By Marilyn Pribus –
Furniture that isn’t new goes by many names: previously-owned, second-hand, or even antique. We’ve always called it “very early heirloom”—that wobbly-legged chair from my grandmother, the many-times painted dresser from my in-laws, and the heavy, gouged round oak table from my parents’ attic.
But in each case, the price of free was absolutely right and my Mr.-Fixit husband is an expert in paint-stripping, sanding (and sanding and sanding), and staining. In fact, when my father saw that now-handsomely refinished round table, I could tell—although he didn’t say a thing—he’d have liked to have it back.
Why Choose Used?
You save money. Except for true antiques, secondhand furniture is usually less expensive than an equivalent new piece. In fact, you can often find substantial bargains. Be ready to pay cash and take the piece of furniture with you right away if you score a great find.
You’re supporting sustainability. While employing secondhand furniture is good for your wallet, it’s also great for the environment. It’s true recycling because it doesn’t require new materials or energy to be produced. Since it’s usually found locally, there’s no fuel used in shipping which also reduces pollution.
You get real materials. Older furniture is usually made of solid wood rather than particleboard, plywood, or plastic. You can often find high quality used furniture for the same price or even less than you’d pay for inexpensive mass-produced items. Used furniture comes assembled, too, so you don’t have to puzzle over assembly instructions with those baffling translations.
You get personality. Older furniture has character and individuality. Whether you paint over stains, or strip paint to get to a handsome grain, you make an interesting piece truly yours.
Where To Shop
Garage sales, yard sales, and fund-raisers by local organizations are a great place to start. For example, one young couple, moving from a 900-square-foot apartment to a 3-bedroom house, had more space than dollars. They found a stained but sturdy round wooden table at a yard sale and collected four unmatched wooden chairs. After painting all five pieces a stylish flat black, they had a handsome dining set for under $90.
Another man keeps an eye on Craigslist. He’s bought two handsome rugs, a large German hutch with hand-carved doors, a French music cabinet, occasional tables, and patio furniture, all from different sellers. “The hutch and the cabinet weren’t cheap,” he concedes, “but comparable new pieces—even if you could find anything half as cool—would have been four to five times as much.”
Most offerings on Craigslist include photos with prices and contact is generally made by email. Recent listings: a mahogany dresser for $50, a wooden coffee table for $25, and a dining set including a table, 6 chairs, and a hutch for $225.
Habitat Stores carry new and previously owned furniture from antique to modern. A visit to the Charlottesville store on Harris Street found dressers, mirrors, doors, cabinetry to be built in, windows, flooring, ceiling fans, chairs, sofas, even a piano. For refurbishing furniture they stock drawer pulls, light fixtures from practical to elegant, tools to work with, paint and more. Check their website for photos of some of their inventory and for weekly specials.
Circa, a Charlottesville institution for almost 20 years, draws people from some distance. Their inventory comes from auctions and individuals who are moving or downsizing. Its meandering warehouse is stocked with affordable antiques, quality used furniture, and funky vintage pieces. “We buy a lot from just people,” explains Circa’s Robin Slaats. “We like finding new homes for their things.”
This is a very short list. Our area also has several warehouse-type “antique marts” offering everything from true antiques to just plain used furniture. For example, the Ruckersville Gallery’s website features photos of goods where more than 80 vendors show their wares and estates often consign things for sale although prices are not generally shown.
In addition, a number of local consignment shops and thrift stores have frequently changing stocks of reasonably priced used furniture. A few minutes exploring the Internet will show you almost endless possibilities for just the piece you seek.
How To Shop
If you are searching for a specific piece, carry the maximum dimensions with you. In addition, carry enough cash to seal the deal. While some places will accept credit cards, most individuals can’t, and might not accept a check either. Remember, you are competing with other shoppers and often dealers as well. Be prepared to dicker. Some places like Circa are firm priced, but others, especially if you buy more than one item, will negotiate or include delivery for larger pieces.
What To Watch For
Solid wood pieces are usually pretty safe. Missing knobs or drawer pulls can easily be replaced and peeling veneer can usually be mended, but be wary of bad smells or wood rot. If you will be painting a piece, you don’t have to worry about water marks or burns, but always check that drawers and doors operate well.
Upholstered pieces, on the other hand, are iffier. Check for pervasive bad odors and signs of insect damage or infestation.
The Bottom Line
Previously owned furniture can help your budget and the environment at the same time it adds real personality to your décor. “Used furniture is unique, special, and different from everyone else’s,” declares Circa’s Slaats. “I never buy new stuff myself.”
Marilyn Pribus and her husband live near Charlottesville. He has removed countless layers of paint on many different items of used furniture to create handsome pieces in their home.