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Thrift store furniture shopping: Am I doing something wrong?

by Karen on July 20, 2011

Several people suggested that I hunt for the furniture I want at thrift stores. The thing is, I have been searching for furniture at thrift stores for years. I just don’t seem to have any luck.

Thrift shopping is one of those frugal activities that fascinates me, and I would love to do it, but for some reason, it’s never worked out for me. Couponing and gardening both used to fall under that category. I finally figured out how to make them work for me, so I’m fully aware that the problem is probably me.

I’ve been to a number of thrift stores in North Carolina and now Indiana. I’m looking for the perfect piece of discount furniture that just needs a little TLC. Here’s what I find instead.

Overpriced, poorly made particle board furniture.

The thing about refinishing and fixing up furniture is that you need a solid base with which to work. That cheap particle board stuff that costs under $100 new in a million pieces and assembles with a few Allen screws? It’s not really possible to refinish it. It’s cheap when it’s brand new, it doesn’t last long, and most thrift stores price it around 75-80% of new retail value. That would be fine if it was sturdy, in new condition, and assembled properly. It’s usually not. What I see most often is particle board that’s rickety, falling apart, and still way overpriced. I’d rather spend an extra $20 to buy it new so I can be sure it’s assembled properly and safely.

Dirty, smelly, uncomfortable couches.

Some people don’t like the idea of used couches. Our couch was purchased used for just $30 from an international college student who needed to get rid of his stuff before hopping a transcontinental plane to get home. I found it on a Craigslist-style forum specifically for college students at my school. It’s not the most stylish couch ever, but it was clean, sturdy, and comfortable. A major bonus is that it is an unoffensive neutral brown. It’s worked fine for us for 5 years, and we’ll probably be able to resell it when we don’t need it anymore.

Based on what I’ve seen at thrift stores over the years, I wouldn’t buy a couch at a thrift store. Most of the couches I’ve seen are stained and dirty. They often smell of cigarette smoke, or they’re covered in cat hair (my husband is extremely allergic).

Ugly patterns can be covered with a slip cover, but I’d rather avoid that if I can. I don’t much care for the look of slip covers, and they usually drive me crazy because I’m continually straightening them if they’re not fitted specifically for the couch (I had a slip cover on a couch in college that almost drove me to the looney bin).

Most importantly, the thrift store couches I’ve seen are uncomfortable. Wooden arms, wonky cushions, flat cushions. No matter how cheap it is, it’s not worth it to buy an uncomfortable piece of furniture you won’t use.

Overpriced and too ugly to fix.

I lived with cheap ugly furniture throughout college. My college furnishings were a mish mash of furniture that was given to my roommate and me for free. It didn’t matter that it didn’t match. We were broke, and we needed something to sit on, so we didn’t care. I’m a grown-up now, and I don’t really want to live in a place with mismatched furniture.

Most of the solid wood furniture I see at thrift stores is hideous in a way that can’t be fixed. Giant and clunky. Too big to move with anything but a U-Haul, and too dated to match anything in my house. The problem isn’t that it’s worn or needs to be repainted. The problem is with its design.

I’m not at all saying it’s not possible to find beautiful used pieces and furnish a home with them. I’ve done it. 75% of our furnishings are used. I didn’t find them at thrift stores or Craigslist, though. Most of it came from that awesome college classified website where students practically gave away great stuff just because they don’t want to move it. I haven’t had that kind of luck with used furniture since.

Oh, and “bargain” or “used” furniture stores? Pfft. I can usually find new stuff cheaper than they sell it there. Go figure.

So tell me your tips for finding great furniture at thrift stores. Do you have any luck at Goodwill? Because I find mostly junk at Goodwill, and other consignment or thrift stores are typically just way overpriced. Teach me! I want to learn.

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