.

Rescue plants are just as good as paid-for plants.

I am a big advocate of rescuing plants in the same way that others are advocates for rescuing dogs.  Plants can be expensive, and I am always picking up sad plants off the sidewalk or letting people know if they get too many and are overwhelmed, I’m happy to take in their plants.  

I think the key is to mix in your recovering rescue plants with some of your happy long-time plants or new store-bought ones so that you still have an overall thriving plant collection.

Furnishing with free and secondhand finds takes time. Like, a lot of it.

I really wanted this to be a myth!  I moved into my apartment in mid-January of 2021 and I still haven’t gotten it exactly as I want it.  In home tours, people always say to take your time when furnishing, but I wanted to scour the streets for a week straight and be done with it!

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. If you’re trying to furnish with free or secondhand finds, you can’t control when those amazing free or secondhand finds are going to show up on the street or on resale sites, so it takes commitment to research and dedicating time to find those perfect items. 

I could have spent a lot more money ordering furniture in January and maybe my apartment would feel completely done by now,  but I feel a real sense of accomplishment with my savvy research skills and my negotiation tactics — so I can stand to wait a little longer while I continue to search for a few more specific items (lucite coffee table, where are you?). It feels good to know I’m contributing to less waste while also giving these pieces a new home to thrive in.