Thrifting furniture is a great way to save money and shop more sustainably, and the easiest way to do it is by shopping online. But whether you’re looking to upcycle your vintage finds or let their history shine through, learning how to shop for second-hand furniture online is a process that requires a lot of patience.
As an avid furniture flipper, Alberta content creator Lindi Vanderschaaf—who gave the tired vintage cabinet (below) she found online a modern makeover—knows a thing or two about buying used furniture and giving it a second life.
To make the thrifted cabinet work for her space, she and her husband, Russel, added a sleek custom-made front, painted the piece off-white and replaced the doors’ original glass panels with cane inserts, before finishing off the look with elegant brass pulls. “I love that we were able to completely customize it to our style, all for a fraction of the cost of buying new,” she says.
Wondering where to start your own thrifting journey? We asked Vanderschaaf to share her best tips, from where to source unique finds to how to negotiate with sellers.
1. Know what you’re looking for
With thousands of options available, sourcing pieces, especially online, can be a bit of a rabbit hole. “I save inspiration from both Pinterest and Instagram when I’m looking for project ideas,” says Vanderschaaf, adding that she pays close attention to the styles and trends stocked at her favourite stores.
To get your inspiration board started, search for hashtags used by the thrifting community on social media, like #furnitureflip and #ourthrifteddecor, or ones specific to the style you’re looking for, like #scandinaviandesign.
2. Check buy-and-sell sites frequently
Once you’ve narrowed down your style, it’s time to start your search for the perfect piece and start shopping.
While garage sales, thrift stores, flea markets and antique malls are great places to browse, thrift shopping online is easy and lets you search for exactly what you need. First, search online classifieds like Kijiji, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace or your local community’s Facebook buy-and-sell page. Instagram has also seen a surge in vintage sellers.
There’s a lot to comb through, so keywords will come in handy. You can even set alerts for your preferred keywords on some platforms. If you have a hutch on your wish list, you’ll get a notification or email if one is put up for sale.
Keep in mind that you’ll be in the ring with antique dealers, so if you see something you love, snap it up right away.
Vanderschaaf says she keeps an eye out for all vintage furniture but also keeps a list of specific pieces she’d like to get her hands on, like the cabinet above, which she finally found on Kijiji. But if you can’t find exactly what you want, don’t despair—sometimes the perfect piece finds you.
3. Visit auctions and online estate sales
While not technically thrifting, auctions and estate sales are where the pros source some of their best finds.
Some now take place virtually and offer online catalogs with easy-to-use search functions and keyword notifications. You can pull up local auctions and sales with a quick Google search.
There are deep discounts on quality pieces to be had, but most have a buyer’s premium, which is a small commission to the auction house for running the sale. You will also need to pick up your win within a specific time window.
4. Assess the condition of the piece
There are no returns when buying second-hand pieces online, so Vanderschaaf recommends making sure that the furniture you source has good bones and is made from quality materials.
First, pay attention to the condition of the piece. Don’t be afraid to ask the seller to provide multiple photos of the pieces, including close-ups or even videos, before arranging a viewing in person or a pick-up, and ask about the condition, as well as any broken parts or quirks. Be sure to bring a tape measure to your viewing or pick-up appointment.
When it comes to upholstered furniture, it’s a good idea to make sure that the material is in good condition and to check for bed bugs before bringing it home.
One thing to keep in mind: pieces made of cheap veneers are much harder to get as beautiful a finish as you would on solid wood, says Vanderschaaf. Something sturdy, like a dining table, is a great first thing to buy second-hand.
Be honest with yourself: how much work are you willing to put in? Vanderschaaf notes that cosmetic damage might not be a big issue when upcycling a piece of furniture, but structural issues tend to be difficult or expensive to fix. If you’re willing to put in some work to restore your piece, chipped paint and stains can easily be sanded down and worn items can generally be found for a steal.
5. Learn how to negotiate
Found your perfect piece of home decor? Before you make an offer, take into account the quality, condition and the cost of upcycling the piece (if that’s something you’re interested in doing).
“Think about how much you might spend on wood for doors, shelves, new hardware and paint,” suggests Vanderschaaf. “When I buy these pieces for cheap, I’m generally okay with splurging on nice handles or finishes because I’m still saving a lot of money compared to buying new.”
When thrifting, you have an opportunity to negotiate. Sellers are generally receptive to offers, and even expect them. If you feel uncomfortable making an offer, try asking “What’s the best you can do on this?” or “What’s your best price?” instead.
Originally published in 2021; updated in 2023