Along with housing and cars, furniture can be one of life's major expenses. Buying used furniture can save you big bucks while giving your house or apartment a one-of-a-kind look. • Older furniture tends to be solidly made, with all-wood construction and dovetailed drawers. And unless you're talking about the very cheapest pieces at Ikea or Walmart, even the flimsiest new stuff tends to cost considerably more than what you'd pay for used. • The resale value is also considerable. New furniture, like cars, depreciates the minute it leaves the store. If you get sick of a used piece, you can probably resell it for what you paid.
Good places to start your search are the 49er Flea Market in Pinellas Park, the Oldsmar Flea Market and the many Salvation Army and Goodwill thrift stores throughout the Tampa Bay area. Other places to look are garage and estate sales, Craigslist and classified ads in the Tampa Bay Times.
Although (or maybe because) I grew up in a home with a lot of dark antique furniture, my taste now runs to mid-century modern (think Danish teak) with clean lines. Some mid-century styles and brands have soared in price, but you can still find plenty of pieces for relatively little.
My favorite acquisitions are by Heywood-Wakefield, a Massachusetts company that in the 1940s and '50s produced tables, chairs and other well-crafted, modestly priced furniture based on the sleek lines of French art deco. Made from birch, a light-colored wood, the pieces go great in airy Florida homes, especially those with tile floors.
One of my best finds was a Heywood-Wakefield buffet I spotted some years ago in a Salvation Army store just as an employee was wheeling it onto the display floor. I grabbed it for $80 and have been using it ever since to store china and table linens.
Other quality brands to look for include Lane, best known today for recliners, though it once made attractive coffee and end tables. And because it's currently out of style, mahogany furniture presents good buying opportunities. Just keep the rest of the room light if you don't want it to look like Aunt Hattie's parlor.
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Furniture with metal frames, typically porch and patio sets, can often be had for a song. Scrape off any rust with a wire brush, spray with semigloss paint and recover the chair seats if needed.
Used wicker furniture is also abundant in Florida, and easy to freshen up with a few dollars' worth of paint.
For tables and dressers with drawers, update the look with new knobs or handles. They can be cheaply had at Lowe's or Home Depot, and help create a more contemporary feel.
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Before embarking on the used furniture route, here are a few more do's and don'ts.
DO check for termites, especially in pieces that have been stashed away for years in a garage or attic. Really bad damage is obvious, but other signs include tiny round holes and sawdustlike granules the color of the wood. If the piece has been sitting in one place for long, you might see little piles of termite debris on the floor.
DON'T be afraid to paint. Assuming it's not a 200-year-old piece of Chippendale, there's no harm in sprucing up old, dark furniture with a couple of coats of paint. Some antique shops charge hundreds of dollars for what they call "shabby chic'' — dressers and other furniture that have been painted white and lightly rubbed with sandpaper to create a distressed look. You can get the same effect for $25. Or paint an old dresser hot pink or neon green to brighten up a kid's room.
If you like the color of the original finish but it's dull or scuffed up, try Restor-A-Finish, available in several shades for less than $10 at Home Depot and some antique malls.
DO try to negotiate. Especially with furniture at flea markets and used furniture stores, you can often talk down the price.
DON'T buy sofas, love seats or other big pieces in need of reupholstering or recovering unless you're really handy or have a good friend who is. That $35 couch isn't much of a bargain if you have to spend big bucks to reupholster it or buy a new slipcover.
DO be leery of used mattresses — you don't want to bring home a bunch of bedbugs!
DON'T buy used baby furniture without checking the Consumer Product Safety Commission for recalls (cpsc.gov). Some crib models have drop sides that can strangle infants.
DO learn how to recover a chair seat. All it takes is an inexpensive staple gun and fabric of your choice. It's easy — just search on Google for "how to reupholster a chair seat'' and you'll find many websites with instructions and photos. I've redone several chairs, including one that came with a mid-century desk I found at the 49er Flea Market last year. (That was my best deal ever — $5 for both pieces.)
On a recent trip to the 49er, I came away with two more great buys. The first was a two-drawer night table in pale wood with tapered walnut handles and legs. Just $20, all it needed was a bit of dusting.
The other big find was a four-drawer, solid wood dresser for $40. For another $10, my granddaughter, her cousin and I painted it white and turned it into a fine replacement for a hand-me-down pressboard chest that was falling apart.
In fact, that dresser turned out to be a triple bargain — I saved a bundle and the kids got valuable lessons in frugality and the rewards of hard work!
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]