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There are few downsides to secondhand furniture and homeware, especially in a cost of living crisis. They keep things in use and out of landfill, while reducing the need for cheap and trend-led fast furniture, which doesn’t tend to last as long, devours precious resources and is often hard to recycle. In the UK, we discard 22m furniture items a year, according to a 2019 report by the North London Waste Authority, while demand for new furniture has risen. The home improvements rush at the start of the pandemic in 2020 saw the household goods market leap by 42%.
Well-chosen secondhand stuff looks better, too. “Adding vintage pieces can bring depth, history and a unique touch to any interior that cannot be replicated with mass-produced items,” says Siobhan Murphy, an interior designer who is a fan of maximalism. “They can also provide a contrast to modern elements, creating an eclectic and layered look.” As well as supporting small businesses, the local economy and charity shops, buying used furnishings can save you money, and even make you a profit when you sell them on. “These items have been around for decades, and with a bit of love and polish, they can go on for another 100 years,” says Estelle Bilson, a 70s enthusiast, vintage dealer, TV presenter and author of the forthcoming book 70s House: A bold homage to the most daring decade in design. As an added bonus, no self-assembly is required – not that there isn’t a place for Ikea, of which Bilson is a fan. “Vintage Ikea is very sought-after and ‘spendy’ right now, so it’s come full circle,” she says.
There can be no bigger thrill than finding something beautiful and unique for a good price, so here’s the experts’ guide to furnishing your home with vintage treasures.
What to buy
Among Murphy’s favourite vintage finds are “sideboards, bar carts and unusually shaped chairs”, she says. She likes sculptural vases and interesting art: “Don’t worry about the frame as these can be replaced.” Kate Watson Smyth, an interiors writer and podcaster, and the author of the forthcoming book Home: The Way We Live Now, is a fan of vintage sofas and chairs, “because they’re well made. Vintage armchairs are often really comfortable; the angle of the back is really nice.” Old furniture is often smaller, too, “so the scale works for the smaller homes many of us live in now – our new builds are the smallest in Europe.”
Anything with a dual purpose really works, says Bilson: “A sideboard is one of the best investments you can make. Not only is it decorative, but you can store stuff in it and put stuff on it. That’s a win for me.” Keeley Rosendale, a vintage dealer and the author of Style Me Vintage: Home, would go for a sideboard too, followed by art that “ties rooms together” if the colours match other elements in the room. She likes hunting for vintage glass – “it looks nice on windowsills and brightens up the room” – and textiles, “which can be reused for cushions and covering chairs”.
Hone your online search skills
If you are pushed for time when shopping on sites such as eBay, Watson-Smyth recommends using precise search terms. But if you want a bargain, says Bilson, loose terms are better. “Rather than saying ‘Danish sideboard’, I might just put ‘sideboard’.” It will turn up “some absolutely rotten stuff”, but if you trawl through for long enough you may find your dream item at a much lower price.
Shop local to save money
Trawling round junk shops, salvage yards and car boot sales – or even online – takes time and often requires a car to get there or to transport purchases home. By contrast, buying new furniture from a big store, with low delivery costs (and the possibility of spreading the payments) might seem the only way to afford bigger items. But there are ways to get secondhand furniture more cheaply. Charity shops such as Sue Ryder, Emmaus and the British Heart Foundation have furniture stores, and can often arrange delivery. Some local charities and projects sell furniture at a discount to those on low incomes, or give it away. You can find a local one through the Reuse Network or through the organisation End Furniture Poverty.
Look beyond eBay
Ebay is still good, but Facebook Marketplace is where you will usually find things cheaper and closer (though you can also search further afield). This is Bilson’s favourite place to buy: “You could kit out a flat for a couple of hundred pounds.” Other sites such as Gumtree and PreLoved are worth a look. The more intrepid could bid online at auctions and salerooms around the country. Follow secondhand dealers on Instagram, where many list pieces. There are lots of fashionable vintage interiors sites such as Vinterior and Merchant & Found, but they can be pricey. Watson-Smyth likes the app Narchie, which “brings together smaller sellers. It’s more manageable than eBay.”
Turn the hunt into a fun day trip
Rosendale likes to shop in person. “With vintage, I want to feel it, touch it, open the doors of a cupboard, sit in a chair. It’s hard to buy things online because you never really know what you’re getting until it arrives.” Trips to markets, car boot sales or good areas for charity shops can be fun outings. Going to an antiques fair, says Watson-Smyth, “is a lovely day out, although the people there know what they’re selling” and you are unlikely to stumble on a bargain. Overlooked places include salvage yards and local auction houses. Don’t be intimidated by the auction room – they will talk you through the process, and you may be able to buy ahead of the auction. One of Watson-Smyth’s favourite purchases was the chaise longue she got from her local auction house for about £250. Keep an eye out for shops closing and selling off items. “I recently picked up a couple of marble plinths from a department store that was closing down and getting rid of all their visual merchandise and display pieces,” says Murphy. “I paid £70 for the pair, and they’ll look perfect with tropical palms on top.”
Get furniture for free
Freecycle is the place to go to look through listings of stuff people are giving away, or you can post requests for items there, but Facebook is also helpful for this – you might have a local group where people give away furniture and furnishings. Also keep an eye out for people giving away things on the street outside their homes. A skip outside someone’s house can be a treasure trove, but make sure you knock on the owner’s door for permission before taking anything, otherwise you would be, technically, stealing. Local tips – or rather, recycling centres – often sell things very cheaply.
Don’t be scared to mix eras
It’s your home, so you can do what you like. You may dream of living in a shrine to 60s style, or you may prefer a more eclectic look. “I find it’s easier to choose by colour palettes, then you can go: ‘That vase will go with everything,’” says Rosendale, who adds that not sticking to a particular era will also save you time. Watson-Smyth also likes a mix: “I’ve got a modern table with vintage chairs. I like that contrast of old and new.”
Get to know your own style
If you love something, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks or how much it might be worth in future, says Bilson. “If you start buying things that are on trend, or because somebody else has them, you’ll tire of stuff very quickly. Your own style makes an interior so much more interesting. Rather than having matched furniture, everything’s got a story and memories attached.”
Keep your home’s measurements to hand
Make a list on your phone of key dimensions – the width of an alcove, for instance. “I’ve got my TV on a unit, but it could only fit into a certain gap,” says Rosendale. Consider carrying a tape measure around for unexpected shopping opportunities.
Time your finds
Murphy says that the end of a season, or around holiday periods, “can be a good time to find treasure in charity shops, as many people tend to have a clear-out and donate during these times”. Car-booters know that you need to get to events early. Online, Bilson thinks it’s less about looking at specific times, but looking regularly and putting the hours in.
Delivery doesn’t have to be difficult
It might not be as simple as filling in your shipping address on an online order, but getting a table halfway across the country is easier than ever. There are sites such as Shiply or AnyVan where delivery companies will quote for jobs, often planning routes according to pick-ups and drop-offs along the way, so as long as you can be fairly flexible, your eBay bargain can share a van with other people’s items. This means that costs can be kept low, and it’s better in terms of emissions. However, the closer an item is to you, the more sustainable it will be – ask around for recommended local companies, or offer a Facebook seller some money to deliver. “Bear in mind that if things are really heavy you might need two people,” says Rosendale, “or if you’re living in a flat, the item has got to get in a lift or up some stairs. Think about who’s going to bring it and how they’re going to get it in.”
Cosmetic repairs can be easy
“I like to get things as cheap as possible, so I don’t mind doing a bit of work to something if it’s in bad condition,” says Bilson. At antique and vintage fairs, often the work has been done already so the prices are higher, but there will probably be a YouTube tutorial for just about anything you want to repair or recover, and what you’ll lack in terms of a professional finish, you’ll make up for in a sense of achievement. “If I bought a table or a sideboard that had coffee rings on it, that’s easy to strip back with a varnish stripper, sand it down slightly by hand, and finish with some Danish oil. That is a really simple fix. If something’s too far gone, there’s nothing wrong with painting it.” See if there’s a repair cafe in your area where you can find expert help, often for the price of a small donation.
Sometimes you do need the professionals, such as a reasonably priced local upholsterer, an electrician (for rewiring old lamps), a carpenter or a plumber who will help you turn that chest of drawers into a washstand. This will often cost more than the piece itself, but you will be supporting a local business, and it still may end up far less expensive than buying new. For upholstery, for instance, prices vary across the country, and you may just need something re-covered, which is cheaper than having springs and padding replaced. “It can be a really good way to have a piece of original furniture, knowing that you are saving it from landfill. And you get to choose a material you want that’s completely bespoke,” says Watson-Smyth. She recently got a carpenter to turn a large wooden handrail she picked up in a salvage yard into a coffee table and has a sofa that her great-grandmother bought new, and which has been reupholstered several times.
Watch out for pests – and wobbly bits
Avoid woodworm in wooden furniture and moths in textiles such as rugs and curtains. “If you see any signs of woodworm – little holes in the wood and dust – I would automatically treat it,” says Bilson. “Storage needs to be solid,” says Rosendale. “I always rock the frame of a chair to make sure that it’s sturdy, because quite often older chairs can be a bit wobbly.”
Bear in mind the resale value
Buying things you love can feel more important than their financial worth, but it’s certainly useful – particularly if you move around a lot, a peril of renting – if you can sell pieces on. Vintage furniture tends to hold its value in a way new furniture doesn’t. Mid-century style, for instance, is still sought-after and may be worth more than you paid. “It’s sleek, contemporary in its look, it fits into any kind of house and it’s practical and still solid and usable,” says Rosendale.
If you do have half an eye on investment potential, think about where trends are heading – it can’t be mid-century for ever. “Many vintage pieces, such as beautiful walnut furniture from the 1930s, were built with high-quality materials that are becoming scarce,” says Murphy, while more recent decades are gaining traction. “I think 80s style is coming back,” says Bilson. However, there isn’t that much 80s stuff around – a lot of it was cheaply made and hasn’t lasted. So-called brown furniture – the darker-wood Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian stuff – has been out of fashion so long, says Bilson, “that it’s due a resurgence. If Victorian mahogany side tables are your thing, and you can get it cheap enough, buy it.”