Design insiders advise staying away from these risky thrift store purchases.
Thrift stores can be a treasure trove of great deals on one-of-a-kind items you won’t find at a big-box store. But it’s also easy to get caught up in the moment when something strikes your fancy. If you follow your heart and not your head, you might pick up something that's a bargain but will have other issues you didn't expect.
Interior stylist and vintage expert Leah Ashley has a good rule of thumb. "When it comes to projects, if I find something that is going to require a lot of work to clean it or 'fix it up,' I always ask myself if it is worth it or if my time and money would be better spent by just buying that item new," she says.
We asked design insiders to share what they typically avoid buying at thrift stores and what they suggest instead.
Meet Our Expert
Leah Ashley, vintage expert and interior stylist
Debbe Daley, interior designer
Willow Wright, owner of Urban Redeux
We’ve all heard the advice to stay away from pillows at thrift stores because of unpleasant things like bedbugs, lice, and potential contact with bodily fluids. But, experts are divided on the throw pillow question. Ashley only buys pillows with a zipper so she can toss the insert and wash the cover. "I passed up a gorgeous pair of toss pillows that were handmade," she says. "But they didn’t have a zipper, and there was no way to clean the covers and switch out the inserts. It was sad, but it was a hard pass for me."
Interior designer Debbe Daley says that if you find a really unique needlepoint or silk throw pillow in good shape, it might be worth taking it to your dry cleaner for a thorough cleaning.
"It is important to remember that no matter what you are buying at the thrift store, that it hasn’t been washed or cleaned," says Ashley. "This isn’t like other retail experiences where items are in new and clean condition. So, no matter what you are buying, from clothes to home items, make sure you can wash it or clean it somehow."
For Willow Wright, owner of Urban Redeux, it’s really a matter of personal comfort. "I have purchased white towels, sheets, and bath mats for our home that can easily be bleached," says Wright. "For items with deep staining, pilling, and threadbare blankets, I’d leave those behind. No amount of cleaning will probably work."
Many older bassinets, cribs, and playpens are not up to date with current child safety standards. So as charming as that vintage wooden crib might be, says Daley, it’s not safe to buy an item for your child that could contain lead paint or have other features that could prove risky for an infant or toddler. Also, say "no" to car seats and other older baby gear that doesn't pass muster.
"I’m also not a fan of buying cutting boards or butcher block with the intent of using them in my kitchen," says Ashley. "There is no real way to disinfect a cutting board without chemicals."
"I generally do not purchase rugs from thrift stores," says Wright. "Most of the time, they’re machine-made, as opposed to vintage hand-knotted, and pricey to get cleaned. You never know what pet stains or odors are there and they are often not worth the cost of the cleaning. Vintage rugs are the exception, but they’re not usually found at thrift stores."
Fixing a beautiful caned piece of furniture may not be worth the cost. A rip is very hard and expensive to repair, so it's best to stay away if you can’t DIY a tear in a caned chair, says Daley.
You may think that with a thorough washing and your favorite stain remover, you can get any mark out, but chances are if something stained is in a thrift store, it’s because the wearer tried to remove the stain and couldn’t, according to Daley. She also stays away from certain stains from nicotine, water, and mold that can be hard to remove. "Furniture that has visible mold or odor should be left behind unless you’re prepared to do a full restoration," she says.
Anything With Signs of Furniture Beetle Damage
Always inspect the legs or underside of hardwood and softwood furniture to look for telltale piles of sawdust. If you spot that, it might mean the piece is a habitat for the wood-boring larva of furniture beetles, says Daley.
Upholstered Furniture in Poor Condition
No matter how beautiful a piece might be, if the upholstery is worn or ripped, you might want to pass it up. "If it's torn and tattered, I would stay away from it because reupholstering gets very expensive,” says Daley.
"Always check that lamps and electronics work before hauling them home," says Ashley. "The store will usually always allow you to plug something in to check." And, if you fall in love with an item but aren't allowed to test it, walk away. That said, an interesting lamp may be worth it since they are generally pretty simple to rewire.
Fleece sports jackets, baby clothes, and blankets show their age quickly and can look pilled over time. "One thing I would never purchase from a thrift store is a fleece blanket," says Wright. "I have a general distaste for them—they’re cheaply made, show wear easily, and if I were to buy one it would be new."
Some Wood Furniture
Not all wood furniture is suitable for refinishing, or worth the time and effort involved. "Unless it is real wood that can be sanded and re-stained, don’t waste your money. I especially avoid furniture that is made of particle board," says Ashley. Daley also warns buyers to look out for furniture with veneers which often peel or chip off and can’t be repaired. "A veneer is just a sheet of a very thin wood," says Daley, and it often lifts away from the surface of a table or a dresser. "That’s not an easy fix."
"A thorough inspection is key," says Wright. "Make sure drawers work, laminate is in good condition, [and the furniture is] stable and functional." Wright also notes that you should avoid signs of poor workmanship. "Stay away from furniture whose drawers aren’t dovetail construction—sure sign of a poorly made piece!" she says.
Vintage fans might look nice, but they can pose a safety risk. "The blades inside the fan are metal and the spaces between the safety rack is wide," says Daley. "You can get your finger caught in there or your hair."
Rusted Iron Furniture
Rust is very corrosive and damaging to furniture, making it potentially unstable. "Really look at the rust, because rust actually eats through and corrodes the metal," says Daley. "It means the support is not going to be strong." And no amount of paint can fix an unstable, corroded piece of furniture.
Daley is a fan of marble side and coffee tables. "However, if it’s stained, you are never going to get that stain out," she says. She does offer the caveat that if it’s a tabletop with a stain, you can try turning it over to hide any imperfections.
"If you can repair, go for it," says Daley. But if you can’t do your own repairs, thin, older legs on a chair or a sofa make the furniture too delicate and precarious to use.
Daley fell victim to mistaking inexpensive costume jewelry for something more valuable recently when she purchased what she thought were amber teardrop earrings. But upon closer inspection, she realized that what she thought was amber was actually plastic that was "so well made that you couldn't see any seams in it." You have to really know what you're looking at to tell the difference between a quality piece of jewelry and cheaper costume jewelry. "Make sure you know what you're buying when you're buying vintage jewelry," says Daley.
Glassware and Dinnerware
It can be easy to mistake a pretty cut glass item for something more expensive, says Daley, who recommends using Google reverse image search to see if you can find out if the punch cup or vase you are considering actually has any value. Ashley notes that some pieces can even pose health risks. "Beware of vintage plates and crystal pieces. Those items could have been made with outdated regulations and may contain lead," she says. "They can still be used to decorate but you won’t want to consume anything off of them."
Sterling silver is a definite thrift score, but anything plated may not be worth it if you are looking for more pristine pieces. "Because if you try cleaning silver plate over time, it just dulls and gets gray," says Daley. Wright has also learned from experience. "When I first started, I did purchase a large silver-plated platter. I tried for hours to clean it up, but in the end, I found that there was too much pitting of the metal, and no amount of cleaning would ever get it clean," Wright says. "Now, I closely inspect all silver and brass pieces to try to avoid those situations. Really dark spots or intense tarnishing are signs that it might be a good piece to leave behind." If you like items with a more rustic patina, silver-plated objects can be a fun addition.
At the end of the day, heed these words of advice for any dedicated thrift store shopper who knows the disappointment of leaving a beautiful but flawed item behind. "There will always be a better piece if you wait just a bit longer," says Wright.
Read the original article on Martha Stewart.