NY experts share how to score a deal on used furniture with a ‘slow shopping’ mindset

When you buy furniture at a secondhand store, there’s a chance you’re getting better quality items than you’d find new at many stores.

But if you’re new to thrifting, where do you start? How do you know what to look for? And how do you know that what looks good is, in fact, a solid piece?

These are some of the questions WNYC’s Alison Stewart posed to Ashley McDonald, a store manager at Remix Market in Long Island City and Katie Okamoto, a lead editor of sustainability at Wirecutter.

They discussed topics like how a “slow shopping” mindset can be your friend, how to spot a sturdy piece, where to begin your search, and more.

You can listen to their conversation here; an edited version is below.

Katie, why does it seem like new furniture only lasts a few years, whereas it used to last for a decade or more? I’m thinking of that recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “Your New $3,000 Couch Might Be Garbage in Three Years.”

Okamoto: A lot of it has to do with how furniture is made and the materials that are used. The furniture industry has really shifted toward this “fast furniture” model. Some of the ways in which the joinery is attached, it’s using more like staples and things like that that don’t hold in the same way. The upholstery is constructed differently.

You can often find better quality on the secondhand market for a similar price point that you would for a piece of furniture that you’re getting quickly. It takes some patience to get that of course, but it’s a slow shopping mindset that can really be to your advantage down the line. It can save you money, and it’s obviously softer on the planet.

How can people make the determination that used furniture is well made enough for them?

McDonald: Probably the easiest way to figure that out is weight. Every once in a while, we’ll find some expensive pieces that are surprisingly light. More times than not, heavy pieces are that beautiful solid wood, the metal instead of being hollow is full, completely full all the way through.

Also, check for seams. In addition to joinery, if you open a drawer and look at where the front hits the side, you have something like a dovetail that’ll tell you that it’s more well made.

For veneer items, you’ll often be able to find those seams right on those edges, and that’ll tell you that the interior, once you get a leak in there, whatever’s inside is going to swell and that’s going to cause a problem.

Katie, what is the role of haggling? How do store owners feel about haggling?

Okamoto: I don’t really know how store owners feel about haggling. I will say, just in general, some really good advice is to do a ton of research, the more obsessed you can become, the better.

This is advice I’ve heard from thrifters across the board – the more research that you do and the more familiar you are with price points, the better. That way, you may have an advantage to be able to come in with an informed take and not feel like you’re low-balling somebody, but be able to give a reasonable counteroffer.

That’s definitely easier if you’re working in person or on a direct person-to-person platform such as Craigslist, though there obviously are some risks involved there.

I would say No. 1 is: Do a lot of research so that you can act fast when the time comes and have an informed sense of cost.

For items that are billed as being vintage because they are from a designer, or for some of these high-demand mid-century designers, get familiar with the telltale signs of fakes so that you’re not paying a premium price for something that actually is not real.

Ashley, Remix is part of the Junkluggers universe.

McDonald: We sure are. That’s canon.

Can you explain to folks how it works?

McDonald: Yes. The Junkluggers established us realizing that – with their mission to recycle as much as possible from jobs, clearing out apartments, businesses, and anything in between – they didn’t have much of a home for furniture or housewares because of the mixed media content of these pieces. It would take a lot to pull these pieces apart and recycle each and every fabric, the foam, the wood, that sort of stuff.

They founded us to find those things at home and recycle them, which is exactly why we have that program to donate, but also why we sell such a wide range of amazing things here.

What do people need to know before buying a used couch online?

Okamoto: Well, first of all, I would advise against buying a used couch online if you’re new to buying used furniture, mainly because the foams in those tend to degrade over time.

Soft materials can conceal things like bedbugs and can carry odors or environmental allergens if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing. While you can find some great used sofas and it’s all about the frame, reupholstering can get pricey. I would say it’s not a great first foray into thrifting necessarily.

As for buying things online, there are a few options. There are places like Chairish. Experts have told me that you can find small businesses that might be selling through those websites, and then you can go directly to that small business. In that way, you can also sometimes get around some of the price markups that come with those curation services.

There’s nothing wrong with those curation services necessarily, but you definitely want to double-check all the measurements, look at the notes in there. The more reviews obviously about the service itself, the better.

You don’t want to be getting into a situation where you’re buying something sight unseen and they are known for not delivering well. If you’re going to be searching online, I’d start with places like good old Craigslist and even Facebook Marketplace, which is incredibly popular nowadays.

Those aren’t foolproof and you want to protect yourself in how you pay. I’d highly recommend paying through something like PayPal, which is a person-to-person protected payment service, versus Venmo.

Another tip: go to see the pieces if you can. Give it a little wiggle, see if those hinges are OK.

What’s something you would love people to know before they embark on this journey of shopping for secondhand furniture?

Okamoto: Sure. I want to go back to that idea of being patient and thinking long term. You can go into it defining things that are non-negotiable to you, such as budget, of course, and the need that you’re trying to fill. But keep an open mind because part of the fun of it is the discovery. You might have your heart set on a specific-looking thing and actually find something completely different.

I would think about this as a long-term project almost, rather than something that you need to do immediately. It’s a change in how we shop for furniture, but that’s really where the reward is.

Any advice you’d give, Ashley?

McDonald: Yes. I think it’s really important to be curious and open-minded beyond just patience. There are so many designers and different items out there. We are art specialists. He has been doing it for decades and he’s still learning new things. It definitely counts in asking people the right questions. Definitely do a little bit of your own research when you can.

Most of us in the industry are just really passionate about what we do and the impact we’re making. The caller that just called in talking about Habitat, we fundraise for them. We’re a state-approved fundraiser for the New York and Westchester Habitat for Humanity. You never know what’s going on behind the scenes of these businesses until you start to ask. That’s the amazing thing about small businesses is the items have stories, but so do we. Definitely feel free to chat us up sometime.

I love this. Spring and fall weekends are yard selling time. You get great stuff, especially in fancy neighborhoods. Words to live by.

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