5 Tips for Buying Used Furniture

Shopping for used furniture can get you a great deal, but there are some things to watch out for.
Shopping for used furniture can get you a great deal, but there are some things to watch out for. / Roger Thornby/iStock via Getty Images

Among the many unanticipated consequences of a pandemic, getting your hands on a futon is one few consumers may have considered. Yet that’s a problem facing millions of people going shopping for furniture now. Thanks to supply-chain and distribution issues, everything from sofas to desks to bedding is getting a little bit harder to come by. Foam used in seating cushions is in short supply; even shipping containers have become scarce.

If you’re not content to wait for that new La-Z-Boy to arrive, there’s always used furniture. Online classified ads in places like Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and Craigslist are usually overflowing with options. Ditto used furniture and thrift stores. While you can score a great deal, there are also some caveats in shopping second-hand. (Germs shouldn’t be a big concern: bacteria and viruses tend not to survive on coarse and porous surfaces like fabric.) Take a look at a few things to keep in mind before buying used.

1. Try to look up the furniture model before buying.

Intrigued by that IKEA dining table set for sale by your neighbor? If the item was manufactured recently, you can look it up online to see what it sells for new and compare it to the seller’s asking price. While value is all relative and pricing can depend on condition, you shouldn’t be paying much more than 50 percent of the original retail price. For vintage furniture, you’ll have to ask yourself if a higher price is worth it.

2. Give used furniture a sniff.

Upholstered furniture may look like it’s in good condition, but seeing a picture online doesn’t give you an olfactory impression. When assessing a sofa, armchair, or other fabric-covered item in person, make sure it’s not retaining odors from pets, cigarette smoke, or other unpleasantness, since those odors will be extremely difficult to remove.

3. Look underneath used furniture like couches, chests, and dining tables.

Most people give used furniture a once-over, declare it acceptable, and move on. If possible, make sure you get a view from the bottom by having the owner raise it. You can check for wobbly legs, ripped fabric, or other damage, as well as any sign of insect habitation. While bed bugs love mattresses, they can also set up shop in other furniture like drawers. Checking for signs of infestation (brown or red stains, especially along crevices or near screws) is especially important if the item has been in a storage unit, which aren’t airtight and may allow bed bugs to travel from one storage area to another.

4. Always measure your space before buying used furniture.

Don’t rely on “eyeballing it” to assess whether that new table or bed frame will fit in your space. Likewise, don’t trust the seller’s description that the measurements are accurate. Make sure to measure the potential location in your home and then measure the item itself. And don’t forget to take your door opening into consideration, too. That nearly-new desk will need to fit through your doorways.

5. Be safe when meeting up with the used furniture seller.

In virtually all cases, you’ll be visiting a stranger’s home to assess a piece of used furniture before deciding whether to purchase it. First, get the seller on the phone to make the appointment. It’s best to bring a friend with you and visit the seller during the daytime. You can also leave their address with a friend.

If you can’t have anyone accompany you to the transaction, call a friend and put them on speakerphone when you're with the seller. (You can make it less awkward by asking the friend for their advice or describing the item to them.) Make sure you get a handwritten receipt that proves the seller received the full amount owed. And if you’re uncomfortable carrying cash, you can tell the seller in advance you’ll meet them at a bank or police station to complete the sale.

Less a tip and more of a reminder—never, ever buy a used mattress, even if it's free. The potential for sagging, dust mites, or the wrath of bed bugs is too great to ever make buying a used bed a good idea.