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6 home pieces you should always buy at thrift stores (and 6 you shouldn’t)

Thrift store shopping tips

Vintage chest as a living room coffee table
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Somewhere along the turbulent line of the last decade or so, thrift store shopping became cool again, and we are all for it. More and more people are rebelling against generic, cookie-cutter styles and want their homes to look more personalized, more unique, and more one-of-a-kind. At long last, your living room looking exactly like the Pottery Barn catalog doesn’t necessarily make yours the epitome of style. Individualism is the more sought-after decor style now, and we couldn’t love it more.

When shopping secondhand, be it at a thrift store, online auction, or garage sale, there are some general guidelines to keep in mind, and that’s where we come in. By remembering these helpful tips, you can take advantage of the perks and avoid the pitfalls of secondhand shopping.

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Do: Wooden furniture

Restoration of old dresser
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This one can be a bit intimidating. We aren’t all antique experts and historians with part-time jobs hosting Antiques Roadshow. But for the most part, it isn’t hard to distinguish a nicer-quality piece of furniture from an assemble-it-yourself particleboard piece of junk. Test for sturdiness by giving it a few wobble tests. Check to see how easy it is to open and close the drawers.

Keep an open mind here and try to see past any marker doodles or sticker residue that you could easily remove, sand, or paint away. Don’t let a fixable issue stop you from purchasing an otherwise quality piece. Drawer pulls, for example, are an affordable and easy swap. Don’t let ugly ones deter you.

If you can find a gorgeous antique worth millions, great! But that certainly doesn’t have to be the end goal in furnishing your home with pieces that didn’t come from Ikea. Use your best judgment and look for sturdy pieces that you love.

Do: Lamps

Green chair in room with green walls and lamp
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This one comes with a caveat. Anything with electrical wiring can be tricky when it comes to thrift store shopping. Conveniently, though, many secondhand stores have a handy power strip near the lamps where you can test them to be sure they work. If not, ask an employee if you can test that gorgeous antique Tiffany gem you just found. (Pro tip: If you find an actual vintage Tiffany lamp, forget the wiring and buy that baby immediately!)

Once you’ve checked to make sure the wiring isn’t frayed or faulty and that the thing actually works when you plug it in, check the shade. Due to the high traffic and sometimes clumsily stocked shelves at thrift stores, lampshades can easily dent or become scratched. Of course, they are also easy to replace if what you really love is the base. If you can’t get enough of the shape, but hate the color, spray paint can be your best friend here.

Do: Books

Large collection of books on shelves
Ricardo Esquivel / Pexels

The beauty and warmth books give to a home are unmatched by any other small decor item.

Secondhand books are not only great for a cheap beach read, but also for those leather-bound classics that would cost you far more at a bookstore. For usually around a dollar a piece, you can stock up on some gorgeous antique books that you’ll find tremendously useful for numerous decor purposes.

Use them underneath a plant or antique clock to add height to a side table. Prop them against that gorgeous lamp you found one aisle over. A vase full of flowers is stunning when sitting atop a stack of vintage books. The possibilities are endless. A few books carefully set around give your room a lived-in, cozy feeling.

Do: Mirrors

Multiple antique mirrors on gallery wall
Zvarych / Shutterstock

We love a good, gilded, ornate, Victorian-style mirror. The gaudier, the better. But if that isn’t your style, even simple mirrors are a wonderful thing to buy at thrift stores. Just like with furniture, do a quick quality check of the frame before purchasing. There are many cheap plastic imitations out there these days, and you’ll want to avoid them. Look for a sturdy frame made of metal or wood.

Keep in mind that you can paint or sand over any small surface flaws on the frame, so don’t let a little doodle or stain deter you from your hall-of-mirrors Versailles fantasy.

Do: Candlesticks

Candles with red cups on coffee table
Maya Kruchankova / Shutterstock

It’s easy to fall into the trap of “cluttery” decor, but it’s important not to fill every empty surface of your home with small items and knick-knacks. When you cover every surface in clutter, it’s hard to relax properly in a space. For many, clutter equals anxiety. Small items like little boxes, too many picture frames, and other tiny trinkets can invade with a vengeance. And candles often fall into that category.

But candlesticks are classic “knick-knack,” and if styled correctly, they can add a ton of warmth and charm to a space. Brass candlesticks are a very on-trend choice at the moment, but wooden or glass are also beautiful. Use them to add character to a fireplace mantel, spruce up a side table, or fill in an empty spot on the bookshelf. Just don’t overdo it.

Do: Pottery and glassware

Clay pottery vases beside lamp on table
Nancy Pauwels / Shutterstock

When perusing the thrift store shelves for your next home decor find, you’ll want to make sure you do a sweep of the wares and pottery aisles. Glass vases, stands, pottery, and small statuettes or knick-knacks make wonderful decor pieces around the home. Whether you are styling a bookshelf, kitchen counter, fine china cabinet, or coffee table, the wares and pottery section is a great place to find the right piece for your interior design.

As you look for pieces, aim for something unique rather than generic. For example, while wine glasses or classic plain pottery vases can be a nice addition to your space, you may find that unique and quirky items add more charm and character to the home. Lean into eclecticism with colored glass wares. Or, opt for more handmade pottery pieces if you can find them. Just keep a lookout for chips, nicks, or scratches on your wares before making a purchase.

Don’t: Bedding/pillows

Pillows on a bed
Belal Hossain 4516338 / Shutterstock

Again, this one comes with exceptions. Oftentimes, at thrift stores, you’ll find gorgeous handmade quilts or tablecloths. Of these, we say go for it! If the item can be properly and thoroughly washed and sterilized, you’ll be safe from potentially pesky problems.

Where it gets tricky, though, is if those items are too thick or dense for a complete cleaning. These items include things like cushions, pillows, comforters, and mattresses. People cringe at the idea of bed bugs for a good reason. Those creepy little jerks absolutely love items like these. What’s worse, they are not only hard to find, but they are even harder to kill. We promise that no matter how great the deal is on that king-sized mattress, it’s just not worth the risk or the issues that come with it.

Don’t: Upholstered furniture

Comfortable pale pink upholstered chair
Ground Picture / Shutterstock

When we say upholstered furniture, we don’t mean to avoid anything with fabric. If you’ve fallen in love with a set of dining room chairs or a piano bench with an upholstered seat, go for it! Recovering pieces like that is simple. If it’s a sofa, loveseat, sofa bed, or recliner, however, it’s best to steer clear.

For the same reasons you want to avoid bedding items, also stay away from heavily upholstered furniture. It’s just too hard to clean thoroughly, which can be problematic when you don’t know where it’s been living for the last several years.

Don’t: Cribs

Modern baby room with minimalist design
New Africa / Shutterstock

We know, that gorgeous mahogany antique crib would be absolutely stunning in your little one’s nursery. After all, there’s precious little time you can still enjoy decor that isn’t plastic and covered in primary colors. The temptation is real, but you just can’t be too careful when it comes to the safety of your baby.

Cribs are recalled all the time for one safety reason or another, and thrift stores aren’t always privy to the most current regulations. Furthermore, there could be a hard-to-see flaw or mechanical problem that could result in pinched fingers or something even worse. If nothing else, buy a new crib. The antique furniture can live in every other room of the house.

Don’t: Pet houses and bedding

Person with their pet on the leather couch
Samson Katt / Pexels

The problem with pet houses and bedding isn’t necessarily the potential germs that may spread to your furry friends — though that’s obviously a concern, even with proper washing. The real issue is getting your pet to even want to use your secondhand purchase in the first place.

Animals are creatures of smell, and if they detect that another animal has been sleeping in their new bed, they very well may reject it altogether. It’s safer not to waste the money and just buy a new version.

Don’t: Pots and pans

Pots and pans in a blue kitchen
FabrikaSimf / Shutterstock

Of course, if you manage to find brand-new pots and pans that still have their original packaging intact, by all means, go for it! The problem here, is that certain pots and pans have chemical coatings like Teflon. When these coatings become scratched (as they often have when they’re at the thrift store), the chemicals can release into the food you’re cooking, which can be very unhealthy … and just gross. It’s best to buy your pots and pans new, if you can.

These are some general guidelines to make your next thrift store experience a fun and worthy of your time and hard-earned money. While this certainly isn’t an exhaustive list, it can help steer you to the parts of the store that are worth an extra look. Plus, who doesn’t need another candlestick or vintage mirror to accessorize your home? Who knows what else you may find hidden beneath all the treasures a thrift store provides. Happy shopping!

Don’t: Intimate apparel

Close-up of a woman holding a wicker laundry basket with white clothes
Karolina Grabowska / Pexels

This one seems like a no-brainer, but we feel the need to mention it, anyway. Items like underwear, nylons, lingerie, and socks should really be purchased new. Sure, you can wash the items before you’d wear them (like any other apparel), but it’s hard to shake the thought that someone else once wore the items that are now closest to your most delicate of regions. There are plenty of places that sell these items for cheap, so look around and buy those items directly from the manufacturer or reseller rather than a thrift store.

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Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
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