18 Frugal Furniture Shopping Secrets

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

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.
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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.

  • 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.

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.

Refinished to Perfection
Another way to gussy up a piece of used furniture is to refinish it. If you haven’t done much refinishing, practice on an inconspicuous part of the piece. Your technique will improve as you work, so save the most visible parts until last.

Take apart a big piece of furniture before refinishing it. This will make working on any section a lot easier, and you’re more likely to get the results you want.

Take off the hardware and, for easier reassembling when you’re finished, mark each handle, hinge, caster, and screw with tape and a pencil, noting its original position. Keep all the hardware in a labeled self-sealing bag so that you don’t misplace anything.

To check whether a liquid refinisher will work on your piece of furniture, soak a cotton ball in nail polish remover and press it against the surface. If the ball sticks, refinisher will do the job; if the ball doesn’t stick, you will need to strip the piece with paint remover.

Unlike paint remover, refinishing liquids (sold in home centers, hardware stores, and paint stores) just remove the top layers of old finishes, so you don’t have to scrape or sand as much. You can’t use refinishers on all finishes, however, so check the label carefully.

Before you start applying stain, test the stain you want to use on a section that won’t be seen, such as the bottoms of chair seats and the undersides of tabletops.

Sofa, So Good
Buy the highest quality sofa you can afford; it will last much, much longer than a cheaply made sofa and will look good far longer. The best-made sofas have a hardwood frame, joints secured with dowels or screws, and fitted blocks at the inside corners for added strength. Spring coils, eight to twelve per seat, offer greater comfort than horizontal steel springs.

Take the fabric protection option. These guards are applied at the factory and come with a warranty. Do-it-yourself store-bought aerosols don’t bond as well. Later, when water stops beading on the fabric, it’s best to have new fabric guard professionally applied.

If possible, get extra fabric when you buy an upholstered sofa or have an older sofa reupholstered. If you need to recover a cushion later, you will have a perfect match.

Be sure to vacuum your sofa once a week and flip the cushions at the same time.

If your sofa is starting to feel a bit softer than you like, buy a 1/2 inch-thick piece of plywood to fit under the cushions. Your old sofa will feel like new. You can also do this with armchairs that have started to sag.

Bewitching Beds
Although solid bedsteads are quite attractive, they can also be a significant investment, especially if you want real wood. To create the appearance of a headboard, try one of these fool-the-eye ideas for a less-expensive option:

Hang a new or heirloom quilt at the head of your bed. Use an inexpensive wooden dowel and add decorative finials for extra interest.

An unusual Oriental or Native American rug can be hung at the head of a bed to eye-catching effect.

One option to consider for furnishing a child’s room or a guest room/office is a loft-style bed. To accommodate a loft, the ceiling should be at least 12 feet high. This height allows for a minimum of 6-1/2 feet of standing room below the loft and 4-1/2 feet above (enough to sit up in a bed or sit in a chair at a desk), plus 1 foot for the platform of the loft.

The loft options are pretty amazing: You can have a single or double bed above, and under it an office setup, bookcases, bureau drawers, even a little fort for children. The prices of lofts vary considerably, so check around. Price clubs offer lofts occasionally; check their websites for options year-round. Unfinished-furniture stores can offer real wood at a decent price, and you can stain or paint the pieces to match your decor.

You can also construct a loft yourself pretty easily, especially if you have some woodworking skills and the right tools. Plans are available in furniture-making books (check the library), or you may be able to download instructions off the Web.

Be sure to take into account the ventilation needs of someone sleeping near a ceiling. The loft area will be warmer in the winter (heat rises), but also warmer in the summer. If the room doesn’t have air conditioning, remember that fans can make a big difference in airflow.

Mattress Matters
Few things affect a good night’s sleep more than a mattress, so buying a well-made mattress can be a real investment in good health. Once you’ve found and purchased a good-quality mattress, take care of it, and it will last much longer, protecting you and your investment.

Count the number of coils. Full-size mattresses should have at least 300 coils inside; queen-size, at least 375; king-size, a minimum of 450 coils. In choosing between two mattresses that have the same coil count, check the thickness of the steel of the coils. The lower the number, the thicker the wire and the longer the mattress will keep its support firm.

Turn your mattress frequently to maintain even support. Switch the mattress end to end as well as turning it over. Some manufacturers recommend turning every two weeks for the first three months, then turning every two months for the life of the mattress. To keep track, put a bit of masking tape with the date last changed somewhere on the mattress.

If you have an older good-quality mattress that has become a bit softer than you like, don’t rush out to a store, unless it’s a lumber store! A sheet of plywood, 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick, can be slipped between the mattress and the box spring to make a fine bed support. You’ll get extra years from your mattress at a fraction of the cost of a new one.

Resources: Appraise Your Appraiser
www.appraisers.org or 800-272-8258
Whether you are in the market for an antique or you have been going through Great Aunt Sally’s attic and aren’t sure what you’ve found, you need to know you can trust your appraiser. Check with the American Society of Appraisers to find a licensed, reputable appraiser in your area who specializes in the field that you need. This organization maintains a directory of members, all certified specialists, who must meet high standards to join the society. Still, it pays to call any reference numbers and check on an appraiser’s past work.

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.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest