Why would I want to give away my very best tips for buying vintage furniture?
Whether folks buy from us at Form & Function or another reputable dealer, educated decisions help alleviate buyer’s remorse. If you’ve decided that vintage furniture is an acceptible substitute for the new options so widely available, there are many buying opportunities. I hope to illuminate the where and the what with my very best tips for buying vintage furniture.
Where To Buy
1/ Estate sales have grown in popularity and with the ease of checking here, you can find listings near you.
Line up to get a number or sign in on a list (dictates the order of who goes inside). Don’t be surprised or dismayed by long lines. You will get in eventually and there will be stuff left for sale.
Once you are in the door, grab tags of larger items you’d like to purchase and pick up smaller items. There may be jockeying for position and a few elbow jabs, but generally folks are polite. One time I did see fisticuffs break out at the head of the line which was both exciting and horrifying for those of us at the back of the line. But that is rare. And there was that time a woman yelled at me because I had so many tags in hand. Sorry, but I got my butt out of bed at 5 a.m. Anyway, I digress.
Best Tips for Estate Sales:
- Study the photos on the estate sale website ahead of time so you know what items are offered. Compare with your “shopping list.”
- Get there as early as is humanly possible for your lifestyle.
- Some folks bring bags to carry smaller items to check-out.
- Be strategic once inside. If you want the sideboard you saw on the website, don’t dilly dally in the living room. Make a mad dash for the dining room where it likely resides. If you saw something specific, like a dresser, ask a staff member to point you in the right direction. Be efficient and strategic with your time so someone doesn’t beat you to the punch.
- If price is a consideration, remember that discounts generally don’t happen on the first day. Every estate sale company is different in their discounting policy. Some offer 50% at opening of second day, some don’t offer discounts until after 11 am and some don’t offer more than a 30%. Waiting for a discount may mean losing out on an item. No worries, there will be others!
- Be prepared to move heavy items yourself or with a friend. Estate sale staff is not always available or willing to load larger items.
2/Auctions require more time but are another excellent source for vintage furniture.
When you arrive you need to head directly to the area where they sign folks up. They will ask for your personal information (usually credit card info as well), so you don’t run off without paying. You can usually still pay with a check or cash for a discounted commission at the end (for example, 13% commission for credit card and 10% commission for cash/check). Once in their system, you will be assigned a number and a paddle (usually just a piece of paper) with your bidder number. This is what you hold up high so the auctioneer knows you are bidding on an item.
I don’t see auctioneers with gavels too much, as pictured above, but he or she will indicate the end of bidding with a resounding SOLD. It can be difficult to follow their auction-speak at first, but you get the hang of it after awhile. Hemina…hemina…hemina….
Best Tips for Auctions:
- Scope out the photos on the auction website and definitely take advantage of preview hours. The auction usually has hours a day in advance and on the day of the auction for folks to inspect and see items in person. Buyer Beware. If there is a broken leg or scratches or upholstery stain, they will not necessarily point that out during auction. It is up to you to inspect…everything is “sold as is where is.” That is the common policy.
- Decide in advance your “stopping point.” How much are you willing to fork over for that sideboard? Things generally sell below retail, but not always. Emotions can rule the day and that
trampwoman across the aisle REALLY wants that sideboard and she will stop at nothing to get it. I go in, knowing what I can sell an item for in my store, so I have a very disciplined “stopping point.” Consumers can go higher but you still must ask yourself how bad you want it, if you have competition. Better to know this in advance and take the emotions out of the equation. Other opportunities will happen…my everyday motto.
- Understand the pick-up policy of the auction house. They generally want it out of there quickly as they are gearing up for the next auction. If you cannot take it that day, you must arrange for another day and bring the appropriate vehicle. As with estate sales, don’t assume there will be staff to help you load.
3/ Flea markets are the most fun and easiest to navigate, in my opinion.
Although, it’s still wise to show up early, as at estate sales, so you have more control over the buying. I LOVE that you don’t have to sit around, waiting for successful bids like at auction. I adore the sights and sounds of an outdoor flea market and the vendors generally like to negotiate.
Most cities have some kind of flea market at the local fairgrounds or some other large venue. Check city guides or listings for dates and special “pop-up” markets. Regular vendors attend, allowing you to build a relationship, and sometimes surprise vendors show up with interesting wares.
Best Tips for Flea Markets:
- Sometimes you can attend a market during set-up. Early bird gets the worm. Catch the vendors as they unpack their treasures.
- Bring cash and lots of it. Checks are met with wary eyes and many don’t have cell-phone-credit-card thingies yet.
- Invest in a folding wagon or old-lady grocery cart on wheels. This saves trips back and forth to the car.
- Be polite and realistic when negotiating. While it is expected and encouraged, nobody likes to be insulted. I once overheard someone offering ten bucks for a two hundred dollar item. You can imagine how that went down.
- Again, prepare to load items yourself or with a companion. The market usually has gates or pick up areas close to the vendors for loading.
There are any number of other options for buying. Sometimes you might meet a “picker dude” at an auction or flea market who has a storage unit filled to the brim. Or perhaps Craig’s List has the sideboard you’ve been looking for. Proceed with caution in either of these scenarios and don’t travel alone. I’m also enamored with small town antique malls where things that sell in my market may not be as popular or as expensive in their market. Keep your eyes and ears open to vintage buying opportunities!
What To Buy
This is largely a personal consideration as to your needs and your taste. However, given the crap made today, vintage furniture of most any kind is generally better made at a better price. With a little elbow grease, these pieces can shine anew:
- Classic, functional pieces (Asian, French or vintage American-made case goods are always popular) such as side and entry hall tables, upholstered chairs and sofas, storage pieces, bookcases, and desks.
- Smaller items include blue and white porcelain, anything brass, vintage art, trays of all kinds, small boxes for desk storage (think: paperclips, etc.) and coffee table display (TV remote hider).
- Industrial vibe items like metal carts or gears and other pieces that can translate into unusual “art” installations.
- Artistic, unique finds that add whimsy and a unique story to your home, alongside the more classic pieces.
After you make your purchase, some items may need a little TLC. Do not let little surface scratches or nicks scare you away. Here are some easy tips to make them “almost new” with vintage patina:
- For upholstery pieces, invest in this guy. It steams upholstery as well as carpets. For a mere hundred bucks, it cleans furniture with minor stains and it’s a helluva lot cheaper than reupholstery.
- This is really effective for minor surface scratches. For deeper scratches and gouges, you can fill-in with tinted furniture wax crayons.
- A black sharpie is my go-to for black painted furniture and you can experiment with other colors and stain pens for other furniture.
- A lemon combined with coarse salt does miracles with tarnished brass.
- Shoe polish has transformed worn leather furniture . I clean the furniture first with a leather cleaner then aggressively buff the furniture with the appropriate color shoe polish, making sure the color won’t transfer to clothes.
I hope this has inspired you to go on a hunt for vintage furniture. It’s not only fun but it’s a sustainable approach to an earth already brimming with stuff. More inspiration here for goods to find and here for stories of the interesting people I meet while pickin’. Go forth and make your own adventures!