9 Things You Should Always Buy at Estate Sales, According to Designers

vintage glasses at the flea market
What You Should Always Buy at Estate SalesMassimo Ravera - Getty Images

There’s a reason why so many interior designers love estate sales: They're an absolute treasure trove for antique and vintage home furnishings. Chinese paint brushes, ceramic planters, African masks, a single statement-making chair—you never know what you might uncover.

Not only is estate sale shopping environmentally responsible, but it also unveils items for your home that come with a story you can add to by “repurchasing and refurbishing and refinishing and recovering that which has lasted well and has come before,” says interior designer Corey Damon Jenkins. “It gives an added a layer of richness to the conversation people have in their homes when they are hosting people and having friends [over],” Jenkins says. “It says, ‘I’m going to curate my world versus having it microwaved for me.’”

As you walk through an entire home and lifetime of belongings at a sale, what type of vintage items and antiques should you look for? Here, several interior designers weigh in on what you should always look for at estate sales.

What to Buy at Estate Sales, According to Designers

1. Art

Designers' eyes go straight to art at estate sales. “It tells you so much about the tastes and interests of the people who lived there, and it’s usually priced exceptionally low compared to the original purchase price,” says MK Quinlan, an interior designer and personal stylist. “I tend to favor large canvas pieces from the '60s and '70s, but I always make sure to rifle through any stacks of paper pieces as well. You’d be shocked at how fabulous someone’s amateur watercolor looks with a chic frame treatment.”

Krista Stokes, creative and art director for Atlantic Hospitality, rarely pass up a portrait and also keeps her eye out for pen and ink drawings and old photographs and letters. “I’m always so happy to see them to live on,” she says.

2. Collections

Stokes’s also likes to shop at estate sales for the “weird personal things that people collect.” Be it butterflies, gems, little ships, rocks, magnifying glasses, old metal miniature cars, or architectural pieces, she looks for pieces she can place under a cloche or on a bookshelf to “kickstart a conversation.” She adds, “I want to have this arsenal of these things when we style a room.”

3. Rugs

If there’s a rug at an estate sale, Stokes also picks it up. “I know they have a history, and back in the day it was something that was really well made,” Stokes says. “I love the color, pattern, story, and quality [of rugs].” Is the rug too big? Does it have a stain? Don’t let it stop you from buying it and having it cut down to fit your space. “They last forever, and they always have a story,” Stokes adds. “They are really resilient and can get cleaned.”

4. Lamps

Don’t let stained or damaged lamps hold you back from them. It’s easy to get them rewired or add a new shade that will transform it into a personal piece for a home. Stokes is especially drawn to Art Deco or brass pharmaceutical industrial lamps and also recommends looking for floor lamps. “A midcentury floor lamp can be infused into almost any decor,” she says. “I always pick those up.”

5. Dining Chairs

Dining chairs can be pricy to buy retail, so Meg White of Meg White Interiors suggests finding a vintage set and making them your own. “I recently found a set of four faux bamboo chairs for a project and had them lacquered and recovered! The cost was much less than buying them brand new, and the client got a unique one-of-a-kind set of chairs.”

6. Mirrors

White has found many stunning mirrors at estate sales that have found homes in powder bathrooms, over dining room sideboards, or as wall art. Better yet, these mirrors are easy to move from home to home. “I love finding these one-of-a-kind mirrors that have had a beautiful previous life,” White says.

7. Upholstered Furnishings

Keep a lookout for a high-quality vintage sofa or upholstered chairs. “They usually go for pennies on the dollar at sales, and they’re made so much better than the upholstery we buy today,” Quinlan says. “A Hendredon sofa from the 1970s for $300 plus a new fabric and reupholstery sets you back around $2,500. And it’s custom, just for you!” Jenkins shared a similar sentiment toward furnishings: “Whether it’s Louis XVI or other classic, or even more modern pieces like a Sardine table or a Kagan sofa, [they] can be reupholstered or refinished or brought back to life. “Finding them at an estate sale gently used could be a real coup for the discrete shopper.”

8. Vintage Clothes

In addition to designing interiors, Quinlan runs a high-end vintage clothing store in Birmingham, so she always beelines for the closets at estate sales. “Event wear like cocktail dresses and evening gowns are usually in incredible condition, since they’ve only been worn a couple of times in most cases,” she says. “I try to grab the good ones, and winter coats too, preferably with a little fur trim.”

9. Dishes, Glasses, and Flatware

You can often find nice collections of vintage and antique dishes, glasses, and flatware that come with a story, and Jenkins recommends you capitalize on them when you see them. “[They've] been around for a reason, and [they're] going to survive,” he says. “I have been encouraging people to not wait until holidays to break out their fine china, but rather to enjoy these beautiful things every day. Why not break those things out and enjoy them now?”

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