Top tips for buying vintage

Mar 16, 2012 at 6:20 p.m. ET

So you're facing the exciting but daunting task of redecorating a space in your home? If you're considering buying vintage furniture or accessories, read up on everything you need to know, from where to find it to the top dos and don'ts.

Painted vintage dresser

What is vintage?

"Vintage" furniture is generally considered to be between 30 to 100 years old. After that 100-year bracket, it's simply labelled "antique."

Benefits of buying vintage

  • Rare: You can pick out unique pieces that very few, if any people have.
  • Quirk factor: It allows you to add a quirky element to your home, often in colours and patterns not commonly used today.
  • Save money: If you shop at the right places, you may be able to pick up furniture well below the average asking price for new pieces.
  • Green: Buying secondhand means you're giving an old piece of furniture a new lease on life and saving it from going to landfill. Win-win.

Where to buy vintage

Secondhand stores: If you have the time and the inclination, you could scour secondhand stores and opportunity shops for buys. You'll get to know the best stores full of buried treasures and once you're on good terms with the staff, they may even put things aside that they know will be of interest to you.

Online stores: Sites such as eBay and Etsy are great for sorting through hundreds of different products with ease. Most should offer decent photos as well the vendor's contact details and reviews.

Specialty stores: Dedicated vintage shops are of course an easy option to find quality pieces already sourced from far and wide across the country. But be wary of overpriced goods here -- the store owners have done all the hard work and they know they can push prices up because of the furniture's scarcity factor. Haggle or walk away.

Markets/garage sales: Make the time to stop by markets and garage sales and have a regular browse of the classifieds section of your local papers to find great pieces sold directly by their owners. Without the middle man, you may be able to negotiate great prices as people will be keen for you to take the items off their hands. Auction houses are also a great option to bag a bargain.

How to buy vintage

Accent with vintage: If you're not ready to go the whole hog yet, simply buy new furniture and accessorise with vintage items, like a beautiful set of plates, a colourful lamp or some retro artwork.

Know what you want: It's easy to get carried away in beautiful stores and come home with a car full of assorted items that don't match and don't even fit into your house. Have an idea of exactly what you're looking for before you leave. If you're after bigger items like sofas, have the measurements written down and pack a measuring tape.

Consider the furniture's potential: Like the renovator who looks at a prospective home purchase in terms of what can be done to it, if you're a hands-on DIY-er, consider a piece of furniture's potential rather than its present state. Can an old chair simply be re-upholstered with a few quirky cushions thrown on top? Does a dining room table just need a quick run with some sandpaper and varnish?

Find a good source: Once you've located a few favourite vintage furniture stores in your area, pay regular visits and get to know the staff. This might lead to greater bargaining power when negotiating a price and you'll also come to learn what various items are worth. First in, best dressed.

Look for quality: Aim for well-made pieces with strong foundations that are only gently tarnished or scratched. This is particularly important for items like sofas and armchairs. Thoroughly check all parts are in good working order!

Bargain: No one likes a nasty haggler, but if the pieces you're after are overpriced or damaged, you should certainly give some polite haggling a go. After all, if you don't ask you won't receive!

Don'ts

  • Don't be fooled into paying exorbitant prices. Just because something is vintage, it doesn't mean it deserves a ridiculous mark-up. Research well so you're armed with knowledge and get to know reasonable prices for particular items -- it will help you spot a bargain and give you a leg-up when negotiating.
  • Don't buy a piece that needs major work if you know you're never realistically going to complete it. Seriously.
  • Don't be fooled into thinking something's vintage just because the vendor tells you so. Plenty of modern manufacturers are making new items in the vintage style, so be sure to double-check that the piece does in fact carry a few good years under its belt.
  • Don't be put off by small scratches and marks. While you obviously want strong foundations and well-made furniture, minor surface scratches can usually be fixed with the right products and professionals.

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