Buying used furniture — How to decide if you should purchase a piece of used furniture

My favorite pieces of furniture over the years have been those I “discovered” used, with plenty of miles on them before my adoption. A comfy, down-filled chair. An antique cabinet large enough to cover a bathroom wall. A church pew to sit in front of a bay window. I love the history — real or imagined — that these pieces bring with them. But perhaps even more than that, I appreciate how well these pieces were made. They are solid and reassuring. Sometimes I refurbish them myself (the cupboard). Sometimes I do what I can and have a pro help, too (the chair). And sometimes I leave them as is (the pew). 

I’ve been happy with all of these — and many more — used furniture purchases. And I’ve been a little lucky, because I didn’t always know how to tell if a piece of furniture was solid or about to fall apart, built to last or cobbled together for the sale. But usually it’s not too hard to figure out. Here are some questions to ask yourself before you buying used furniture:

Wooden bench with red and gold seat cushion

Do you love the lines and style of the piece?

It’s a good idea to have a handle on what furniture appeals to you in general before you start shopping. Do you like clean lines and angles or soft curves and ornamentation? Round tables or rectangular ones? Tall chest of drawers or horizontal dressers? No need to be rigid, but knowing what you like can help you decide how you’ll feel about the piece down the road.

Does the size work?

When I’m on the hunt for a piece of furniture, I keep space measurements in my purse, along with a measuring tape. Actually, I always have a measuring tape in my purse. (Never know when a gorgeous yard sale or curbside item will appear!) If you’re looking for a large piece, you might also consider measurements of doorways and stairways, to make sure the piece will actually make it into desired area of your home. 

Is the piece of furniture solidly built?

You want to enjoy using the piece, not be annoyed when the drawer sticks every time you open it or the chair creaks every time you sit on it. Some guidelines when buying used furniture:

• Solid wood is preferable to composite or particleboard. 

• Dovetailed joints are a sign of quality construction.

• Cracked or stapled legs are not a good sign.

• Hardwoods like oak, maple, ash, beech, birch, cherry, mahogany, and teak are strong. Pine isn’t; it’s better for something other than sofas, for example. 

• Laminated furniture isn’t usually topnotch, but it isn’t necessarily bad. It can be durable. Just make sure it isn’t missing chunks of laminate and doesn’t have loose pieces that can’t be reglued down.

used wooden dresser with gold handles

How does the piece function?

Is the chair comfortable? Does it support your weight comfortably without wiggling? Do the dresser or desk drawers slide in and out easily? Does the table wobble when you lean on it? Do the doors on the cabinet stay closed?

Does the furniture smell?

Both fabric and wood can absorb odors. You can ask if the piece was in a home with smokers or pets, but sellers don’t always know, and you can’t always trust the answers. Use your nose.

Is there a manufacturer’s tag?

Look for a sticker or tag to determine where the furniture was made. Is it an Ikea, Walmart, Ethan Allen, or Stickley label? For dressers, you might find the tag on the inside of the top drawer, on chairs and couches it might be on the framework underneath the cushions. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t buy a piece of Ikea furniture, just that you should know what you’re buying. (And it’s fun when you discover a piece you like is designed and made by a quality firm!)

Is the framework sturdy?

If you can, turn over (or at least look under) a couch or chair to examine the framework. It should not be cracked or damaged. Some loose items, such as webbing, can be replaced or reattached, but repairing major framework pieces can be expensive. 

antique upholstered chair with carved frame and white cushions

What is the condition of any cushion stuffing?

It’s easy to imagine a chair or couch with entirely new cushions. But foam and feathers are not inexpensive, so if you can just replace the fabric cover, you’ll save some money. 

Are there any signs of infestation?

When buying used furniture, it’s important to know that many items (besides mattresses, which I’d never buy used!) can harbor pests like bedbugs. You can use a magnifying glass to check along seams and cracks and corners. Little dark spots or stains, or little eggshells on the seams indicate a current or past infestation. Don’t buy the piece. 

Here’s an article on how to check used furniture for bed bugs.

Wood furniture can harbor bedbugs and other insects, too, like powderpost beetles, carpenter ants, and termites. Look for little holes in the wood where the insects have chewed through.

Why is the seller selling the piece?

If you’re buying used furniture directly from the seller (or if the shop owner knows), you might get some valuable information. They’re unlikely to tell you a piece is being sold because it’s uncomfortable (and you can determine that for yourself), but you may find out that those rocker legs took up too much space (which maybe you didn’t consider) or that the patio set needs to be kept on a covered porch, for example.

What will it take to whip the piece into shape?

A metal chair may only need some rust removal and paint, while an upholstered couch may need an entire professional makeover. Most items will fall someplace in between, and it’s up to you to decide — based on the price of the item, your skill level, your DIY enjoyment, and/or your willingness to hire help —  if an item is worth your investment of money and time. Consider:

the back of a used chair with wood frame and tufted upholstery.

• How hard is the item to repair? Can you (and do you want to) do the work yourself?

• What will it cost to repair? Consider materials and your time for a DIY. And maybe get an estimate (time permitting) if you’re considering having a pro do it for you. If on the spot, you might make a phone call to an upholsterer or a refinisher, for example, and ask for a ballpark figure. You could even text them a photo of the piece.

What do your instincts say?

Of course, some of your decision making may wind up being instinct. You love a piece and have a great vision for its future. Or you don’t. But it’s always a good idea to ask yourself practical questions, too, when buying used furniture — to avoid disappointment in your investment and to help you discover gems. Loving a piece of furniture — or its potential — together with knowing it’s a quality item at its core is very satisfying. It’s frugal and appreciative, too — a sustainable, mindful way to add to your furnishings.

Just some of the places to find used furniture: thrift shops, yard sales, flea markets, estate sales, curbsides, consignment shops, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, LetGo, Carousell, OfferUp, and community websites such as NextDoor.

For some terrific furniture makeover inspiration, check out my friend Karianne’s projects!

Where do you like to find used furniture? What’s your favorite find to date?

You might also enjoy:

Wicker — How to clean and care for wicker items

Area rugs — How to take care of rugs so they look good and last

Caring for quilts — TLC for old and new quilts

Shine on! — How to take good care of and refurbish stainless steel flatware

2 thoughts on “Buying used furniture — How to decide if you should purchase a piece of used furniture”

  1. Karen, I am very open to this idea and do love a unique piece that exudes real craftsmanship. I’ve refurbished many Goodwill finds for dorm rooms and play set pieces! I’m not as picky with something for a stage show (it only has to survive a couple of weekends), but when it comes to pieces for my home or for one of my children, I tend to stick to all wood furniture. I just can’t get past the lingering smell of many upholstered pieces, and I have found (sadly) that it’s often not cost effective to reupholster a piece with good bones. However, stripping, sanding and repainting or staining wood gives the piece a completely fresh feel and me a sense of satisfaction. I wish I had more opportunity to hunt for these unique finds because Covid has certainly provided more time for projects!

    Reply
    • I was just saying that I miss my jaunts to thrift shops and garage sales! I did purchase a couple of plant stands on FB (and had the seller leave them in the driveway for me to pick up), but I’d be reluctant to do that with bigger pieces. You make a good point about upholstered pieces; they are (understandably) expensive to reupholster! I love how you can transform a wood piece completely!

      Reply

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