the art of thrifting : ten tips on how to score big for your home

Happy Monday, everyone! This weekend, I was digging through photos from our last trip to the big Nashville Flea Market. It was filled to the brim with eye candy, and I started thinking about the last time I covered the topic of my own adventures in flea marketing. {aka thrifting.}

So today’s post is an oldie but goodie…revived with polished snippets of thoughts on thrifting.

The topic in itself seems simple enough. But there are a lot of people who are just now opening the door and embracing the idea of furnishing their homes with secondhand treasures. With today’s economy, and a shift of our society’s view on the subject, more people are interested in the possibilities. And let’s just go ahead and confess: There’s something about the thrill of the hunt, that makes the find so much better. It’s one of the few things I’ll actually spend money on in terms of items for our home. I know that when I peruse the local flea markets, my finds that I purchase will be different and beautiful for our house.

Whether it’s garage sales, craigslist encounters, or the Salvation Army, I believe each category is it’s own beast to tackle. Experiences run the gamut: Garage sales are quite different from craigslist, and craigslist is quite different from thrift stores. And you’ll find that the customers and dealers in each one are quite different in themselves…and likewise, the best way to score that deal.

Today, I wanted to discuss the top ten tips I’ve used for scoring one of a kind furnishings for my home. The key to thrifting in flea markets in general, is a little common sense sprinkled with shrewdness and a sharp eye…and sometimes these things are labeled common sense, because they’re easily forgotten. From someone who has both owned multiple booths and shopped oh so frequently, there’s nothing quite like the hunt. So without further ado:

1. Know where to look. If you’re searching for a great deal, don’t judge a book by it’s cover, and get ready to dig. Whether you’re shopping at a big weekend event or your local store, never be mislead by the way a location appears. Like a moth to a flame, am I to the places that look like they’re literally standing on their last leg. They may seem scary but sometimes the sketchiest of stores yield the best returns, and the people inside really know their stuff.

Likewise, the vendors who tend to care a little less about the ‘staging’ of their booths, are more likely to have the best finds, stashed ever so unexpectedly in the back corner. And at better prices. For instance: I tend to steer clear of collectors. There’s always the exception to the rule, and it depends on what you’re looking for, but traditionally… the best prices will come from those that are the less appearance minded.

There are always exceptions to the rule. Sometimes you may find a piece of unexpected inspiration by taking it all in at the prettier booths. And booths with pieces made by artists with that one of a kind touch, may just be the ticket to your crowning jewel of a piece…even if you end up paying a little more. That one of a kind purchase is worth it.

2. Cash wins, hands down, every time. So carry lots of it. And in smaller bills. You’re more likely to get a discount on something if you have exact change. Whether you’re paying the individual vendors per purchase at a large event of a flea market, or asking at the front desk at a store…be aware of what they will accept. Pay attention to the walls of the booth itself. I’ve found many a phone number from the owners, ready to make a deal when I called to {kindly} ask for a discount. They usually only take discounts, if it’s paid for with cash. So never be afraid to ask, if it feels right.

3. Take it seriously. If you’re on a mission, treat it as such. ;} There’s a difference between a fun outing, and a trip with a purpose. No kids. And I only go with certain friends. I guess you could call me a thrifting snob. If you’re searching, the last thing you need is a big crowd of pals to fight back for that last piece of pyrex. Or a well meaning friend talking to you about her grandmother’s toe fungus. If you’re looking for something specific, come prepared and ready. I’m a little too ADD to carry on a decent conversation when I’m with a friend…I need blinders on like a horse in a flea market. It’s a dangerous place for deep conversations.

On being prepared: Always bring a measuring tape, water, snacks, (and if it’s outside) sunscreen, old blankets for furniture you may find, a big truck/van…and most importantly (drum roll please) LOSE that diamond ring. Seriously. I’ve attended dressed ‘normally,’ with my children in tow in their nice stroller, and I’ve slummed around in my jeans with my hair pulled back and some embarrassing excuse for a t-shirt leftover from the mid nineties with holes and paint stains. Guess which one actually scored some deals? Shameless, I am.

**If your children must come…because I realize sitters are a luxury…and we all love our kids… Ring Pops (+ wet wipes for the after-carnage of the ten minute of concentrated silence it scored you.) You can thank me later.

4. Do your homework. Check out ebay and etsy for your items you’re searching for, before the actual search. The more you thrift, the more you learn. Know an estimate of the real value, and know what you’re willing to pay for it. If you’re traveling to a city for other reasons, check with the locals for great spots, and the papers for their big events. Sometimes the best trips are the random ones that require a U-Haul across states. Just sayin’.

5. The old adage is true: the best things happen when you’re not even looking. They’re the ones you didn’t know you wanted. When something truly speaks to you in that moment, GRAB IT. You’ll find a place for it later. If you walk away, count on it not being there when you come back. There’s a delicate balance, and while I hate the idea of hoarding, if something really speaks to you, don’t pass it up. You won’t regret collecting the things you love that speak to you to create genuine spaces in your home.

6. ONLY grab it, if you’re in love. There’s most definitely a learning curve to all of this in listening to yourself. If you’re not sure, wait. That means it’s probably for the best. Listen to your instincts, when it comes to selecting those treasures for your home… And your empty pockets. They’re there for a reason. We all have our lists of the items we have mourned. It’s part of the game…and probably for the best. You can comfort yourself by saying it probably has a rare breed of un-killable massive cockroach eggs just waiting to hatch hiding somewhere on the inside that invaded the owner’s home as soon as they grabbed it up. (::Involuntary spazoid blanch::) So just remember to only snatch it if it speaks to you. You’ll know when it happens. The more you do it, you’ll know what will really work, and what you’ll truly love.

7. Sometimes trash… really is just trash. Have some discernment in what you’re dealing with. While I’m sure the producers of hoarders season twelve would love to see your house and mountains of things…you and your family would not. Stick to the something in=something out rule for your home. {I’m still working on that one…Along with cleaning out a drawer a day and all those other awesome organizational magical power things that I seem to lack in my genes.}

8. Get to know the owners of your local antique malls. They know the frequent shoppers. And they’re more willing to help than you may think, because chances are, they have a passion for it, just like you do. If you’re really searching for something, go once every two weeks, and I recommend, unless they have a day where the vendors are there (which is usually sporadic) go on an off day. That way, you don’t have to fight off sketch-o Sally, for that milk glass vase set you’ve had your eye on, things are less chaotic, and sometimes you catch the treasures as they’re being unloaded. {Score!}

This one may seem silly, but don’t always follow the same path through your favorite store. That may be hard to break the habit, but you may notice something stashed on a shelf at an angle you’ve never noticed before. Look up. Don’t ever forget to look up.

9. This isn’t Burger King. You can’t always have it your way.

It’s a gracious thing for someone to grant a discount on an item, and the patron should always respond with gratefulness. I just feel a need to speak up for the vendors, because it reheheally needs to be said: there’s a delicate balance between being shrewd and asking for a discount, and toeing the line for rudeness. Please be careful in your dealings when referring to handmade items that are the artist’s handiwork. While I’m sure it’s fine to ask if that is their best price, it’s not nice to low ball and get into a huff. Chances are, they’re not doing it out of desperation, but because it’s their passion. Kindly ask, and if it’s not in your bracket, gracefully move along. The customer, I’m afraid, is not always right. Sweetly mind your manners and turn up the charm-it pays to be kind.

10. Be safe and have fun. Always pay attention to your surroundings, and be careful not to become TOO absorbed in everything…I highly recommend a savvy friend with a good eye who loves it just as much as you do. Just make sure you don’t find yourselves duking it out over the same set of industrial spools. ;}

So there you have it…our own little list of the top ten things that we’ve learned in our own world of thrifting…as both vendors and patrons. I hope that helps any of you who were hesitant…just remember to have a blast!

So spill it : Any tips or tricks you guys like to follow when shopping it up at your fave junk spots? & Even better: what’s your craziest find, or weirdest encounter at a flea market? Please DO tell. We’d love to hear!

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Responses to the art of thrifting : ten tips on how to score big for your home

  1. Alicia says:

    These are great tips! I don’t like taking anyone but my husband and sister with me. They know to leave me alone when I’m in the zone. LOL

  2. Jackie says:

    I am totally new to thrifting and have yet to venture beyond my local Goodwill. I am hoping to make some kid-free time to go to some nearby antique malls this weekend, so this post is just in time. Thank you!

  3. colleen from alabama says:

    I am a long time garage “saler” (is that a word?) and thrift store shopper. My #1 tip is to go early. Most garage sale start times are not firm. If you are kind and helpful (ie, ask if it is ok to look around as you approach and offer to help them carry a heavier piece of furniture out into the yard if you see them struggling) most people will let you get the first shot at their goods! I cannot tell you how many things i have scored just because i was the first one there. Secondly, at garage sales (this won’t work at my thrift stores and there aren’t many good flea markets around birmingham) you can ask if they will take X amount for an item. I have found that usually, people will take what you offer. I have been audacious but very kind and respectful and found people to be willing to work a killer deal! You got my juices going just reading this post! Think i’ll be dropping by a local thrift store today!

  4. Jen says:

    Great advise! I would love to hear some of your suggestions for resonably priced flea markets/antique shops in the tri-county area? (Montgomery, Elmore, etc.)

    • Kristy says:

      I have a booth at Eastbrook Flea Market in Montgomery–Booth 98 (main floor)–great vintage/shabby chic finds at great prices~~

    • Hey Jen! I usually frequent Eastbrook Flea market {off of coliseum}, J & G’s in Prattville, {This is a great spot for furniture in need of a little love} and Nashville. I know you didn’t ask, but I adore the big flea market in Nashville. It’s a great place for big finds, and particularly, little trinkets. I hope that helps!

  5. Great post and suggestions! I like your tip – “Only Grab it if you love it” So true and yet so hard to follow! :)

  6. These are such great tips! We don’t have many flea markets in my area, but we do have some great yard sales and a Salvation Army that usually has good finds. I do have one friend that I love to thrift with…we have different tastes, so we don’t usually fight over the same stuff. 😉

  7. DogsMom says:

    I like your tip to take different routes through stores you frequent often. You may see something that was hidden at a different angle. If you are taking a friend, take one who is a different height than you.
    And if you are on a once-in-a-lifetime thrifting trip, if you have time, go reverse course through a shop if it is especially interesting.
    At yard sales, say hello and compliment people on something. The cleanliness or the layout or just having such wonderful things. No one expects you to buy it all. Being friendly helps put sellers at ease which makes for friendlier deals.

  8. let’s go thrifting together, m’kay???? miss you!!!!!

  9. This article sounds similar to my guest post (Top 10 Tips for Getting Better Deals at the Thrift Store) that I did a few months ago for a popular personal financial site called Budgets Are Sexy. I agree with your tips, as well!

    Here’s the link to my guest post article, if you’re interested in having a peek!

    Thrift Diving

  10. Shelley says:

    maybe you already reminded your readers to be careful with items with old peeling paint that could have lead in it, especially if children are handling them, or if they plan to sand them down? I read about some people who take a little lead paint test kit with them when they search for treasures.

  11. Jami Nato says:

    you’re legit.

  12. dawn says:

    thanks for the great tips! we live near the brimfield ma flea market and my husband just bought me one of the metal letters-i saw it in the spring and have wanted one since!

  13. ali thompson says:

    so true! #6 is so true….! it really does pay when you find the exact piece you are looking for. great tips!

  14. H McCall says:

    Love, love, love the tips!! I love going ‘thrifting’ and am slightly bummed that I have never been to the Nashville Flea Market! (grew up close to there).
    My favorite tip was #9. I can hear my mom’s voice saying “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”. Being nice usually pays off BIG TIME!!

  15. Lesley says:

    Awesome tips. And thanks for the link I had no idea this was in Nashville and I live here. (only been a year though) I love thrifting, I was raised by thrifters so it’s in the genes. I sucked at it at first. My husband will never let me live down my first flea market in Germany where I spent the most ridiculous amount of money on two suitcases because I was to scared to ask for a lower price. Thanks for the tips.

  16. Katie Whitney says:

    I would add: Be cautious of the word ‘vintage’ in an item’s description. In my experience that often (though not always, of course) translates to: ‘I found this in my grandmother’s house and can tell that it is old, and since we all know that everything old must be worth a lot of money, even though I have no idea anything else about it, I’m going to charge three times what anyone should actually pay for it.’ I tend to be wary of sellers who use the word ‘vintage’, especially if there are multiple items in a booth labelled that way. It seems like people who really know what they have and know that it is truly vintage (as opposed to simply old) are less prone to actually describe their items as such.

  17. Mary says:

    Great article on thrifty repurposing of items. I really enjoy reading about all of your adventures!!