Secondhand smarts: an insider’s guide to buying (and selling) furniture online

By Petra Guglielmetti
June 20, 2019
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Clare Owen

Whether you routinely shop for secondhand furniture online or routinely wonder why anyone would bother, you already know: This is the Wild West of internet retail, where sketchy listings, shifty characters, and scarce rules are just part of the game. But those who know how to play that game can walk away with gold.

While Craigslist doesn’t look much different than it did in 1995, new apps and sites are making buying and selling secondhand furniture more user-friendly, and more shoppers are discovering the perks of decorating with upcycled pieces. “Vintage furniture can cost 70 to 80 percent less than new furniture and is often better made,” says Anna Brockway, cofounder and president of the resale site Chairish. Plus, broken-in items let you lend character to a room without the pressure of showroom shopping. “Buying used is one of the best ways to try new styles on for size. It’s a much smaller commitment than buying something full price and waiting 12 weeks for delivery,” notes San Francisco designer Eliza Kern.

Whatever you’d like to bring into (or take out of) your home, these insider strategies will help you navigate the complex world of furniture resale and come away with exactly what you want.

RELATED: The 18 Best Spots to Buy Furniture Online

1
Choose Your Platform

Craigslist is a favorite source because of the sheer quantity of users and listings, but other sites provide buyer-protection features and are much easier to browse. “Different sites have different strengths, so it’s a good idea to search all of them,” says Marian Parsons, a designer based in Rochester, Minnesota. “Etsy and eBay tend to have higher-quality pieces, but the prices are also much higher. Facebook and Craigslist have more of a yard-sale or thrift-store feel, so you can find more bargains, but there’s also more junk to wade through.” (More on that later.)

Nextdoor, Facebook Marketplace, and local garage-sale groups on Facebook are arguably the friendliest starting points for newbies, since they’re not totally anonymous (you can see a seller’s or buyer’s name and photo) and it’s easy to message people to ask questions or arrange a pickup (no need to exchange email addresses or phone numbers). If you’re scouting for cool vintage or designer pieces and prefer to pay a site instead of a person, check out the curated listings on Chairish and Everything but the House. You can either pay for shipping or search by zip code to find items available for local pickup. Also worth a look: AptDeco, which offers popular brands at steep discounts and inexpensive local delivery (currently available only in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut). Apps like 5miles, OfferUp, and Letgo make shopping or selling easy via sleek, photo-driven posts; many of these apps also have smart features, such as identity verification and in-app messaging. Which source works best for you will depend largely on availability and popularity in your region.

RELATED: 5 Facebook Marketplace Shopping Secrets You’ve Never Heard Before

2
Consider Your Location

The type of furniture listings you’ll find will vary by location—you might want to search nearby cities or towns. In large cities and their suburbs, it’s easy to score great deals on nearly new pieces from popular furniture brands, thanks to people relocating frequently. In rural areas, you’ll often have more luck finding antiques and rare items that have been stashed in someone’s attic for a few generations.

3
Search for Brand Names

Run a couple of quick searches for your go-to furniture brands. “You’d be surprised how many items you can find from favorite brands that are barely used,” says Sarah Reed, co-owner of Arbor & Company, a design and home-staging firm in Portland, Oregon. Some brands currently reselling like crazy are West Elm, Urban Outfitters, CB2, Crate & Barrel, IKEA, Room & Board, Restoration Hardware, and Design Within Reach, according to Kalam Dennis, cofounder of AptDeco.

4
Get Descriptive

To zero in on treasures that fit your style, include descriptive words in your search. They could describe a style of design (“modern,” “art deco,” “farmhouse,” “Scandinavian”) or a material or texture (“tufted,” “pine,” “leather,” “brass”). “You’ll start to see new names and terms pop up,” says Kern, “so don’t be afraid to branch out.” Not sure where to start? Browse a high-end vintage site, like 1stdibs, or the vintage section of One Kings Lane to find items you love, and then search related terms on local resale sites to see if you can score better deals.

5
Cast a Wide Net

It also pays to do less specific searches. Say you want a midcentury modern dresser. A seller may not include those exact words, so try “dresser,” “wood dresser,” and “vintage dresser” as well, suggests Parsons. “Listings are only as accurate and specific as the seller writes them, and sometimes people don’t know how to describe what they have.” Savvy shoppers also search synonyms (“wardrobe,” “armoire,” and “cabinet”), different word spacings (“nightstand” and “night stand”), and common misspellings (“Anthropology” could bring up a gorgeous, overlooked Anthropologie piece). Items can also get posted in the wrong category, so search all listings rather than just the furniture section.

6
Use These Keyboard Tricks

On Craigslist, the vertical bar means “or” (“cabinet | wardrobe | armoire”), and a hyphen helps eliminate words from the results; for example, typing “-computer” may reduce the number of office-liquidation computer desks that pop up while you’re shopping for a chic home-office makeover. Use quotation marks if you want to search for an exact phrase—enclosing “coffee table” in quotes will help prevent dining tables from also appearing in your results.

7
Be Ready to Pounce

If you’re pursuing a specific item, check for new postings at least once a day. Facebook Marketplace saves your recent searches in the search bar so you can quickly update the results. If you’re waiting for a particular piece to surface on Craigslist, save a search to easily rerun it whenever you hop back on your computer. While there’s no official Craigslist app, you can employ a third-party app called CPlus or use the site ifttt.com/classifieds to customize alerts for specific listings.

When a hot item appears, the seller could get a dozen messages at once. Make yours stand out by sounding straightforward, decisive, and ready to act. Say you can pick up and pay for the item that afternoon. Save any questions for when you’re going back and forth with the seller to arrange the pickup, since you can still back out at that time if needed. (On auction sites like eBay, however, be sure to ask questions before you win.) If a listing includes a phone number, try texting in addition to emailing; many sellers will see texts first.

8
Know When to Haggle

If a listing has been live for more than a couple of days, go ahead and submit a best offer. “Don’t be afraid to offer less than the asking price, especially if you notice that the item has scratches or damage that wasn’t described in the post,” says Reed. Search comparable and recently sold items to get a sense of what’s reasonable. However, when an item you’ve been searching for finally appears, it’s not the time to dicker—if the price is fair, take it (or up it a bit, if there’s competition).

Even on fancier vintage-resale sites, it’s perfectly acceptable to politely propose a lower price or ask the seller what the best price is. “Negotiating will vary by item and by seller, but we often see sellers accepting offers of 10 to 20 percent off the listed price,” says Brockway. Do your homework by consulting the Chairish Pink Book, a free digital resource that lists recent sale prices to help buyers and sellers gauge a realistic price range for vintage and newer pieces.

9
Set Aside Time to Scroll

You won’t find the best gems by hunting for specific items. The real secondhand pros spend a block of time each day scrolling through the latest merchandise. “I check Craigslist at least once a day,” says Parsons, who takes about 10 minutes in the evening to search her area as well as surrounding towns to see what’s new. Sunday night can be a great time to peruse new listings, as people try to sell remaining items from their weekend garage sales.

If you live in a bustling urban area, you could see thousands of new Craigslist posts a day. The gallery view lets you easily spot potential purchases—though counterintuitively, you might also want to click on a listing with bad photos or no photo. “I once found a beautiful antique buffet for $50 that had gone unclaimed simply because the seller didn’t bother posting a picture,” says Parsons. “I asked for one and snapped that piece right up.”

10
Score Not-Yet-Listed Items

When you encounter a cool item with an attached cool seller, ask if they have more to sell. “Often people list pieces because they’re moving, organizing, or buying new furniture,” says Parsons. “I once bought a French chair from a gentleman and asked if he had anything else. Turns out, he was selling furniture from his mother’s house, but most of it was still in storage. I went there and was able to purchase two more chairs and a settee at a bargain price.” You could also ask for the seller’s contact info if it sounds like they will have more items to sell in the future. “Message them directly when you’re looking for another piece,” says Reed.

11
Know If Flaws Are Fixable

Minor imperfections shouldn’t disqualify an item you love. Don’t walk away from a piece because of minor scratches or an ugly stain (easily refinished), outdated knobs (painless to swap out), or drawers with a musty smell (the odor will dissipate with some fresh air or a DIY fix). The real dealbreakers include mold, evidence of bugs, strong odors from pets or smoking, and drawers or doors that don’t move properly.

Get It Sold

Take good photos.
Clear smartphone photos work great when taken during daylight against a clean backdrop, without shadows or clutter that could obscure the item’s condition.

Be detailed in the description.
Use words that will help your listing surface in searches. Shoppers know they’re buying used and may be fine with blemishes or scratches, as long as you point them out.

Price fairly.
Find out what similar items have recently sold for and price yours a bit higher in anticipation of haggling. “Start at 50 percent off the retail price, knowing that people will likely negotiate even more,” says Dennis. Also factor in the site’s fees, if there are any.

Farm it out.
If you have a house full of items to unload, consider using Everything but the House, which will send a consultant to catalog items for sale and handle everything from pickup to listing to shipping, plus arrange donation or removal of anything that won’t bring value during online auction.

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