Tips for Scoring Treasures at Thrift Stores and on Craigslist

Well first of all, I’m really sorry about that unintentional peek at the first draft of this blog post which landed in the inboxes of Red House West subscribers yesterday. I’m still cringing with embarrassment, though when I called Mera to see if she thought we should fire me from Red House West, she put it in good perspective. Relative to Jennifer Lawrence, she said, my shouldn’t-be-published-on-the-internet woes were small. She’s right, as usual, and I am grateful. I heard it helps to share your gratitude, so here’s mine:

I am grateful that there were no nudie pictures of myself in the rough draft of a post about thrift stores that I accidentally published.

Forgive me? And moving on…

Predictably (though somehow I’m always surprised), I am not ready to share the dazzling living room ‘after’ shots as I’d originally planned this week. I’m not even ready to share progress shots – I mean, as scintillating as pictures of partially painted trim and primer-white walls are, I think we can all hold out for more notable progression.  Not to worry though!  The beauty of repetitive work like painting is that the mind is free to wander, and I’ve been mulling over a request that RHW reader Nina made some months ago that we share some tips for thrifting household items.

As regular Red House West readers know, I am an avid thrifter.  Our home is – with only a couple of exceptions – furnished and decorated entirely with items that we got secondhand. Though I’ve certainly made some missteps, I’ve also made some great scores. Here are things I’ve learned along the way.

10 tips for successful thrifting

1. The odds of finding really great things go way up the more time you spend looking. Check Craigslist as often as you can (especially if you’re looking for something specific) and drop into your favorite thrift stores regularly.

One of my favorite pieces of furniture in our house is the credenza that sits in our front room.  I spent months searching for it – I wanted something that would house our stereo and some records, and that would fit along a specific wall in the room.  I also wanted it to be mid-century modern with lovely legs, and it couldn’t cost much more than $100.  This was a tall order that had me compulsively checking Craigslist and haunting the local thrift stores.  As you probably know, a great find on Craigslist is more ephemeral than a desert salt pond (I once saw a Barcelona chair listed for $25 – and described on Craigslist as a ‘metal chair.’ I was the second caller so I didn’t get it, but it had only been up for a few minutes before the vultures (myself included) were circling).

Red House West//tips for successful thrifting

We found our credenza one night when we stopped at a St. Vincent de Paul on a whim.  Luckily I had the measurements of our wall with me, and so we knew this one would fit with just an inch on either side to spare.  Which brings me to my next tip:

2.   When you’re on the hunt for a specific item, keep the measurements you’re looking for with you at all times. 

I keep them on my phone along with a picture of the spot I’m planning to put the item.  Having the dimensions written on a piece of paper kept in your wallet would work just as well.

3. On Craigslist, synonyms are key!  One person’s footstool is another person’s ottoman.  Cast a wide net and vary your search terms – also be creative with spelling.

I didn’t end up finding the credenza on Craigslist, but I did figure out a few tricks that helped me find some contenders.  Synonyms are key, so I would search for dresser, buffet, hutch, credenza, sideboard and even shelving.  Consider that your dream item might be listed but misspelled, so be creative with your spelling (Mera found a really beautiful ‘dressor’ one time) when searching too.  I also searched the terms ‘mid-century’ and ‘mid-century modern.’

4.  Find items posted by regular sellers on Craigslist by searching their name, phone number or neighborhood.

Another thing the Great Credenza Hunt taught me about Craigslist is that – in Eugene at least – there are people who regularly sell the contents of storage units, or who are pickers who search for items to sell on Craigslist (I found my dining room chairs by specifically searching for listings by a guy who sold a lot of mid-century modern items).

5. Be realistic about your repair abilities/the cost of having a piece professionally done.  If you can’t afford to have it redone right away, make sure to ask yourself: Can you live with it as it is until you can?

My early forays into thrifting were characterized by a robust optimism that bordered on delusion.  There was nothing I could not fix! And so many of the things I dragged home had revolting, smelly upholstery or featured badly chipped veneer or unsalvageable finishes.  This couch is a case in point:

Blue flowered couch

I still love the lines of this couch, but it smelled like the territory of 100 feral cats.  It was free in the last hours of a yard sale so I dragged it home, thinking blithe thoughts of reupholstery. Never mind that this sofa would cost at least $1000 to have redone, or that by the time I learned to do it myself, it would have been living in the carport for years – a target for the territorial markings of at least another 100 cats. Since then, I’ve often referred to Emily Henderson’s guide for ballpark costs of upholstering vintage furniture before bringing home something that will need to be dealt with professionally.

6. [Chanted in my best cheerleader voice] B-E-A-G-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E BE AGGRESSIVE BE BE AGGRESSIVEIf you see something you like, hold on to it until you’ve made up your mind!  Think you might love a chair?  Sit in it with your hand on the tag until you’ve made up your mind!  Thrifting is a ruthless business, and nice folks finish empty handed.

I’ve been burned badly twice by my fellow treasure hunters.  Just last month, a local thrift store had a huge rack of recently donated upholstery fabric in the middle of the store.  I found a roll of unusually vibrant fabric that I thought might work for a project, but as I was standing there trying to visualize it on a chair, I noticed an elderly woman was standing behind me with her shopping cart almost pressed against my back.  The aisles were narrow and I moved out of the way so she could get by me.  Which she did, grabbing the roll I’d had my hands on moments ago and putting it in her cart.  True story.

A similar thing happened while I dithered over a chair that looked much like the one in this image:

Why in the world was I dithering!  It was adorably yellow and only $15!  I’m still kicking myself!  Of course if I’d followed my next tip, I could have saved myself the heartache:

7. If there’s an item you love but you’re not sure you need it, put it on hold so you have time to think it through.

Most thrift stores will hold items for at least a couple hours and many will hold them until the end of the day.  If you’re vacillating on something, put it on hold so you can take a breath and think it through.  That’s how I got this lamp, and I love this lamp like Mera’s chubby cat Wolsey loves kitty treats. So much.

Red House West//tips for thrifting

8. Check the item you’re considering for smells, structural defects and other problems.  Even if the seller is watching you.

This one seems like a no-brainer, but it can be hard to take a big ol’ whiff of a piece of furniture while the person who’s selling it is watching.  You are NOT casting aspersions on their character by making sure all the drawers of the dresser they’re selling open.  Trust me, you don’t want to get home with a rug you were too embarrassed to smell that you then have to try and offload on Craigslist but – because you know it’s smelly – you feel compelled to tell all prospective buyers about it.  Which means it takes a pretty long time to sell.

9. For each item you bring home, let another item go (even if it causes you physical and emotional pain)

When we moved into our house two years ago, we really needed furniture.  That’s no longer the case, and I’ve recently implemented a rule of ‘one thing in one thing out.’  Do you guys remember my little confession and this photo?

Red House West//tips for thrifting

Well, there’s a moratorium on chair adoption unless I let one of these little honeys go. I know, it hurts me too.

10. If you have an eye on something in a consignment shop but think the price is too high, make an offer at the end of the month. Sellers are more likely to accept offers when they’ll be seeing a check in the next day or two, rather than weeks later.

The owner of a consignment store shared this tip with me recently when I went in to visit a piece of art that I really like but can’t afford.

What do you think, are any of these tips new to you?  What would you add to this list?

13 responses on “Tips for Scoring Treasures at Thrift Stores and on Craigslist

  1. papict

    Thank you for these fantastic tips! I definitely need to learn to be more aggressive when I am swithering over something. I need to stake my claim and not budge or release something from my mitt until I am sure it is not going to come home with me as I too have lost out on items I was contemplating by having them grabbed from right under my nose. I am, however, a great haggler. My husband is actually embarrassed at times by how much of a haggler I am. Even my youngest kids, aged 5 and 7, now approach stall holders at Flea Markets with the phrase “What’s the best price you can do on this?” Ah. My proteges.

    1. k80bennett

      You must be so proud! And that’s a great one to add: It never hurts to ask. I actually can’t remember a time when I was flat refused a discount–usually there’s some haggling but the price is still reduced. Thanks!

  2. Carol Crump Bryner

    I so sympathize with the “premature publishing” thing. I have so often nearly pushed that “publish” button instead of “save draft.” It’s very easy to do. No need to ask for forgiveness.

    One other tip is to keep your eyes open when you’re looking for specific things – for those treasures that just show up, and that you didn’t know you needed. I’ve gotten some of my favorite things that way, like a brocade-covered ottoman/footstool I saw when I was looking for a table. Thanks for your tips, especially the one about giving the sniff test. Very useful.

  3. Katy Gilmore

    Pretty much our bonus, your internet early post, because we get the great riff between you and Mera re Jennifer Lawrence! This post a treasure trove of advice. Mera always says that tenacity is necessary to make a good score, and you’ve spelled it out.

    I am trying not to think about that couch.

    1. k80bennett

      Mera’s J. Law comparison really did make me feel better! It could’ve been so, SO much worse. That couch is what started Cameron using the verb ‘to drag’ when referring to my bringing treasures home.

  4. y2knina

    OK, I’m totally bummed that I missed out on the premature post-ification!

    Our local Goodwill is not that good. I was stunned a couple of weeks ago to find a perfect little trestle console table that just needed a little love. (I am not handy, so the less a thing needs done to it, the better.) I had absolutely no use – or room – for it, but my niece is setting up a new home and in the nanosecond before the thought to buy it for her – $9.99! – formed in my head, a blur descended and hauled that puppy right up to the register. It happened so fast I still don’t know if it was male, female, or an acid flashback.

    Here’s my tip: cultivate relationships with the people who own or run the shops. They will be more likely to wheel and deal, or maybe they’ll think of you when something comes in that they think you might like. One time I picked up something or other in a vintage shop and asked the owner if she could do a little better on the price. “For you? Absolutely,” and she knocked 20% off. I had never bought a thing from her before, but her shop is on my regular route and we would always chit chat about this and that whenever I dropped in so even though up until that point I wasn’t a “customer” she knew me and l think that made the difference.

    Great post!

    1. k80bennett

      Excellent tip! So many of the folks who run antique/vintage shops are collectors themselves – and like halving folks appreciate their collections. Thanks Nina!

  5. michellet2013

    Thanks for so many great tips—I’d never thought about “casting the net far and wide”—particularly regarding spelling! And thank you for the Jennifer Lawrence perspective—it really does put lots of embarrassing moments into perspective—and made me laugh. Happy Monday!

  6. Brynne@The Gathered Home

    These are great tips! As a compulsive & frequent Craigslist and thrift store shopper, I can relate to EVERY SINGLE ONE 🙂 Pinning!

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