Her love for nostalgic decor has opened the door for other ventures. She wrote a book called I Brake for Yard Sales to share her own shopping adventures and owns an antique shop at Hamptons Antique Galleries in Stamford, Connecticut, a destination must for designers. Spencer's now working as executive producer and host of HGTV’s Flea Market Flip, a show where contestants get $500 to score a flea market find they can buy, fix and flip for a profit.
Spencer first learned the ins and outs of thrift shop decorating from her mom, who would take her to yard sales and thrift shops on weekends.
"Through osmosis, I learned through her how to spot a diamond in the rough and how to transform it," Spencer told us. "I also learned that you don't need to have a lot of money to have great style."
After years of hunting down the best deals and steals, Spencer has picked up a trick or two when it comes to antique decorating. Check out her tips for working the antique scene.
Determine what your style is. Are you midcentury modern or French provincial? "Follow your heart, because it won't be a bargain or a great find if you don't use it," Lara advised. She suggested combing through design magazines and ripping out photos that appeal to you to help pinpoint common themes you're attracted to.
Look for solid pieces. "Give them a shake. Make sure the table's legs aren't wobbly. Make sure there are no cracks and lines," she said. We love her analogy for why you should find the right piece. "It's sort of like it's a racehorse. If a table or a chair has a broken leg, it's never going to be the same."
Check for labels. Spencer says to turn a furniture piece over and look for labels or some indication of who made the furniture. "There are some wonderful midcentury designers like Kittinger and Baker [furniture companies], and if you see a label then you can rest assured that you're finding a great-quality piece of furniture."
What not to look for? Spencer said you shouldn't worry so much about details like finishes, paint jobs or fabrics, since those things can all be changed. You really want to just make sure a piece has good bones, good lines and a classic shape.
Buyer beware. Shopping at flea markets and thrift stores can be super fun, but you still need to do a little work. "You need to do your homework; you need to know what you're looking at, because they're not going to take it back," she said. If you haven't examined an item properly and there's something wrong with it, there's no one to blame but yourself.
Flea markets can be incredibly overwhelming. "There's a lot of junk," Lara admits, and it can be hard to find the diamond in the rough. Here's her advice for staying on track during a shopping trip:
Take two trips through. You'll see different things each time.
Train your eye. Regularly browse through design magazines and books and walk around quality antique shops so that when you spot those diamonds in the rough, you'll know it immediately.
You snooze, you lose. If you spot a great piece and don't snap it up immediately, it's gone. These pieces are vintage and one-of-a-kind, so if you see something you like, grab it, or you'll never see it again.
Don't go crazy. Don't buy something just because it's a good deal, otherwise you might end up with a garage full of stuff and have to hold your own yard sale, like Spencer herself had to do.
Buy things you love. Ultimately, you should pick items that are special to you. Don't worry about whether they'll make you a fortune. Worry about whether they're going to make your house a home.
If you don't have a full day to spend leisurely browsing a flea market and only have an hour to spare, Spencer says you can still pick up some good finds with the right strategy.
Keep on moving. Bring a rolling cart or tote so you can throw your pieces in there and keep on moving.
Cash is king. Have cash so you can better negotiate and move quickly. Dealers often give better prices when you pay with cash versus a check.
Trust your gut. Do your homework and hone your design eye so that when you're running through there you'll be able to zero in on the great gems waiting to be transformed.
Grab it and go. And move on to the next find.
One of the easiest items to transform is a dining room chair. Reupholstering dining chairs "could not be easier," Lara told us.
Simply pop out the seat using a screwdriver and apply new fabric using a staple gun. You typically need less than 1/2 yard of fabric per chair, and you can use "any fabric under the sun." Since you need such a small amount of fabric, you can afford to splurge a little.
"Ask your fabric store if they sell remnants, because those are a fraction of the price. Since you don't need a lot, you can get these great little scraps for next to nothing and transform your dining chairs or desk chair."
"Spray paint is every DIYer's best friend," Spencer explained. "Learning how to properly repaint a piece can completely transform it."
She said everyone should learn "how to properly sand, prime and paint a piece." Look it up on online, buy a book or consult a pro. "You will be so happy with the results."
Once you learn the right technique, pretty much anything is game. Dining room chairs, an old table, a random yard sale steal.
"Using bold colors or glossy white can breathe new life into an otherwise tired, old piece."
We asked Spencer to tell us the craziest item she's seen flipped. She said she was "completely blown away" by a team who found an old 1950s bicycle and somehow was able to transform it into "the most fabulous tavern table."
They bought it for only $50 and were able to sell it for almost $100. Spencer said it was "worth every penny."
"It was one of a kind. It was so chic, totally unique, and I would've never thought of it."
Spencer doesn't just flip antique pieces for profit; she regularly incorporates special items in her home. She's lived in everything from a 1901 carriage house in Connecticut to a 1960s home in Beverly Hills and constantly changes up her decor to fit the home. Her current house is a 1920s Connecticut farmhouse where the style is a combination of midcentury modern and antiques.
The key to incorporating older pieces in your home is to mix it up, she said. "When you start to get too one-note, it starts to feel like a hotel room," she explained. "An eclectic mix of pieces that tell a story about where you come from and your history really make your house uniquely you."
"I love a room that tells a story," Spencer said. "Every single piece in my room has a story, and I love to share it with my guests."
Catch Lara Spencer on HGTV's Flea Market Flip, Fridays at 9 p.m.
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