Pro tips for buying high-quality used furniture—and keeping it looking new

'If you look after your furniture, your furniture will look after you.'
antique store furniture
Let's get (responsibly) thrifty. Getty Images

When you need a new piece of furniture, the first instinct may be to go to hit up IKEA. But buying secondhand is a sustainable, affordable, and stylish option. Not only will you keep used furniture from going to a landfill, but you’ll also save the resources and energy required to manufacture a new one. About 12.1 million tons of furniture and furnishings municipal solid waste were generated in 2018. 

Before going ahead with your thrift store or flea market purchase, make sure to scrutinize it for structural damage, repairability, and any future upgrades you may have in mind. After all, you want to go home with a piece of furniture that won’t require immediate replacement.

Check for signs of structural damage

When buying secondhand furniture, the first thing to do is to check for any damages. Ensure that its parts aren’t falling apart, it’s still functional, and can support adequate weight. 

Conducting a thorough check helps ensure that you don’t end up with a good-looking item that doesn’t serve its purpose anymore, says Jerri Hobdy, furniture designer and founder of MENO, a design studio and showroom in Denver. The feeling of being stuck with an item and wanting to get rid of it is “a slippery slope to the piece ending up curbside and eventually in a landfill,” she adds.

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For example, if you’re buying a cabinet or a dresser, check if all the drawers open properly. Test the handles to ensure they’re not falling off. When it comes to arm chairs or couches, make sure there are no missing legs or broken springs, and that the piece can comfortably hold your weight. Try leaning on tables from different sides to see if it’s uneven. In fabric-covered pieces like sofas and chairs, inspect dark corners and run any card through the creases on the surface to check for bed bugs or their eggs.

If you love a piece but find some issues with it, consider whether the repairs required are easy enough and not too costly. Checking for damage seems obvious, but “sometimes the allure of a unique or on-trend find can distract us from how we actually will interact with the piece everyday,” says Hobdy.

Know what the furniture is made of

Proper furniture care prevents materials from weathering prematurely and maintains aesthetic qualities, allowing it to be passed on for decades, says Hodby. If you want your secondhand finds to last, you need to know exactly what it’s made of. Otherwise, you might not know how to take care of it properly, which can affect its lifespan. 

For instance, avoid using harsh chemicals like ammonia-based cleaners on wood veneer furniture because they can damage the finish beyond repair. When cleaning stains in a microfiber upholstery, use rubbing alcohol instead of water to avoid dried watermarks and spots.

Knowing the exact material is one of the challenges in buying furniture because there aren’t always material content tags like those you see on clothing, says Hobdy. “Most consumers don’t have visibility to a true materials breakdown even when purchasing new furniture, so it becomes more difficult to find out material details secondhand,” she adds.

Ask the retailer first if they have an idea about the material of the furniture you’re purchasing. You can also look it up online to try and look for more information about its material makeup. By scrutinizing furniture more closely, you can even set apart real materials from fake ones. Unlike fake and bonded leather, genuine leather has natural hide markings and the surface pattern isn’t completely uniform or repetitive. Meanwhile, solid wood tends to have carved detailing and a varied grain pattern, which you won’t see in laminate wood or wood veneer.

Durable materials that age well, like real wood and leather, are essential if you’re planning on treasuring a piece of furniture for years to come, says Deana McDonagh, empathic design research strategist and professor of industrial design at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Assess its repairability

Repairability is an extremely important attribute of furniture, both in old and newly manufactured pieces, says Hobdy. If a piece of furniture is easy to repair, that means you won’t have to throw the entire thing away even if something breaks.

“The greatest opportunity to reduce waste in the furniture industry lies in creating more circular products and life cycles to help keep whole pieces out of landfills,” says Hobdy. “The more accessible a piece is to repair, the more likely that repair will happen, and the less likely an item is to become waste.”

To assess if a piece of furniture is repairable, check its material, finishing, fabrics, and components. The tools, labor, and specialty materials needed to repair furniture are often overlooked, says Hobdy. Solid wood and real leather are usually repairable.

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On the other hand, faux leather isn’t very repairable, and fixes to improve peeling and cracking don’t usually last. Broken strands of rattan can be fixed, but it might take some work or a specialist’s expertise. Knobs and handles from old dressers may be tricky to repair or replace, so check them well and see if matching a handle with existing screw holes will be relatively easy. 

Have a clear vision

Aside from checking the quality of materials and manufacture of the secondhand furniture, you should also think about how it will fit into your existing home environment, says McDonagh.

If a piece of furniture catches your eye but you’re not certain how it will fit in your current space or whether it will serve any real purpose, it might be best to hold off from buying. Be intentional with your purchase to ensure that the secondhand furniture—or an existing piece in your home—will not be thrown away needlessly.

McDonagh says you must also consider foreseeable events, like if you’re planning to adopt a pet, have a baby on the way, or are about to move soon. These factors would help you decide if a piece of furniture is a good fit for your lifestyle. If it is, then it would likely be in use for a long time.

“If you look after your furniture, your furniture will look after you,” says McDonagh. “Always treat your furniture as a part of your family. After all, it is looking after you 24 hours a day.”