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#5: How to Source Furniture Secondhand

Updated: Sep 28, 2022

Welcome welcome WELCOME my friends and fellow busybees. Today we are talking all about how to source furniture pieces for your makeovers, whether it’s for yourself to keep in your home, or to flip and sell in your business. Because truly, depending what it’s like in your area, this could potentially be one of the hardest parts of your furniture flipping project - especially if you’re on the lookout for very specific, particular pieces or sizes for a space. But even if there is furniture aplenty in your area, let’s talk about some places you might not have thought of to look for these pieces and some of the things you can keep an eye out for when doing so to make sure you don’t end up with a dud.

The first few places are where you can find things for free because well.. Free is always preferable whenever possible! Especially when you’re first starting out and really trying to keep your expenses low like I mentioned in episode #3 where we talked all about the steps for tackling your first ever furniture makeover.

Alright, so where are these places I speak of that you can come across these free furniture pieces?

Number 1 - curbside on garbage day. Honestly.. Just be shameless. Whatever. It’s free! And you’re saving it from ending up in a landfill.. People are putting things out on the curb, especially when it’s still in fine condition, in hopes that someone will grab it and save it. Nobody will yell at you for taking it, I promise you. I used to be so awkward when I would go by and see a piece sitting out, like it almost felt forbidden and like you were stealing somehow? Even though I knew I wasn’t. But over time, trust me when I say that you will get used to it and in time, will not give a shit. At the beginning, if you feel that awkward, go around after it gets dark out the night before garbage day when people are putting their stuff out, so that less people are looking at you if it makes you feel better but… just take the friggin' dresser if you see it sitting out!

Although I do have a caveat for this, and for most of these options we will be going over, actually. Anytime you are assessing a piece from any of these avenues, make sure to give it a thorough look at from all angles. During this overview, you want to assess to see if there’s any damage that exceeds your capabilities (or perceived capability) - so depending on your skill level, that could include things like missing drawer slides, chipping veneer, missing or damaged backboard or any structural repairs needed or overall wobbly-ness. Take a look and see if these things are present whether it’s something that you’re willing to tackle this time around – because sometimes these are great learning opportunities, but other times they are things that keep you feeling obligated to do complete the project even when it’s being stubborn and difficult and frustrating you to no end. So you just need to decide if it’s worth the risk or the time investment that you’re willing to put into the piece.

Another thing to do when you’re looking it over, is to take a good whiff and smell it. Any smells of cat pee, cigarettes or other harsh odours are something to consider. Although you can typically remove or cover the majority of these stenches, it could bring added time spent or product costs added, so again, you can do your cost/benefit analysis and decide if you want to salvage it. Another big thing to keep an eye out for is bugs. Bugs of all kinds, really - I mean, you can definitely get rid of any cobwebs and stray spiders that may be hanging around (and if there is any, I definitely recommend getting rid of it before it goes into your vehicle), however a big one you want to absolutely keep an eye out for is bedbugs. I’ve worked in homeless shelters before so unfortunately I am far too familiar with those little guys, but if you don’t know what they look like, I recommend you do some Googling just to familiarize yourself because you reeeally dont wan’t to be brining those into your life if you can avoid it. And if you come across a piece of furniture, even if it’s free, and you think there might be bed bugs in or on it…. You have my permission to leave it. We still have standards here, people.

Another thing you can do too, if you find a piece but then start looking at it with a closer eye and realize it’s maybe going to require more effort than you have the ability to give right now, is just to salvage the hardware. I know if you’ve been doing this for awhile, you likely already have a sizeable stash of old hardware from pieces you’ve refinished but have added new hardware to. And I may be biased, but I saw let it growww baby, there’s always room for one more set of pulls. Again, if the piece is sitting out on the curb, it’s destined for the landfill as it is so if you can save the hardware from ending up there at least, I personally see nothing wrong with it. We’re just bringing some new life to the old and unloved, as we do. There’s actually times when I’ll go for a walk with a coffee in the morning before work on a garbage day, when I know my inventory for furniture pieces is full, but I’ll bring a screwdriver in my coat pocket just in the off chance I come across some unique knobs or pulls. And having this stash of hardware is super useful, especially for some of my custom projects I’ve done for clients lately, we’ve found some really cool vintage hardware in there that matched the vibe of the makeover we were doing perfectly, that just wouldn’t have matched quite the same if they were more modern.

Another hack for looking for curbside finds on garbage day is to look up your local garbage pickup calendar to find out what areas will have their garbage out on what day of the week. For ours here in Ottawa, you can search by postal code I believe so if you take a look on Google Maps at an area, drop a pin and see what the postal code is there and then look it up for which day they will have their garbage out. For some areas that are known to be a little more well off, this can be handy, or you can just take a look around in your local neighbourhood where you already know what the schedule is. Whatever works, get creative! It’s always preferable to not have to pay for your pieces. You also never really know what you will find, or if you will even find anything! For this reason, it might not be worthwhile for some if you are really tight on time day-to-day, but again, if you stack it with something you’re already doing like going for a walk or walking the dog, it’s a great way to integrate a quick search into your everyday routine.

The second place you can look for free items is in your local Facebook groups. I’m not sure if they have this in your area, but there are many Buy Nothing groups on Facebook around me - so there’s one overall for Ottawa and surrounding area, and then there’s one for the end of the City that I’m in, and then there’s another smaller one that’s more specific to my neighbourhood. So that’s three, presumably different, places that I can keep an eye out for any free furniture that I could scoop up to refinish.

And there’s two different ways you can use these groups - first, you can just keep an eye out when you get notifications that there’s been new posts and see if anybody posts about furniture they’re looking to get rid of. And/or, you can also make a post saying something like “hey, I do furniture refinishing and I am always on the lookout for pieces that are still in great shape but could use a little love and a makeover. If you’re ever looking to get rid of a piece that is still functional but no longer works in your space and you’re planning on putting it out on garbage day, I would love if you would send me a message first so I can hopefully save it from ending up in the landfill” or something like that. I think if you do decide to post, it’s important that you say something that let’s people know that you’re asking because you do it as a business and not just because you are someone who is personally in need of a dresser or something like that, just because.. I dunno, transparency is just an important value of mine, but you do you boo boo.

An added bonus of using these groups, especially when it’s ones that are tailored to a smaller area closer to your home, is that it’s just that: closer to your home. Closer in terms of distance to go and pick up, so depending on your approach, the time investment could be longer if you are just monitoring the posts all of the time, but in terms of actually going to get the piece, it should be pretty quick and dirty. Also, what a great way to network by not only letting people know that you offer this service, but also to get to know your neighbours. Win win!

The third way you can acquire furniture pieces to refinish, which is also free typically, is through the three F’s: your friends, family, and followers. I guess this one does depend on the type of relationship you have with those people, but assuming that it is a positive one, this is a great way to source furniture pieces without much of a time investment at all, in my experience.

Once you decide that refinishing or painting furniture is something you want to be doing more consistently or actively, just start talking about it. That’s honestly basically it. Don’t be annoying about it, but whenever it organically comes up in conversation, even with colleagues and things like that, you can mention it in passing and if people are interesting in learning more about it, they’ll ask. And once you start letting it be known that you are doing this, when people are going to get rid of a dresser or something and they’re thinking of what to do with it - you’ll come to mind, and they’ll probably send you a message asking if you’re interested in it. Even if it’s a piece they’re hoping to sell and so they might not be looking to just give it to you, they will likely still send you a message to see if you want first dibs. Why? Because humans crave connection and familiarity, and also, the people that love you want to support you and do whatever they can to help play a role in that!

I also mentioned followers, so whether you have a social media presence specifically for your furniture refinishing like I do on my MelDidItHerself Instagram, TikTok and YouTube accounts or if you just have your own personal accounts on platforms like that, you can mention somehow either in your stories or in a post that you’re taking on this new venture and again, you’ll come to mind when people have a piece they’re getting rid of. I have gotten plenty of messages from people who follow me, obviously only ones who live in my city, but I have ended up with some amazing pieces as a result, and again, it’s making that more personal connection with a follower I maybe haven’t personally chatted with before.

Another thing that it can do when you mention you refinish furniture, is either act as a reminder for someone that they have that piece of furniture sitting in the depths of their storage room or garage that had completely fallen off of their radar that they had wanted to makeover but never got around to doing. Or it might incite a thought for them that a piece that they have in their home that they had been considering replacing could actually be refinished - something they may have not considered before. It’s funny what kind of connections the brain can start making, and you can’t really predict where or when it will do so, so as an overall rule: just start talking about it.

And, if you want to be more overt and forward, you can straight up ask your three F’s (friends, family and followers) if they have any pieces they’re looking to get rid of because you are on the hunt for some new pieces to work on. From my perspective as the service provider, it is always extra special when I know I am getting to transform a piece of furniture for someone I know as well, and as I always do, I put so much love and care into the piece. It’s always awesome to be able to see those pieces in their spaces once they’re complete too! So let these people who care about you support you, should they want to, by offering you the pieces from their home they’re looking to get rid of. My rule of thumb is to always ask how much someone is looking to get for the piece when they reach out and offer it, because I never want to assume they’re willing to just give it to me for free. Although, sometimes I am pleasantly surprised when they say that they, in fact, are just hoping that it can go to a good home and aren’t looking to get any money for it. Again, win-win!

One thing I do want to caution you with this approach, though, is to assess what your sort of, limits or expectations are, when you take this route. Are you willing to take absolutely anything, as long as it’s free, from someone who offers? Only smaller items that would fit in your vehicle? What if they offer to deliver it to you? What if it requires some major repairs? Basically, just set these kind of parameters from the beginning and then you will have it as a roadmap for what to take and what to graciously say “thank you but no thank you” to. It also doesn’t hurt to figure out how to politely say no in those situations, especially if you are someone who finds it hard to say no, because you WILL feel inclined to take everything and then end up with an over filled inventory that you find it hard to work through. Take it from me and my garage that I’m hardly able to maneuver my way through. Set the limits from the get-go.

The fourth place you can look to in order to source furniture to refinish is on places like Facebook Marketplace, or Kijiji, or Craigslist and whatever other similar online marketplaces like that exist. In these cases, you could also end up finding pieces that people are just giving away for free, or they may be selling it for a price. Depending on the piece, if they are trying to sell it, you might be able to negotiate the price down a bit if you care to take the time to do a little back and forth messaging with the seller, so it doesn’t hurt to try unless it’s an item that like, you NEED to have, and aren’t willing to waste any time haggling in case someone comes in and scoops it up in the meantime for full price. Sometimes people have an item listed for a fairly high price, when it’s something that I can tell will require a fair bit of repairs or patchwork, so sometimes if I’m down to take on the challenge of the repairs and whatnot, I’ll message them and basically say that I do furniture refinishing and think it’s a beautiful piece and I’d love to give it some love to give it a glow up, however based on the damage I know the time commitment that will take and in order to keep good profit margins, would they be willing to accept X amount? Some people just have an idea of what the thing should cost, regardless of outsider input, and you can kinda get a vibe when that is the case and I won’t waste my time trying to change their minds but I find that the large majority of people have been willing to be at least a little bit flexible with me when I’ve taken this approach in the past. I don’t actually know if it is the case, but I am assuming that they like the fact that someone who has a rough idea of what they are doing is wanting to take it and give it some new life, because, you know, people get attached to their furniture!

And as someone who has spent my fair share of time on these platforms, Facebook Marketplace primarily, I do have some strong feelings about what I think are some best practices to follow when either buying or selling furniture on there, which I would be happy to do a whole episode on because like I said… big feelings. If that’s something you would be interested in hearing, let me know by either sending me a DM on Instagram or send me an email!

The fifth place you can look to source furniture pieces is at thrift stores or other similar secondhand stores like the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. From what I have gathered in seeing some of my furniture refinishing friends on Instagram hit up thrift stores in their areas, this option may be more or less of a viable and cost effective option, depending on the area you live in. In my area, thrift store prices have definitely increased over the last couple of years, especially some certain ones (*cough* Value Village *cough*), but you can still find some reasonably priced pieces every now and then.

Actually, la crème de la crème was when the first huge, seemingly never-ending pandemic lockdown in Ontario was lifted, because the thrift stores were closed down and everyone was home decluttering their home I guess, so when the thrift stores re-opened they were fucking stacked with more things than they could fit, so everything was super reasonably priced. I stocked up realllll good back then. But yeah, basically determine what prices fit your definition of “reasonably priced” and stick within that. And it might sound like I go through my life with a lot of limiting rules that I’m putting on myself, and honestly, I guess I kind of do but here’s why - when you’re in the moment, and you find a cool piece that you’re super pumped about taking on, you can get ahead of yourself sometimes and just be blinded by the find. It sounds dramatic but you can absolutely get caught up in the moment and be willing to pay whatever, and then get it home and have buyer’s remorse and be like why the hell did I think this was a good idea? So go into these situations with a framework, and stick to it and you’re less likely to find yourself in those types of situations. Like I said, it completely depends on your area, but my typical price limit is $50 for my pieces. I have paid a bit more on a couple of occasions, and for your area, that might seem incredibly low, but I live in a big government City with a lot of people who get rid of nice furniture for fairly cheap, so I’m able to stick to that in my business. And if you are finding that the prices at your local thrift stores are getting a little steep, also be sure to look into whether there are any sort of loyalty program or coupons that they offer to get some money off of your order. This could mean going on their website and looking around, signing up for their online newsletter, or asking an employee when you’re there. It’s all about being resourceful, my friend!

Some of my high level advice for looking for furniture to source at these stores is to go early and go often, because you never know when a new piece is going to be put out on the floor. It can be hit and miss and as a result, end up in some wasted time but if you have any that are near your house or are ones you pass by often, for example when you’re going to the grocery store or something like that, if you have the added few minutes in your day, stop and pop in for a minute on your way by! The hunt is part of the fun, so just enjoy it and don’t turn it into something stressful and panicked. It also doesn’t hurt to be friendly with the staff at the thrift stores you frequent, because sometimes you can get some hot tips about either if there’s a certain day that they put out new inventory or if they happen to have a super cool piece in the back that they’ll be putting out the next day or something like that.

And let’s be honest, one of the biggest benefits in getting your furniture pieces from the thrift stores is that they usually have someone who can either help you load the piece into your vehicle, or if you’re lucky, they have two people who will just do it for you. If you’re stubborn like me and go to furniture pick ups solo and wrestle humongous pieces into your vehicle on your own on the regular, you know as well as I do that this is a luxury that is always welcomed when it’s offered.

The sixth place you can search for furniture pieces to source is by looking at estate sales and auctions, either in person or online. I actually haven’t ever tried this route myself so I can’t say a whole lot about it, but I do have furniture refinishing friends who have done this. The benefit being that you can end up getting some really well-kept pieces that you may not have otherwise come across, since it’s pieces that were in someone’s home when they passed away. In terms of pricing, from what I gather it can be 50-50: The person running the sale, usually one of the deceased’s children, might either just be wanting to get rid of the pieces ASAP and not care too much about how much they get for the items, OR they could be really trying to get as much money as possible, which is understandable.

I have come across a few estate sales that have been advertised on FB Marketplace, sort of in the way that a garage sale is advertised on there a few days before the date of the sale (actually now that I think of it, garage sales are something I didn’t mention but also an amazing place to look for furniture to source - and we are in the summer right now so this is the perfect time to keep an eye out for those!). But basically I have seen estate sales advertised on Facebook and took a look at the photos of the items they have and if it looks like they might have a few pieces I would be interested in, I will send them a message and let them know the highest price I would be willing to pay and basically say, if it doesn’t end up selling at the sale and you are looking to get rid of it, to contact me. You never know until you ask!

And a couple little PSAs I want to put out there before we wrap up here today. Number 1: Always make sure you’re keeping your safety in mind when you are sourcing furniture. You obviously hope that it’s not something that you’ll ever have to worry about, but let’s be real for a minute. I know that there’s many ladies on here listening and especially with things like Facebook marketplace, people can see your picture and they can have created fake accounts and sometimes people are shitty. So make sure that if you’re meeting up with anyone to either buy or sell furniture that you have safety at top of mind. If you can, bring someone with you to pick up. If not, I will always make sure to send my husband a text with the address that I’m going to pick up the piece, send a screenshot of the person’s FB profile (and if they gave me their cell number, I’ll send that too), and I’ll text him once I got the piece loaded and I’m on the way home. Is it overkill? Maybe, but if I got kidnapped or some shit one day, I know they’re details that will be helpful to police. Maybe morbid but whatever. Be safe out there guys.

The second PSA much lighter in nature, but just always be kind to people. Especially when interacting with people on the internet, it’s easy to have people’s tone and intention be misinterpreted, so as a rule of thumb, I just always assume positive intentions. If someone you’re messaging on Facebook marketplace is being short and curt with you, they probably aren’t trying to be rude and make you pissy, they might just type like that, or be older and not be used to infusing a million smiley emojis into their writing like us anxious millennials do. If they’re taking awhile to reply to your message, they probably aren’t trying to intentionally make you wait and trying to ruin your day, but they might just be at work and not on their phone, or running around after three little kids. Give people the benefit of the doubt, it’s nice to be nice, and if for whatever reason that isn’t a good enough reason for you, consider the fact that you never know who the person is on the other end of the chat conversation. They could be the one interviewing you next week, or be your partner’s aunt you never met, or someone you could potentially make a great business relationship with moving forward. So just remember that as you move forward in life.

SO, now I want to know: Where have you found the most success at acquiring furniture pieces to makeover?! I want to know, so head over to my Instagram at MelDidItHerself and find the tile with Episode #5: How to Source Furniture Secondhand and leave me a comment letting me know. I would also be interested in knowing if you have any particularly hilarious stories from sourcing furniture… or if you have a horror story, let everyone know too so we can spread awareness! We are all about sharing information that will make us all better at what we do, so I want to hear the good, the bad and the ugly!

And something you may not know about me… I love little motivational messages. They literally always get me fired up, and I keep a running list of ones that are especially catchy or speak to me in the Notes app on my phone. So I’m going to end every podcast episode with one of those that I have noted down over the years, in hopes that you leave our time here each week feeling inspired, motivated, and ready to take on whatever comes your way that week.

So this week’s Mel’s motivational message is from Martin Luther King Jr, and it is: You don’t have to see the full staircase, just take the first step. This is a quote that I’ve held particularly close to my heart this week, as I have been toying with a scary but exciting decision in my business that I am so excited to share with you guys in the near future- but just reminding myself that I don’t need to know what the rest of the staircase looks like, where it leads or even if it’s the right staircase, but just trusting that taking the next right step will always lead me where I’m meant to go. So remember that as you go into this week - we only need to focus on the next right step, and don’t bother stressing about the rest of the staircase at this point because it is just wasted energy. And I know that you know what that next step is, anyway.

Alright, that’s it for now, I appreciate your time, and I’ll catch you guys next week!

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