Thrift Store Furniture Shopping: A Complete Guide

A few years back, I had the dubious honor of chauffeuring a former student to a job interview. While she was off getting questioned on her ability to be a functional human being, I slipped into the thrift store across the street. Of course, I found the perfect desk for my new condo. When I returned to pick her up 30 minutes later, the new desk taking up the entire back half of my little hatchback, she just kept saying "What have you done??" as if I had gone on a cold-blooded killing spree instead of picking up a handy $6 desk. 

That was the day I learned that not everyone loves buying furniture at thrift stores.

But for those of us who do, it's an art. It takes time to find the perfect piece. And luck. And knowledge, and lots and lots of investigating a piece for flaws, because lord knows there are so many inferior furniture pieces at thrift stores, it's ridiculous. But sometimes there are really great pieces to be found, and that makes it all worth it.

Today, I'm talking about the system I use to find quality used furniture, where I buy it, and how much I pay. If you're hesitant to purchase furniture from thrift stores, I hope this will give you the confidence you need to take the jump!

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This 5 step guide to buying thrift store furniture will ensure you purchase the perfect piece every time! #ThriftStoreFurniture
The 5 Step System to Buying Thrift Store Furniture

When buying thrift store furniture, you want your piece to ultimately look nice, serve it’s intended purpose, and be economical. This five step process has always gotten me the perfect pieces for my home, so I’m really excited to share it with you!

Step 1: What Do You Need?

Ask yourself: What do you need? Are you in need of a desk to tackle home paperwork? Or maybe a big table for your kids to do homework? Or storage areas that a dresser could provide? That, and that alone, is what you are looking for. It's really easy to walk into a thrift store, see a bunch of good deals, and tell yourself you'll find a use for them. But, even if you have a massive garage, you'll eventually run out of space. Only look for what you need.

Step 2: Name Your Price

Develop a maximum price you are willing to pay for your item. I’ve provided a guide for some typical items below, but your area may be more or less expensive than mine. Also, keep in mind that you may need to purchase other supplies (paint, stain, etc.) to perfect your item once it’s purchased. If you're shopping at yard sales, you might be able to negotiate the price. I've never had much luck negotiating at national thrift store chains, but smaller local places might also be able to lower the price.

Step 3: Shop!

Go thrift shopping! See below for a list of places to shop. As you shop, remember that you area looking for an item that suits your purpose.

Step 4: Test for Quality

When you’ve found an item, run through these five tests:

  • Is this item in your set price range? If not, move on.
  • Is this a high quality piece? I avoid particleboard- it’s a cheap material that typically has a laminate coating that is more difficult to paint or stain, plus it doesn’t hold up being moved around very well. It also looses structural stability if you try and cut it at all. You can tell if a piece is particleboard by finding a rough exposed edge. If it looks like a bunch of ground up wood fibers stuck together, it’s particleboard. If it looks like normal wood, it’s wood.
  • Do any drawers smell bad? Smells are notoriously hard to get rid of, and this may be the one thing you can’t fix. If you smell something funny, move on.
  • What repairs need to be done? Frequent issues include, scratches, dings, and paint; missing hardware (pulls and such); and missing or broken drawers. Make sure that you’re aware of any problems, and able to fix them. If you can fix them- great! If not, keep looking.
  •  If you are thinking of bringing home something upholstered, a sofa or recliner for example, does this item have bedbugs? You can start by asking the thrift store owners if they have any preventative bedbug measures, such as heat treatments. If not, look carefully under cushions and at the seams for bedbugs or droppings. If you see any signs, stay away, no matter how much you love the piece. A possible bed bug infestation is not worth it.
Step 5: Purchase the Item!
Pricing Guide

Below I’ve listed out a variety of common household furniture and what you can expect to pay for each item. Note that the “typical price” is not an average, but the lowest price that I most frequently see a basic version of this item in fair condition priced at (aka, the mode.) It’s the price I have in mind when I go looking for an item in thrift stores.

Item
Typical Price
Lowest Price Seen

Dining Table and Chairs

$50

$30

Desk

$30

$6

Bookshelf

$30

$10

End Table

$20

$8

Dresser

$30

$10

Barstool

$25

$5

Where to Shop

While there are a number of national chain stores, I’ve found that pricing tends to vary by location. For example, the Savers stores in the California Bay Area mark their furniture to sell quickly; most items are under $20. In comparison, the Savers in the St. Louis area price their items a little higher; most furniture items are in the $20-$60 range.

As a result, you’ll need to scope out the stores near you, and find which ones have the best selection and value. The list below contains a number of national chains that I’ve had success with.

Goodwill

In my experience they have a good variety of common items- tables, desks, dressers, etc. There is definitely some sort of filtering system; not everything that is donated to them makes it to the floor, reducing the variety of what you’ll find to what people will commonly purchase. If you’re looking for something more unique, this may not be your place.

Habitat For Humanity Restore

Store selection varies considerably from store to store. Some stores have a large selection of well-priced furniture, others tend to focus on building materials. I love visiting stores when I’m traveling just to see what they have in comparison to my store. In the various Restores I’ve visited, I’ve seen cabinet doors, vanities, tile, flooring, replacement doors, shutters, replacement windows, electrical components, paint supplies, Christmas lights, and I’m sure many other things that I’ve forgotten about. It’s definitely worth checking out your nearest store!

Salvation Army

The Salvation Army stores in my area only sell furniture in good to excellent condition, and they price it pretty high compared to other thrift stores. I don’t frequent them much, but it might be worth checking out your store to see how their prices compare.

Savers

Savers is the only store on this list that is a for-profit company. Prices vary widely based on location, so check yours out to see if the prices are low enough to be worth visiting frequently. Additionally, if you donate your own items to Savers, you get coupons to save up to 30% off your purchase.

I hope this helps you find quality furniture at thrift stores! If you've never transformed a piece of furniture below, I challenge you to take this opportunity to find something small and useful to flip next time you're at a thrift store. And if you find something awesome, I would love to see it! Finally, if you found this post helpful, go ahead and pin it to Pinterest so you can find it again later!

This 5 step guide to buying thrift store furniture will ensure you purchase the perfect piece every time! #ThriftStoreFurniture
This 5 step guide to buying thrift store furniture will ensure you purchase the perfect piece every time! #ThriftStoreFurniture

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