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How To Shop For Second-Hand Furniture Online

An avid furniture flipper shares her best tips for sourcing unique vintage pieces on a budget.

A vintage piece of furniture painted white after a makeover.

(Photo: Lindi Vanderschaaf)

Buying second-hand furniture is an easy way to save money and shop more sustainably. Whether you’re looking to upcycle your vintage finds or let their history shine through, thrifting requires a bit of luck and a lot of patience. An avid furniture flipper, Alberta blogger Lindi Vanderschaaf—who gave the tired vintage cabinet (above) she found online a modern makeover—knows a thing or two about giving old furniture a second life. To make the thrifted cabinet work for her space, she and her husband, Russel, added a sleek custom-made front, painted the piece off-white and replaced the doors’ original glass panels with cane inserts, before finishing off the look with elegant brass pulls. “I love that we were able to completely customize it to our style, all for a fraction of the cost of buying new,” she says.

Wondering where to start your own thrifting journey? We asked Vanderschaaf to share her best tips, from where to source unique finds to how to negotiate with sellers.

1. Know what you’re looking for

With thousands of options available, sourcing pieces, especially online, can be a bit of a rabbit hole. “I save inspiration from both Pinterest and Instagram when I’m looking for project ideas,” says Vanderschaaf, adding that she pays close attention to the styles and trends stocked at her favourite stores.

To get your inspiration board started, search for hashtags used by the thrifting community on social media, like #furnitureflip and #ourthrifteddecor, or ones specific to the style you’re looking for, like #scandinaviandesign.

2. Check buy-and-sell sites frequently

Once you’ve narrowed down your style, it’s time to start your search for the perfect piece. While thrift stores, flea markets and antique malls are great places to browse now that most are open again, shopping online is easy and lets you search for exactly what you need. First, search online classifieds like Kijiji, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or your local community’s Facebook buy-and-sell page. Instagram has also seen a surge in vintage sellers. There’s a lot to comb through, so keywords will come in handy. You can even set alerts for your preferred keywords on some platforms. If you have a hutch on your wish list, you’ll get a notification or email if one is put up for sale. Keep in mind that you’ll be in the ring with antique dealers, so if you see something you love, snap it up right away.

Vanderschaaf says she keeps an eye out for all vintage furniture but also keeps a list of specific pieces she’d like to get her hands on, like the cabinet (above), which she finally found on Kijiji. But if you can’t find exactly what you want, don’t despair—sometimes the perfect piece finds you.

3. Visit auctions and online estate sales

While not technically thrifting, auctions and estate sales are where the pros source some of their best finds. Most now take place virtually and offer online catalogs with easy-to-use search functions and keyword notifications. You can pull up local auctions and sales with a quick Google search. There are deep discounts on quality pieces to be had, but keep in mind most have a buyer’s premium, which is a small commission to the auction house for running the sale. You will also need to pick up your win within a specific time window.

4. Assess the condition of the piece

There are no returns when thrifting, so Vanderschaaf recommends making sure that the furniture you source has good bones and is made from quality materials. Pay attention to the condition of the piece. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller to provide multiple photos of the pieces, including close-ups or even videos, before arranging a viewing in person or a pick-up, and ask about the condition, as well as any broken parts or quirks.

Be honest with yourself: how much work are you willing to put in? Vanderschaaf notes that cosmetic damage might not be a big issue when upcycling furniture, but structural issues tend to be difficult or expensive to fix. If you’re willing to put in some work to restore your piece, chipped paint and stains can easily be sanded down and worn items can generally be found for a steal. One thing to keep in mind: pieces made of cheap veneers are much harder to get a beautiful finish on, says Vanderschaaf.

5. Learn how to negotiate

Found your perfect piece? Before you make an offer, take into account the quality, condition and the cost of upcycling the piece (if that’s something you’re interested in doing). “Think about how much you might spend on wood for doors, shelves, new hardware and paint,” suggests Vanderschaaf. “When I buy these pieces for cheap, I’m generally okay with splurging on nice handles or finishes because I’m still saving a lot of money compared to buying new.”

When thrifting, you have an opportunity to negotiate. Sellers are generally receptive to offers, and even expect them. If you feel uncomfortable making an offer, try asking “What’s the best you can do on this?” or “What’s your best price?” instead.

Originally published in 2021; updated in 2022

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