18 Frugal Furniture Shopping Secrets

Buying New Furniture
An antique oak hutch, a grand piano, a rich cherry wood dining table, an elegant brass bed — think of how your eyes are drawn to such star pieces when you enter a room. Now add a cozy farmhouse table, an inviting armchair, a handy nightstand for your books, and a whatnot to display your Hummels, and you have your supporting players. With furniture, as with appliances, you should buy the best you can. You’ll enjoy your handsome, good-quality furniture for years to come.

Department stores and furniture stores. Both of these stores have a wide selection of furniture, from low-end pieces made with particleboard and veneer to high-end solid wood pieces. Both venues are worth checking out, especially when they are advertising sales.


Price clubs. These outlets usually have some furniture year-round, though the selection tends to reflect seasonal needs. The quality is generally high and the prices are often excellent: for instance, an oak double bookcase (48 inches wide by 84 inches high) for $199.99. You can find an even wider selection on their websites. On the Costco website, we spotted a mission-style Morris chair in solid oak with black Italian leather seat cushions and matching ottoman for $549.99, plus $121 for shipping!

Discount superstores. You won’t find fine furniture at these stores, but they do offer a variety of everyday furnishings that make excellent fillers or supporting pieces. Dining-room chairs, computer desks, stools, side tables, and so on can be had for very reasonable prices.

Consignment Store Bargains
Selling both new furniture (sometimes floor models) and used, consignments stores can yield some excellent buys. A recent ad offered a used carved teak rolltop desk for $698 that would sell for $1,600 new! Or a new Bassett solid maple china hutch/buffet for $348, marked down from $700. Consignment stores are well worth investigating.

Thrift Store Bonanzas
Furniture is a category in which thrift stores shine. We know a couple who purchased a complete bedroom set — full bed with headboard and footboard, two nightstands, a dresser with mirror, and a bureau, in beautifully finished solid cherry — for less than $500! As you canvass thrift stores, you’ll find that some stores carry more furniture than others and that some seem to acquire better pieces. If you are looking for a specific piece or style, tell the salespeople what you want; they may be willing to call you if it comes in.

Great Garage Sale Finds
Scouring garage (tag or yard) sales can also pay off handsomely. Look for ads or signs indicating that the sale will include furniture and go as early as possible. Make sure to check out garage sales in more affluent neighborhoods. Though you may pay a tad more, you also may find higher quality furniture. Tables, dining chairs, consoles, sofas, and end tables are among the pieces often sold at garage sales.

Flea Market Facts
Although flea markets are a wonderful source of furniture, old and new, you have to work them like an expert to get the best merchandise at the best price.

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  • Go early. Take your cue from crafty antiques hunters and arrive as the vendors are setting up their booths.
  • Shun costly repairs. Worn wicker may be selling for a song, but wicker costs an arm and a leg to reweave, so it’s best to pass it by. Mildewed upholstery is almost impossible to freshen, so just leave it alone.
  • Chat up the vendors. Vendors are often collectors and tend to know who is selling what. They also frequently own shops or have some pieces at home that they might be willing to bring the next weekend.
  • Comparison shop. A number of the vendors may have similar pieces. Check each piece carefully and bargain. Vendors will often come down 10 percent if you ask.
  • Stay late. Vendors don’t want to have to repack wares, so they may be willing to lower their prices significantly toward the end of the day to make a sale. You can often score some excellent bargains this way.

Like flea markets, auctions — if you know how to work them — can yield marvels.

  • Arrive early. Look over pieces that you’re interested in during the presale period. Ask the attendant or auctioneer what the piece is likely to bring — that will usually give you a good estimate of the item’s true worth.
  • Avoid bidding wars. Decide in advance what your top bid for an item will be and stick to that price. Otherwise, you may go home with a really overpriced piece.
  • Stay late. Some of the best bargains can be snagged after most of the bidders have gone home.

Other Auction Options
Moving and storage auctions often provide fabulous deals on furniture. Movers periodically auction off unclaimed goods out of their warehouses. Check newspaper classified ads or contact local movers for dates.

Business bankruptcies can yield bargains. For example, when a restaurant closes, it may auction off additional items, such as a car or a computer. Most bidders will be there for the tables, chairs, kitchen appliances, and supplies, so you may get the other stuff for pennies.

Antique Advice
If you decide to invest in an antique, make sure that you know what you are paying for. Consult collectors’ guidebooks listing the prices of similar items sold at auction within the last year. (Most public libraries have such books.) Also check prices at other antique stores. If the item is very costly, consult an appraiser.

If the piece has had alterations or repairs, you can often get the dealer to reduce the price. Check for such clues as legs made of a different wood, new screws, or machine-cut braces. Then bargain.

Make Your Own Milk Paint
A staple of the 19th century, milk paint produces a soft, flat finish that can add a patina of age even to new furniture. Lime, whiting (finely powdered calcium carbonate), and paint pigment are sold at paint stores and some home centers; litmus paper can be found at pharmacies. Make milk paint for immediate use. If you must store it for a day or two, refrigerate it. If you need to strip off milk paint, use household ammonia. On most furniture, put a coat of shellac on top to increase the milk paint’s longevity.

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You Will Need
3 tablespoons white vinegar
4 cups milk
1 ounce slaked lime
2 to 2-1/2 lbs. dried pigment
Litmus paper
Whiting as desired

What to Do
1. Combine the vinegar and milk in an old pan and heat gently until the mixture curdles. Stir in the lime until well mixed.

2. Test the mixture with litmus paper: If the paper turns red, it is too acid — add more lime; if it turns dark blue, it is too alkaline — add more sour milk. Keep testing until the pH is balanced.

3. Stir in the whiting until you reach a paint-like consistency. Then slowly sprinkle in the pigment, stirring constantly, until the color is as desired. Makes 1 quart.

Faux Antiques
If you love the look of antiques but tremble at the price tags, buy a new or relatively new piece at a garage sale or thrift store and distress it yourself. The goal is not a perfect finish — quite the opposite! You’re trying to create the illusion of use over the years, not a pristine patina.

Create a random pattern of dents on wooden furniture by banging the surfaces using a piece of wood studded with nails, a ring of keys, a chain, stones, or other blunt or jagged objects. Sand away any splinters or rough spots.

Smooth sharp edges with sandpaper. Make sure all the corners and edges are slightly rounded so that the furniture gives the appearance of years of loving use.

Be colorful! For authenticity, select colors that were commonly used in a particular historical period or architectural style. Experiment on pieces of scrap wood until you’ve pinpointed the color that you like the best.

Use old-fashioned paints for an old-fashioned finish. Milk paint, used for centuries, has made a huge comeback in furniture and decorating styles. Made of milk protein, pigments, and lime, milk paint is sold in home centers, paint stores, and some hardware stores. For a more authentic look and a lot less money, make your own and paint an unfinished piece in a classic style.

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