Fix-It Wednesday: 10 Tips for Buying Used or Damaged Furniture

6 years ago

Nearly every piece of furniture in our house was purchased at a bargain price because it was used, scratched, dented or just flat-out broken. I love to troll garage sales and the scratch-n-dent sections of stores for a hidden treasure or two. How else can you get a gorgeous couch for under $100?



Yes, REALLY. We paid $98 for that couch (new!) because the back was completely broken off on one side. The trick is that we know when something can be fixed and when it's a lost cause. That particular couch just needed a little wood glue and was as good as new.

It can be daunting to consider buying used or damaged furniture, but the potential savings can really make it worth your time. How can you spot a worthwhile piece of furniture if you're interested in reconditioning or fixing it? Here are some tips:

1. Price. Price. Price. Before you investigate the amount of damage on an item, look at the price. I'm willing to do a lot more work on a $6 dresser than I am on a $200 dresser.

2. Find furniture that is well made. Wood furniture is easier to repair and/or paint than laminate.

[Editor's Note: Action shots taken with a phone.]

Laminate furniture is often REALLY shiny, or will have tell-tale "I was cheap and somebody assembled me" stickers inside drawers or on the back.

3. Don't be afraid of scratches. Many scratches can be fixed with stain markers, which are available at your neighborhood home improvement store. You can tell how easy a scratch will be to fix by checking its depth. If you can slide your fingernail over it without it getting caught, that scratch will be very easy to conceal with just a bit of stain. If your fingernail gets caught? Well, refer to #1.

That dresser was at a local furniture store. The scratches vary in depth, but some are as much as 1/4" deep. That means I would need wood filler to level the surface, I would have to sand things smooth, AND I would have to stain the area until it is a close match.

While that is a lot of work, that dresser was solid wood, well made, and marked down from $800 to $69. If I had a need for a tall dresser, I probably would have bought it because that, to me, is a good price for the quality and style of the dresser.

4. If it's truly broken, walk away.

That sofa table is missing the entire corner. There is no easy way of fixing that. You could try to sand it smooth and perhaps use some wood filler and stain to disguise the damage, but it's still going to be there. (It doesn't help that the store was only discounting it 25%. I personally would expect at least a 75% discount for that severe of damage.)

5. When you're shopping garage sales and antique stores, look for items that haven't been repainted numerous times in the past.

The white dresser above had "great bones." It was well-made and sturdy, but it had been painted at least twice before. The best way to refinish that dresser would be to completely strip the paint off of it. That's A LOT of work, so I would pass on it.

6. Don't be afraid of worn items.

The top of this desk has seen a lot of love.

And while the stain is completely worn away in most places, the top is still very smooth. That desk would be an excellent candidate for a coat of paint. (For best results, use a paint with primer in it or start with a coat of primer.)

7. Test it out. Open all of the drawers, lean on the desktop, sit in the chair, or try wobbling the table. Furniture should feel sturdy, even if it's old.

8. Smell it. Yes, really. Smell furniture before you buy it, because there is nothing worse than getting a gorgeous table home and realizing it smells like dog pee.

Oftentimes, furniture that smells musty can be brought back to the land of reasonable just by leaving it outside in the sun for a day or by wiping it down with soap and water. You should be sure you can live with an odor before buying, though, just in case the odor can't be removed.

9. Ask yourself if you can learn to love the imperfections.

With some clean-up and some new knobs, that white dresser could actually be pretty cute in the right room. It has a lot of wear, but sometimes that works. If you love a piece of furniture just as it is, that's OK! You don't have to refinish everything that you find at a garage sale.

10. Price is everything. What's that? I already mentioned price? Well, it's worth repeating. If the piece of furniture isn't worth the price, walk away. Keep in mind, though, that often you can negotiate the price of used or damaged furniture.

When I try to buy damaged furniture in a store, I estimate what I think repairs will cost in terms of money and effort before I ask to speak with a manager. I then say something like, "I really like this china cabinet, but these scratches need wood filler and the door hinges need to be replaced. Since that's going to cost around $25 to do and will take several hours, would you be willing to accept $100 for it?" Sometimes the manager goes for it and sometimes they don't. Either way I'm a winner, because I've given serious consideration to the amount of work needed. I know what I consider to be a fair price, so it's easy to walk away if the manager isn't on the same page.

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