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Furnishing Your Apartment: What to Buy Secondhand and What to Get Brand New

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Furnishing your apartment can be one of the most daunting tasks of living on your own for the first time. A lot of things will build up overtime, like your collection of pots and pans, enough bath towels to last you all week, and a reasonable amount of clothes hangers. Some things, however, require more immediate solutions: Where will I sit? Should I eat dinner on the floor? What will I sleep on? The answers to those questions are: a chair, absolutely not, and you'll figure something out. If you're stressing out about finding furniture on a budget, looking into second-hand stuff is a great way to help save money and get one-of-a-kind pieces that reflect your style.


We talked to two interior designers, Emmy Award-winning home designer Christopher Lowell and designer and professional shopper Tamara Sayago-Dunner, to find out the secrets to getting major scores when you're thrifting for furniture. Both designers say the trend of buying second-hand is on the rise because the items are affordable, unique, and better for the environment than buying brand new. "I'm not a snob about buying things used," says Dunner. "Sometimes you find a gem." Read on for advice on what to get, what to avoid, and how to make your new digs feel like home.

The Basics
Whether you're a first-timer trying to learn the ropes of buying second hand, or you're an old pro looking to fine-tune your skills, there are some things that need consideration before you make a tempting purchase. Here are a few questions to ask yourself:


  • Do I Need It?
    If the answer is yes—by all means, make it yours. One thing about furnishing your first apartment is that you're going to need a lot of stuff. Extra seating, decor, and a chest of drawers are all go-to items. If you don't need it, the next question is—will you use it? The reason so many amazing finds end up at garage sales and in Salvation Army basements is because somebody else in the world was holding on to something they liked for too long, even though they knew they might never use it. Don't buy something just because it's a great price: Make sure it won't take up extra space in your already limited living quarters.
  • Is It Broken?
    Just because something is broken doesn't automatically make it a deal-breaker, but there are some things you should take into consideration. For instance, how much will it cost to fix it, do you know how to make the repairs, and do you even have time to deal with it? "If it requires more than four to five steps to fix it, it's probably not worth it," says Lowell. "I always do this math equation first: Add up the hours it will take to fix it, and consider how much money you would make if you spent that time at work. And then add on the cost of tools and whatever else you'll need, and ask yourself if you could buy it brand new for less than that." Also look for any custom-made parts on the item you want to buy that may need to be replaced. "The minute you add the word custom to something, the price triples," says Lowell.
  • Does It Reflect My Personality?
    Don't feel pressured to buy something you don't really like just because you're trying to fill up space. Look for things that you are drawn to and that will make you feel connected with your home. Some things can be a adjusted to fit your taste with a little elbow grease and a can of paint: Those things are fine, but don't buy the crocheted cat calendar just because you don't have anything on your walls yet. And if you're not sure which older pieces are style staples, follow Lowell's vintage-find advice: "Mid-century or retro pieces are really stylish right now. But you have to love it, because that's what gets you through rehabilitating it."


Keep Your Eye Out For These
There are some things that are just always good. Because thrifting means you can't always find a favorite brand or designer, looking for pieces you can rely on gets a little bit complicated. Here are some old thrifting stand-bys that are usually a good bet:


  • Lighting
    Table lamps, floor lamps, and other types of lighting are great things to get at garage sales, flea markets, and estate sales. They're usually among the lowest priced items, they often can be transformed with a can of spray paint, and lamp shades are easy to switch out for an inexpensive update. A lot of places even offer matching sets on the cheap. If you're on a serious hunt for plug-in lighting, just bring along a light bulb (you might look silly, but who cares?) and ask to try it out.
  • Solid Wood Items
    Garage sales and thrift stores are often rife with people looking to get rid of quality items that are no longer trendy. You should be able to find dressers, coffee tables, and hutches rather easily, and from an era when particle wood was not the furniture industry's go-to. Finding a solid piece of furniture at a reasonable price anywhere is a steal—just make sure to check any drawers, cabinets, or legs to make sure nothing is broken or unsteady. If it's all good structure-wise, most likely your only concern will be aesthetic. "A layer of paint or lacquer will completely change a piece of furniture," says Dunner. Changing out hardware, like handles or knobs for cabinets and drawers, is also a relatively cheap upgrade and easy to do. Dunner also suggests using wallpaper to line drawers and shelves for an affordable and trendy upgrade.
  • Items That Make Life Easier
    "When you're young and you're starting out, it's about having something so you aren't sitting on the floor," says Dunner. If you need a kitchen table and you see one at Goodwill for $30, your best bet is to snatch it up. Even if it isn't something you'll love forever, it will get you through until you can afford the table you really want. Just like you shouldn't feel pressured into buying things you don't need just to fill up space, you shouldn't avoid buying things you do need just because they aren't perfect. "Designing a home is about cultivation," says Lowell. Your tastes and budget will change over the years, and a lot of things will get left behind. Buy what you need first, and then start building a collection of things you love.


Don't Waste Your Time on These
Secondhand stores can be a treasure trove of affordable furniture, but they can also be home to a lot of duds—some pre-owned finds can even be hazardous to your health. Take note of these less-than-desirable items:


  • Used Mattresses
    This should be a no-brainer, but unless you're getting a mattress from a relative or somebody else you know extremely well, buy it brand new. Bed bugs are a very real, hard-to-eradicate problem. Buying a mattress at a garage sale, thrift store, from Craigslist, or anywhere else questionable is likely to bring you nothing but trouble. If you're trying to save money, wait for end-of-the-season sales, or suck it up and buy the cheapest unused mattress you can get your hands on: It's better to catch some shut-eye on a futon than stay up all night wondering if there's something lurking in your pillow-top.
  • Upholstered Furniture
    Besides mattresses, you should be careful about getting most upholstered furniture secondhand. It's not just bed bugs that can live in the fabric, you should be worried about fleas, cockroaches, and other infestations that can be hiding in used upholstered furniture. If you're dead set on getting a vintage couch, Dunner says your best bet is to check out estate sales and auction houses, as their furniture is usually checked for any problems beforehand. "Never buy upholstered furniture from the Salvation Army, though. They're not checking that," Dunner warns. She also recommends looking for leather furniture because it's less likely to be buggy, and don't plan on re-upholstering something you think is ugly: "Reupholstering a sofa can cost as much as buying one brand new," says Dunner. But what if you see something questionable that you can't pass up? Go ahead, but get it fumigated before you even take it home, suggests Dunner. 
  • Ready-to-Assemble Pieces
    If you're looking for desks, dressers, coffee tables or other items that originally came in a put-it-together-yourself package, skip the hassle. If it's been taken apart, there's no guarantee you'll have all the right pieces, or even directions. And if it's put together, there's no guarantee it will survive the trip home. Most ready-to-assemble pieces are made from particle wood and designed to only last a few years. "I call that disposable furniture," says Lowell. You'd be better off buying your own particle wood furniture, or looking for something sturdier.


In the end, the most important question you can ask yourself while shopping is, "Do I love it?" Follow our rules but don't get caught up too much in the politics of buying secondhand. There is always an exception to the rule, as long as you do your research. And if it's a one-of-a-kind piece, or something you feel was meant for your home, don't hesitate to get it. "The bottom line is, if you love it, it was meant to be yours," says Lowell. "And if you're a real DIY-er, all bets are off!"

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