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How to Spot Expensive Furniture at Thrift Stores

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Finding valuable furniture at thrift stores isn't impossible, it just takes time, knowing what to look for and hunting in the right location.

Some of you know that in a former life, I got my bachelors and masters in U.S. history. A large part of my education was studying material culture, aka “stuff,” so I took several classes on evaluating objects and antiques. I even did an internship at an antiques auction house, which was an incredibly interesting experience, mostly because I watched people plunk down tens of thousands of dollars for candlesticks.

Needless to say, that experience taught me to keep my eyes peeled for furniture treasure, especially at thrift stores and garage sales. While there are people far better trained than I am to spot good items, there are at least a few things I look for when scouring places for good furniture finds. Here they are:

1. Look for Marks or Emblems

 

If you see a piece of furniture that seems old or valuable, open up all of the drawers. Try to look on the bottom of the drawers for an emblem or a type of mark that shows where the piece came from.

One of my best scores of all time was a mid-century desk I spotted at the absolute most disgusting thrift store I’ve ever been to. I spotted it on Craigslist and liked the lines of the desk, so I dragged the hubs to the store to see it.

The store was completely in the ghetto and hubs wanted to leave but I pressed on. I went and touched the desk to get a look at it. It was really wobbly, which would make most people walk away. However, I noticed it was wobbly because it seemed to be joined together by hand.

I had just sat in on a lecture at an antiques forum about joined furniture the week before, so I thought I might have something cool on my hands. I opened the drawers and saw a Mainline by Hooker stamp, which it turns out is a Danish furniture maker. A quick search on my smart phone pulled up the exact same desk, just refinished, selling at a fancy auction house in Texas for $2,500. Trying not to freak out and do a cartwheel in the sketchy store, I calmly paid $25 to the owner, but not before I tried to get the price down to $20 of course! (He said no haha.)

2. Go to the Right Stores

 

People who have an excess of money and don’t care about their bottom line or living frugally often don’t go through the trouble of selling their furniture at thrift stores or on Craigslist to try to make a buck. They are usually ready to get rid of their old furniture so they can replace it with something new.

This means more quality furniture for you and me, if you know the right places to look.

I always look for furniture at thrift stores in high end areas of town where wealthier people live, because they tend to have better cast offs. I avoid Craigslist and eBay because I think most wealthy people looking to unload their old but high end stuff are just going to take it to Goodwill for the tax deduction.

*Related: Need to furnish your home for less? Read our guide on the best cheap furniture stores near me to score the best deals.*

Avoid antique stores unless you really know what you are doing and have some money to spend as you will almost always pay more there than you will at a thrift store or garage sale in a wealthy neighborhood.

Finding valuable furniture at thrift stores isn't impossible, it just takes time, knowing what to look for and hunting in the right location.

3. Look Past the Scuffs

 

I also try to look past all the scuffs and marks. It’s pretty cheap to re-finish or re-paint a piece of furniture as long as it’s solid wood. Instead, I try to find pieces that are the right height or have the best lines and try to envision how they will look in my home. If you are willing to put a little love and care into refinishing a piece that has the dimensions you’re looking for, you can score a piece of furniture that you’ll not only love but enjoy making your own and possibly even be able to resell for money some day.

 

What’s your best thrift store find? Do you like to refinish furniture and make it brand-new-to-you? Where do you shop for used furniture and how do you know when you’re scoring a good deal?

 

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Catherine Alford is the go to personal finance expert for parents who want to better their finances and take on a more active financial role in their families.

20 Comments

  • Gretchen says:

    I truly know NOTHING about what makes furniture nice. As in zip, nothing, nada…..but I really think looking a piece up on my phone is the best way to go. If I can find a name or company, I can google with the best of them….great tips!

  • Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life says:

    One of the good things about NYC thrifting, is that even though the stores are slightly more expensive, they’re constantly getting stuff from the uber wealthy!

  • Laurie @thefrugalfarmer says:

    We love watching Antiques Roadshow and learning about this kind of stuff from them. Now, armed with your tips, I’m going to start hitting those thrift stores more often! 🙂

  • Money Beagle says:

    Good points, though on the second point, if you have a ‘chain’ of stores (like Salvation Army stores, which is what we have most of here in Detroit area), they will send stuff between stores, so even though I donate something in one part of town, it could very well show up somewhere else depending on floor space, variety, etc.

  • Thomas @ i need money ASAP! says:

    Our living room is a mix of brand new furniture and thrift store finds. We have a side table that has been refinished as well as an old tool cabinet that is still in its original form (which looks awesome). It helped us keep the cost down but it’s also really unique.

  • Shannon @ Financially Blonde says:

    I have never had much luck finding furniture in a thrift store because most that I go to will only have one piece here and there. I would rather try Craigslist than spend a day driving or walking to thrift shops. That being said, if I had a good store in my area that I know got furniture regularly, I would probably check it out.

  • Rebecca @ Stapler Confessions says:

    I tried to get furniture from thrift stores years ago, but I must have been looking in the WRONG stores, because all of it was terrible! That’s what I get for looking in San Francisco’s Mission district instead of hopping over the bridge to see what was for sale in Marin 😉

  • Lauren says:

    I refinished some furniture this summer and it was such a fun experience. I don’t think any of the items were particularly valuable, but it was so satisfying to transform them from something ugly into something useful.

  • Taylor says:

    OMG-G-G! You’re so right… once you find the right store you’re bound to find a bunch of good stuff. My mom found a thrift store in her neighborhood where she’s been able to consistently find treasures. With some paint she’s personalized each one and they look like they belong in a high end urban showroom.

  • Nicola says:

    We’ve got some good things from thrift stores; I’ve just bought a big antique desk for £20 that I’m planning on painting cream as the wood on top has lightened due to being in the sun.

  • Lynn Duchesne says:

    I love thrift stores…. I recently found at my local thrift store a table set with 4 chairs … the price was right I could not believe it… so when I had it delivered for free (exchange an old piece you dont want they waive the delivery fee) I looked under the table and it said reg. 999.99 and under the chairs it said Kaufman …. I got me a sweet deal!!!

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