The Design Editors' Guide to Thrifting: Our Best Finds, What to Avoid + How to Score Big
Looking to find the perfect piece? Sharpen your thrifting skillset with our crew of expert shoppers.
It’s Flea Market Flip Theme Week on I Heart HGTV! All week, we’ll be sharing our best thrifting tips and makeovers. Come back every day for a new take on upcycling.
So far this week you've seen a sad cabinet transformed into a cat-friendly lounge and litterbox station, a dull storage unit updated into a retro record cabinet and TWO fresh arm-chair makeovers fit for a night of Netflix binge-watching. What's next? You'll just have to stay tuned. But for now, we want to make sure you're armed with our best tips for finding your next treasure at flea markets and beyond.
I chatted with fellow editors at HGTV.com, TravelChannel.com and DIYNetwork.com to get the inside scoop on how they've scored some of their best vintage decor, plus what they suggest avoiding at all costs. Take a look at what they had to say:
What's your favorite place to shop?
Team Estate Sale
"Estate sales. Sadly, they're often the contents of someone's home who has gone into elder-care or passed away. So there are a lifetime of treasures to pick through. Also, the people running the estate sale will clean and or fix up the stuff before the sale starts." — Jackie
"Estate sales are my favorite and least favorite place to look for vintage treasures. I love the free reign you get of the whole house, but here in Los Angeles there's so much competition, so you basically need to show up to these things wearing a helmet and protective gear." — Erica
"I first started going to estate sales a few years ago when I moved to Charleston, S.C. They have a lot of really old homes there, and if you find the right sale and get there early enough you can find some real treasures. The key is getting there early, because people take their estate sales seriously! My favorite thing that I've found was this big, metal milk jug that has the name of a Midwest farm on it. We have it sitting by our front door and use it to put umbrellas inside. It’s an authentic piece that adds functionality." — Ryan
Team Antique Store
"My grandparents and mother were antique dealers, so I grew up going to antique stores all the time. I didn’t appreciate it so much then, but now I love them, especially lower-end vintage stores where you can get good deals on fun and funky, not-so-precious pieces. I also love antique shows and visit them often with my sister, mother, grandmother and her sisters — it’s a family affair. I would love to take them all to Round Top in Texas while everyone is still healthy and mobile." — Kelly
"Antique malls, fairs and antique warehouses. Granted you can luck up on real treasures and amazing bargains if you’re willing to stalk estate sales and tag sales, but that takes dedication; I like the convenience of being able to take in a lot of items in one place for comparison and inspiration." — David
"My favorite places to shop are antique stores because each seller usually has an interesting story about the pieces. I love hearing the history behind each piece. And of course, bargaining is always fun!" — Farima
Team Flea Market
"While I’ll thrift just about anywhere, I definitely have a soft spot for flea markets. I really enjoy the sense of organized chaos, how people pour over tables strewn with things like chipped teacups and funky jewelry. Flea markets can be pretty quirky, and you’re bound to encounter a few characters while you’re there, but I think that adds to the fun of the experience." — Katie
Team Thrift Shop
Cluttered, Full Closet With Hanging Clothes and Shoe Shelves
A great way to declutter your home is to get rid of clothing you're not wearing. Donate or sell any items of clothing you've had for more than a year without wearing. You'll clear out much needed space in your closet allowing you to be better organized and have easier access to the items you do use.
"I love thrift stores because they usually offer up a little bit of everything in one enormous location: housewares, clothes, books. It's the thrill of the hunt: you never know what treasure you will unearth in a deluge of junk. And it's also a fun stroll down memory lane: a chance to revisit the great and misguided fashion past." — Felicia
"Most communities have 'yard sale' Facebook pages that make online thrift shopping so easy. Plus, the variety of items available is huge. When I’m bored, I’ll scroll through the pages just to see if there’s something I want. I’ve found some of the best deals this way." — Chelsea
"I like Craigslist because it’s great if you’re on the hunt for a specific item. You can try different keyword combinations to search in your area or check out a city you’re traveling to before you go." — Deanne
What's the best thing you've found while shopping?
"I've gotten my best garden tools at estate sales and flea markets — shovels, trowels, weed pullers, rakes — some for less than a dollar. Who cares if they’re used, you’re going to get dirt on them anyway. Don’t worry if it looks old; a lot of the older garden equipment was made better/sturdier back then, before we lived in such a disposable society." — Jackie
"Well, I also love vintage and used clothing stores, and recently, I scored big on a pair of expensive Swedish clogs that normally would be $250+ — I got them for $25. Other than that, my metal outdoor glider is a prized piece. I’ve carted that thing around from apartment to condo to two houses — and let me tell you, it’s NOT light." — Kelly
"At High Point Market, at a sample/second sale, I was able to score a $1600, Kelly-green side table for just $25. All it needed? A new rolling wheel and a quick buff for the high-gloss finish." — Liz
"My best all-time, no-way-to-ever-top-this score was a gorgeous 8x12' cream hide rug in perfect condition that I got for $50. I looked it up when I got home and it was selling for $2,950." — Erica
"My antique French butler’s pantry-style cabinet in a shallow depth with original paint and hardware." — David
"I found a beautiful solid-wood corner banquette on a Facebook yard sale page for $75. It fits in the corner of my kitchen perfectly! New banquettes go for more than $400 at the furniture store and are really hard to find. Plus, the person selling it only lived 15 minutes away from me!" — Chelsea
"Hands down, the best thing I’ve found is a collection of novels by one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami. While the five books would probably have cost about $10-$20 each in store, they were only about $1 together at the flea market — and in amazing condition. It still feels like a steal." — Katie
"This industrial rocker (see below). I love it so much. And it looks great with an IKEA faux lamb throw. A co-worker found a pair of these vintage industrial rockers on Craigslist once. It was no deal unless sold as a pair so I went in with her, split the cost and took the other chair. If you have a friend who has the same style as you, this is a great way to get vintage pieces when sold in bundles." — Deanne
"When I lived in Jersey City straight out of college there was an incredible Salvation Army with an amazing selection of '40s and '50s-era furniture walking distance from my row house. This was before Jersey City was gentrified. It seemed to be in a just desolate and inaccessible enough area far enough from Manhattan to keep serious buyers and pickers away. I still sit every single day at the vintage chrome and laminate-red '50s table and vinyl chairs I bought there many years ago." — Felicia
"I really like photography, so when I go to thrift stores I’m always on the lookout for vintage cameras. Even if you’re not that into photography, they’re worth taking a look at because they make for great decorative items on a coffee or end table." — Ryan
White Mantel With Colorful Decor and Vintage Cameras
The fireplace mantel can be a focal point for self expression. The designers display a prized antique camera collection in combination with favorite books to create a beautiful linear composition. The mantel provides an excellent opportunity to introduce color in a quiet room dominated by a cream color.
What's the weirdest thing you've found?
"Artificial limbs. Did not buy." — Felicia
"Don’t get me started." — David (see below)
"I got a 1940's caricature at an estate sale; the subject’s name is 'Fritzy.' I’m pretty sure no one else likes it, but I think it’s a super-fun addition to my gallery wall." — Liz
"A rain train. It’s a self-propelling sprinkler that looks like a train. It looks so cute as it drives across my lawn." — Jackie
"One time I found a lamp that was a doll head with missing eyes." — Farima
What's your greatest makeover?
"That has to be my midcentury modern dining table and chairs, which I bought through Craigslist from a possibly insane fortune teller. Seriously. I had to completely strip and restain the table, which had multiple pen marks and pet stains. Frankly, I don’t know why I bought the set other than to get out of her house fast, but I love it now after the labor of love. My dad helped me replace the cane backs after my multiple attempts and failure at it." — Kelly
"I found a faded white (yellowed) dresser in my attic after I bought my 1950s house. Because I got it for free, I splurged on agate-inspired knobs (12 of them!) and painted it a dark gray. The makeover was amazing!" — Liz (see below)
"My antique French cabinet. The interior shelving was easily modified for a library of DVDs or CDs." — David
"I was able to make storage space in my 400-square-foot, closet-less Manhattan walkup with the piles of vintage suitcases I found at East Village thrift stores. They were also great as semi-room dividers." — Felicia
"If you haven’t seen it on the blog already, check out the record cabinet that I flipped for this week’s challenge. I’ve never really considered myself much of a DIY person, but I’m really proud of how this turned out. What was once a dull, gray cabinet with no personality now seems like a fun, colorful tribute to another era. Plus, it has legs dripping with gold, which I’m not sure you’ll find anywhere else." — Katie
What's one thing you should definitely buy from thrift stores?
Put an exciting spin on the dessert buffet by setting up a popcorn bar before everyone arrives. Fill a variety of apothecary jars with different flavors of homemade or store-bought popcorn, and let guests have fun scooping up the salty and sweet flavors. Place paper bags next to the bar so everyone can take their favorite flavor home with them; it's the perfect way to thank them for "popping" by!
"I have tons of apothecary-looking glass jars that I use for Halloween and Harry Potter parties. It’s so much cheaper than buying new. Some I’ve found for less than a dollar!" — Deanne
Console Table with Zebra Sculpture and Books
Instead of just placing the zebra sculpture, which the homeowner had, on the console table, designer Heather Hogan Roberts positioned it on a pedestal of design books. When looking for books to display, find those with interesting designs and fonts on the spine. These fashion and design books use similar lettering and colors.
Kelsey E. Green
"You can find real treasures, and as used book stores dry up, thrift stores can be a great source." — Felicia
"If you’re new to the sport, it’s probably a smart idea to buy secondhand to make sure you like it before you invest in an expensive set of clubs." — Jackie
"Truthfully, I don’t think you could ever go wrong with postcards, especially if you’re trying to create a gallery wall on a budget. Not only are they inexpensive as far as decor goes, but they also tend to carry historical significance with personalized messages and images from several decades ago." — Katie
"I hate paying full price for tables, chairs or shelves. Plus, older furniture has so much more character than stuff you find today. And a lot of times, you can find real, solid-wood pieces for a steal." — Chelsea
"There are a few things I always love to buy at thrift stores: wood bowls, serving platters and accessories, and wicker baskets. I have a bit of a wicker basket addiction that needs constant attention, as evidenced by the basket stack under my console (see below), basket storage area in my hallway and my basket backsplash in my kitchen." — Erica
"You can find so many cute things at great prices. And vintage finds are totally unique. I also think non-upholstered furniture is often a thrift-store win, too. If the upholstery needs to be redone, that requires a bit more commitment." — Kelly
What's one thing you should not buy from thrift stores?
"Night clothes and undergarments — yuck! Also baby equipment — there may have been a recall that you don’t know about." — Jackie
"Underwear, used medical equipment and prescription eyeglasses!" — Felicia
"After a bed-bug scare, I definitely avoided linens or pillows for quite awhile. And while I'm still cautious, if I find something now, I just make sure to throw it into the dryer for 30 minutes on high heat." — Erica
"Bedding or fabric couches." — Chelsea
"One thing that I definitely wouldn’t buy from a thrift store is new-ish furniture repurposed to look much older than it is. It's not authentic and a lot of the time, the price is marked up as if it is a vintage piece." — Ryan
Upcycled Antiques That Aren't Your Taste
"Fine antiques that have been desecrated by chalk paint. Just say no to chalk paint!" — David
1. Good: A dining chair with an upholstered seat
A pop-out seat is a newbie DIYer’s dream project: Removing, replacing, and restapling fabric couldn’t be simpler, you might need as little as half a yard of fabric to get the job done, and the change has instant impact.
6. Good: Vintage postcards and photographs
Like beautiful old hardware, vintage paper goods can hang around a bit while you figure out what to do with them; they’re often sold cheaply and in bulk, and they can come in handy as everything from craft supplies (think découpage and high-contrast liners for shelves and shadow boxes) to large-scale graphic art (such as a gallery wall comprised of miniature scenes).
7. Bad: Lighting in need of serious TLC
Older electrical fixtures reward treasure hunters with a lot of time and expertise to spare (since, for safety’s sake, they should almost always be rewired). If you think you’ve found a magic lamp, be prepared for what could be an extensive project (or an additional spend, since you’ll be hiring a genie to fix it).
8. Bad: Glass-less picture frames in non-standard sizes
Framing shops stock and sell inexpensive sheets of glass with common dimensions (like 4”x6” and 5”x7”); custom-cut sheets, on the other hand, can get costly. Of course, if the upcycling project you have in mind (or the item you’d like to display) won’t require glass, pounce on that bare frame and repurpose away!
9. Bad: Money-pit upholstery projects
If you’ve got a furniture pro on speed-dial (or have developed master-level reupholstering skills of your own), fixer-upper pieces with labor-intensive details like welting and tufting and less-than-lovely fabric can be fabulous. If you don’t, know that a sofa can gobble up 20 yards of new fabric—or more, if you’re trying to line up a large pattern—and that you’ll pay a pretty penny for the time and TLC your find will require.
10. Bad: Cracked or broken legs
Scuffs can be sanded, solid wood can be stripped and refinished, and all kinds of blemishes will disappear under a few coats of paint; damage to a piece’s structure, on the other hand, can’t be wished away or ignored, no matter how low its asking price might be. Step away from that seriously wobbly settee.
11. Bad: A pest-ridden piece
If an upholstered chair is sitting out on the sidewalk with someone’s trash, chances are good that it is trash; do not run the risk of bringing cushion-cranny critters like bed bugs home by scooping it up from the curb! Bed bugs can also hide in case goods and books; when inspecting a prospective piece, keep your eyes peeled for their droppings (which look like dots from a felt-tipped brown or black marker).
13. Funky: An old door (repurposed as a tabletop or interior sliding door)
14. Funky: Industrial objects
With a bit of imagination, heavy-duty pieces that began life a factory floor or attached to heavy-duty machinery can be displayed on their own (a propeller on the wall), converted into accent pieces (a massive spool as a coffee table), or even repurposed entirely (a filing cabinet as a home bar). That’s what we call progress.
15. Funky: Vintage luggage (repurposed as a side table)
In well-worn leather or covered with stickers from previous ports of call, old suitcases can be stacked into a side table or night stand (and hidden storage) as is. If their exteriors aren’t quite ready for a close-up, quick coats of primer and chalk paint can cast valises in an entirely new light.
16. Funky: Shoemaking supplies (repurposed as coat hooks)
Just as nearly anything that can be stacked can be turned into a table (see: the suitcases in the previous slide, books, vintage fruit crates, defunct amplifiers...), nearly anything that can be securely attached to the wall can be part of a bespoke coat rack (shoe forms, boat cleats, reclaimed spools, soda fountain taps...). You get the idea. Don’t be shy.
What's your top tip for thrifting newbies?
"Download the app Yard Sale Treasure Map — this was a game changer for me. Once you download the app, you can see all of the garage sales and estate sales around your current location with links to the Craigslist or online ad for the sale itself (often with photos)." — Erica
"Don’t be afraid to shop around, but recognize a good deal when you see it. If you find something that you truly can’t live without, go ahead and buy it. You probably won’t find it anywhere else." — Katie
"For estate sales and garage sales, get there at the posted/advertised start time. Otherwise, the dealers and pickers will have scored all the good stuff." — David
"Keep an open and creative mind! And be willing to put in some elbow grease. Some of the most rewarding thrift-store finds are the ones you bring back to life yourself." — Chelsea
"Go early and often. It's a tip I don't get to use very often anymore, but when I was in my heavy thrifting years, I would often hit up my same favorite thrift store multiple times in the course of a week. I wish I had that kind of time now!" — Felicia
"If you buy more than one item from a seller, you can oftentimes get a pretty good discount." — Farima
"Get there early, and go to the better neighborhoods." — Jackie