18 Frugal Furniture Shopping Secrets

Wall and floor treatments set the scene, but furniture pieces play the supporting and star roles.

from Penny Pincher's Almanac

Wonderful Wicker
You can find wicker furniture at garage or yard sales and thrift stores for a song. As long as the weaving is sturdy, don’t pass a piece by because it is saggy or a bit scuffed. It is easy to bring wicker back to radiant life. And don’t just look for wicker patio furniture. You can also find headboards, side tables, dining tables and chairs (perfect for a breakfast nook), bookcases, towers (for storing towels in the bathroom), love seats, rocking chairs, and so on.

To tighten a saggy wicker chair seat, turn the piece upside down. Using a damp sponge, wet the underside of the seat (except for the chair’s rim). Let the chair dry for 24 hours or overnight; the cane probably will have shrunk back into shape.

Give a new look (and longer life) to wicker with latex paint. Be daring with your color selection: Match the decor of a particular room, go primary for fun, use forest green for a woodsy effect, or chill out with classic white.

Create an antique look by using a deep-color latex paint and diluting it. Use a ratio of 1 part water to 2 parts paint. Apply the paint solution with a brush and, before it has dried completely, wipe the raised surfaces with a cloth to remove some of the paint.

If you want to change the look of wicker fast, spray-paint it with latex-based paint. Set the piece in a large cardboard box with one side cut off. Work in a well-ventilated space, preferably outdoors, on a dry, calm day.

Bonus Tip: Three-Step Scratch Repair

  1. Buy a wax pencil at a hardware store or home center in the same color as the damaged piece (or slightly darker). Trace along the scratch with the wax pencil, working from top to bottom and making sure that the wax fills the scratch completely.
  2. While the wax sets, cover a small wood block (a child’s toy block is ideal) with a soft rag. Using the edge of the block, rub across the filled scratch with the wood grain to remove excess wax and flatten the filling.
  3. Buff with a soft rag. The scratch should be barely noticeable.

Bookcase Bonuses
Unless you have to fit an exact space, it’s usually easier to buy bookcases than to build them. Try unfinished furniture stores, used office furniture outlets, and thrift shops for solid cases that only need a quick coat or two of paint. If you do need a custom fit, building a bookcase is one of the easiest types of furniture projects to do, even for those with minimal carpentry skills. If building isn’t for you, an unfinished furniture store will often custom-craft bookcases for a bit more than their normal price for ready-made pieces.

If you have a bunch of mismatched old bookcases acquired during various prior lifetimes, you can often pull them together into one harmonious whole by grouping them and then painting all of them the same color — usually white or the color of your walls.

Whether you are buying bookcases or building them, make sure the shelves are at least 8 inches deep and 9 inches high to accommodate books of average or small size, such as standard novels and paperbacks. This also is a good size for videotapes and DVDs. For larger books, such as art and reference books, the shelves should be 12 inches deep with 13 inches of clearance. The small plastic storage units that hold CDs also fit nicely on this size.

Transform a plain wall with ordinary windows into an attractive architectural feature by constructing bookshelves above, below, and on either side of the windows. Fill some of the shelves with books, but leave space to display cherished objects or collections.

Block out noise in apartments and townhouses. If you share one or more walls with neighbors, install floor- to-ceiling bookshelves along the walls separating the apartments to help muffle noise. You’ll find that books are great sound absorbers.

Make mini-libraries in unexpected places — on a wide landing, under a staircase, above a doorway, or in the corner of a room, and build a custom-shaped bookcase. Try to match the books to the space. For example, take the door off an upper kitchen cabinet and turn it into shelves for your cookbooks.

When you’re choosing an upholstered piece, such as a sofa or armchair, it’s important to examine the quality of the fabric. A piece may look great, but you want it to wear well, too.

  • Cotton. Quite versatile, strong, and comfortable. If untreated, it’s less stain resistant than some synthetic fibers.
  • Wool. Very strong, long-lasting, naturally water-resistant, and generally soft to the touch; some people are sensitive to wool.
  • Linen. High-end and pricey, linen is strong and durable, and keeps its crisp look.
  • Silk. Also high-end; extremely strong, resilient, and luxurious.
  • Rayon. Comfortable, smooth, and soft synthetic fiber, but tends to wrinkle when used alone. Best in a blended fabric.
  • Nylon. Strong, long-lasting, resistant to rot, mildew, and abrasions; it doesn’t absorb liquids well.
  • Acrylic. Manufactured fabric that offers many qualities of wool, it’s fade-resistant but tends to pill.
  • Olefin. Manufactured fiber that resists soil and abrasions, it is often used in blends.
  • Polyester. The new generations of polyester are still extremely strong and resilient, but don’t have as many drawbacks (comfort, for example) as their predecessors. Great in blends.

Purchasing Options
Obviously, the best way to buy a piece of new furniture is to go into the store and pay cash. But there are times in our lives when we need something to sit (or sleep) on and we simply don’t have the whole price in our pocket. What to do?

Don’t fall into the “rent-to-own” trap. Like leasing a car, the agreements are often fuzzy and you could end up paying almost twice what the piece is worth.

Furniture stores are some of the only stores left that offer layaway plans. This is where you put down honest money, then pay over time until you own the piece. Then the piece is yours to take. This means paying for something you don’t get to use, but there is no interest charged as there would be if you bought on credit — a great piece should be worth waiting for, right?

If you have to wait for delivery, don’t lend the store your money. Put down as small a deposit as you can, then save for the next six to eight weeks so that when the piece is ready for delivery, you can pay the rest without strain.