Budget-friendly decor with character

Shopping for home decor at flea markets has a major perk — it can be very budget-friendly. Beyond that, flea markets also offer unique, one-of-a-kind decor pieces that add character to any space. How do you sift through the junk to find the decor treasures? We asked professionals and savvy flea market shoppers to find out.

Makeover on flea market chair
Photo credit: Talie Jane Interiors

Tips from the professionals

Mix it up

Brooks Atwood, this season's HGTV Star runner-up, knows a thing or two about decorating. He's a professor, an architect, an industrial designer and pretty much a genius when it comes to all things design. It's not just high-end design that gets him excited, though — he loves a good flea market find just like the rest of us. He suggests mixing things up and buying items from a variety of vendors. "You can refinish the pieces that you buy to match your own look and feel, and that gives it another level of originality as well. I love to talk about the 'stuff' as if it had another life and drifted around until I snatched it up."

Make a list

Ian Kennedy was inspired by his grandparents, Ruby and George, at a young age to appreciate antiques, and has since developed a keen eye for all things vintage. He owns an online shop, fittingly called Ruby + George, where he sells some of his finds. He recommended having a plan: "Write a list of what you want to find before you leave; you would be amazed what you can find when you mind is focused."

Have a budget in mind

Rebekah Carey McNall is a stylist and creative director behind A & B Creative. She is a sucker for a good find at a flea market and can't resist a good patina finish. She notes that not everything is inexpensive at a flea market, but that doesn't mean you aren't getting a good deal. Rebekah recommends having a plan going in and doing a little research if you do find something that's pricey. "Have a budget in mind; a quick eBay search is a great way to know if that Knoll stamped table is worth the splurge or not."

Flea market home decor finds
Photo credit: Denise Sabia

Timing is everything

Mandy Forlenza Sticos owns a vintage rental company in New York City, so she is always on the lookout for the next best thing to add to her inventory. In her opinion, less is more, so hold out for what you really love. If you are looking for something specific, you may want to show up early, but if you are looking for a deal, getting there late may be a better option. "Arriving early is great for scooping up unique finds, but don't rule out getting a great deal at the end of the day when vendors are wrapping up. Some vendors will think twice about lugging an item home if you offer an amenable price!"

Know your space

Natalie Malik, owner of Talie Jane Interiors, a Chicago-based boutique interior design firm that specializes in antiques and classic design, loves to scour flea markets for unique finds. She suggests bringing some information with you about your current space before you head out in search of new items. "Measure your space so you know what size pieces you can accommodate," she said. She also suggests bringing along samples of existing items or color palettes so you can match items well. "Collect samples of fabrics, paint and wallpaper to bring with you so you can match the colors."

Determine a purpose

Shannon Miranda, the principal designer at Woodcliffe Design, uses flea market finds to create visual interest and add character to a space. She recommends knowing what you are getting into in terms of what you want out of a piece before you venture into a flea market. "There are two schools of thought when hunting through a flea market — you're either looking for items to use as they were intended or create a new use for them. Either way, determining which school of thought you are will save time."

Tips from savvy shoppers

"I find that if I purchase items in a flea market and position them alongside quality items in my home, they blend right in. I look for bargains such as quality items with small or repairable damage, and faithful reproductions." – Barbara Bergin

"My rule, however, is 'I must love it' and have an idea of where the item should go, otherwise treasure hunting can turn into a cousin to hoarding." – Yacine Bell

"Be sure you inspect items you wish to purchase for rust or mold. Some items appear great in the outdoors, but take an item home and you might discover a foul odor or serious rust that could compromise a decorating project or the integrity of the item when incorporating it in a decorating project." – Jonathon Papsin

"Assess any initial flaws and whether or not they're fixable. For example, a small stain on a table could be painted over, and a light scratch can be buffed out." – Alexandra Wolf

Flea market home decor finds
Photo credit: Suzuran Photography for The Cleveland Flea

"Look for marquee letters and vintage metal signs — the bigger the better! These are sure to make a statement on any wall or shelf." – Katie from The Cleveland Flea

"Have fun searching for seemingly unrelated gems that become a cohesive grouping because of their similarity. For example, circles. Once you identify this feature, start looking for items that possess a roundness. You will be amazed at how many items contain it! In fact, it will be challenging to know when to stop." – Pandora MacLean-Hoover

"Look for old calendars. What good is an outdated calendar? It's a budget decorator's dream if you love the pictures! Use inexpensive frames and group the pictures together on a wall for a big impact." – Kristl Story

"Most of the time, pieces that arrive from estate sales (the extra-nice stuff) are kept in vendors' trucks, so make sure you ask if they have any pieces you are looking for!" – Nina Ojeda

More budget-friendly decor tips

HGTV's Lara Spencer offers tips from Flea Market Flip
Where to find the best flea markets
Budget-minded design ideas we love

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