I am a design blogger, but I am also a voracious reader of design blogs. Without question, my favorite posts are those featuring furniture makeovers. I diligently stalk Design Sponge every Thursday for their before and after posts, and blogs like Better After and Young House Love feed my habit daily.
I was always in awe, though, of how these people would manage to find such beautiful pieces of furniture on the side of the road or at thrift stores or yard sales. Before I knew how to look, all I ever found was cheap pieces made of particleboard. It didn’t dawn on me for a long while that this act of updating old furniture into brand new pieces was, in fact, a really green way to decorate. After you’ve scoured your home and found new ways to use what you already have, this is the next best way to think sustainably at home.
When we buy quality furniture and housewares that already exist, there are several green benefits:
We eliminate the need for new, raw materials.
We help reduce the environmental impact of manufacturing.
Depending on the age of the pieces you buy, they have likely done all their offgassing and will have no impact on your indoor air quality.
Giving old pieces a new life slowly helps to change the misconception that newer is better.
I found the desk shown above for sale on Craigslist for just $100. It is a quality mid-century, solid wood desk, and I couldn’t have bought a better piece brand new for that price. My husband and i refinished it to make it better match our decor, and we’ve never regretted the purchase. Visit Green Your Decor to see what the desk looks like now.
Here are a few tips for finding great pieces, no matter where you want to shop.
I admit I’m no expert on finding great pieces at yard sales, but I’ve found my fair share of treasures. These are the strategies I use:
Plan which sales you’ll go to before you leave the house. I typically use yard sale listings from Craigslist. I’ll go through all the sales in my immediate area (within about 10 miles). If the listing includes housewares, furniture or other items I’ll be interested in, I add it to my list. You can do the same with classifieds from the newspaper or elsewhere. I use either Google Maps or Mapquest to create a house-by-house plan, generally starting with the sales that are closest to me and working my way out.
Plan to go early, but not too early. Or do the exact opposite. If the yard sale you’re most interested in starts at 8 a.m., plan to be there between 8 and 8:15 a.m., but not before. You want to give the hosts time to set up, and you don’t want to make them upset that you didn’t pay attention to their posted times. If you get there early enough, you’ll have first pick of the best items. Conversely, if you plan to go toward the end of the sale, there will be fewer items to choose from, but the sellers will be more likely to give you a good deal. I once got two photographs in gallery-quality frames for $3 total because the sellers were packing up.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate. I’ve never been big on haggling, but I will ask for a better deal if I see an opportunity or really want an item. But know when to let go. I recently bought the chair shown above for $7 at a yard sale. I wasn’t going to insult the seller by asking for an even lower price.
Take cash. This may seem obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to backtrack to an ATM because I never have cash in my wallet. If you can, take smaller bills so you won’t be in a bind if the seller doesn’t have change. And if you plan to buy furniture, you need to budget according. The goal is to find deals, but don’t be offended if the seller won’t accept $20 for an antique chair.
Take your own bags. I have two sets of reusable bags: the smaller ones that I use for grocery shopping and larger ones that I use when shopping for clothing, shoes, etc. I take these larger ones to yard sales as well. They really come in handy when I pick up fabric and other smaller items.
Thrift & Consignment Stores
A lot of the tips for yard sales also apply here: taking your own bags and taking cash (since some stores don’t accept credit cards). Some stores are willing to haggle on price, but others won’t take anything less than what’s on the tag. There are a few tips that are specific to stores:
Location is important. What I’ve found is that the quality of the pieces in a thrift store tend to be directly related to the neighborhood its in. Stores near neighborhoods with larger homes and a higher tax bracket are more likely to offer higher quality furniture, in my experience.
Know your store. Some thrift stores offer sales and specials. For example, some Goodwill stores offer 50% off every item in the store on the first Saturday of every month. Other thrift stores will mark down items in a specific category, like furniture or clothing, on specific days of the week. Also, most of the consignment stores I’ve been to have specific schedules for markdowns. If an item is unsold after 30 days, it is marked down by 10-15%. If it remains for another 30 days, it is marked down again, and so on.
I’ve seen too many posts to count where a person has found some gorgeous piece of furniture on the side of the road or near a dumpster. Here are my tips for finding freebies of your own.
Go online. In the “free” section of Craigslist can offer a bounty if you’re willing to wade through the offers. I’d also suggest signing up for the Freecycle group in your area, if one exists. Freecycle is a forum where people post items they no longer want for free pickup. I scored the chair shown above on Freecycle, and my husband and I plan to reupholster it.
Don’t be afraid to stop the car. Sure, some people look down on grabbing stuff off the curb. I say if someone has thrown out a perfectly good piece of furniture, why shouldn’t I take it home? I’m saving it from the landfill and giving it a new life. Again here, nicer neighborhood tend to offer better goods on trash day.
Get stuff from friends and family members. If your sister is redecorating, maybe she’ll be willing to give you the mirror you’ve been eyeing. And most of us have parents or grandparents who have garages and attics full of furniture, the likes of which you can’t buy today.
Use the “For Sale” listings on Craigslist. Because I’m lazy, this is absolutely the first place I look when I’m in need of a piece of furniture. Most listings come with photos, and there’s much more variety than you’ll find at any one yard sale or store.
When shopping for furniture, buy only solid wood. Particleboard, even if it appears to be in good condition, won’t hold up as long and you may find yourself replacing it in a few short months.
Try to see a piece for what it COULD be, not for what it is. If you like the bones of a chair, but not the wood color, remember that you could always stain or paint it. If you don’t like the upholstery, imagine it with a fabric you do like.
Written by Jennae Petersen. Jennae is Skimbaco’s Green Living & Decor Expert. She is a mother, a graphic artist, a connoisseur of beautiful interiors and a purveyor of all things design. She also believes it is her duty to strive toward sustainable living. This means being more conscious about every aspect of life. She is the founder and author of Green Your Decor and Green & Gorgeous blogs. She also runs Hibiscus Creative, a successful, full-service graphic design firm specializing in branding and Thesis theme customizations. She designed the Skimbaco logos and blogs.
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