10 Things You MUST Know Before You Hit the Thrift Stores

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I love thrift stores. Isn’t it obvious? My whole house is thrifted–like 97.5% of it. I can literally count on one hand the number of things that we bought brand new: our mattress 14 years ago (yikes–I know….), our IKEA bedroom furniture 14 years ago, my sons’ bed 8 years ago, our living room furniture 14 years ago, and our washer and dryer 2 years ago. Everything else is from thrift stores or are hand-me-down!

Over the years, I’ve learned some valuable lessons about buying other people’s used junk and treasures, such as what you should look for, what you should pass up, how to overcome the “nasty” factor, how to make it work in your home, etc.

Now it’s time to share that info with you, my friend!


10 Things You MUST Know Before Hitting the Thrift Stores


10 Things You MUST Know Before Hitting the Thrift Store

TIP #1 – Know What’s Valuable and What’s Junk

How many times have you stood in the middle of a thrift store with your phone out, Googling something you’ve found, trying to find out how much it’s really worth? 😉


Sometimes it’s hard to know whether something is not just a deal, but valuable. And while we probably have a greater chance of getting struck by lightning than ending up on the evening news for finding a $1.2M piece of art, I’d rather increase my odds of finding the art. HA! Wouldn’t you??

Use your phone to research the value of something, especially if it’s furniture and something that you want to paint. You don’t want to get a clever idea to paint something that was actually pretty rare and special, but now with paint, the value was destroyed. There are times when you shouldn’t paint wood furniture, so it’s best to know what’s valuable before you grab a paintbrush. And if you do decide to paint wood, you’d best use the right paint.

Related: What’s the Best Paint for Furniture?


TIP #2: Know What’s Hiding Inside

Have you ever bought a piece of used furniture and later found there was something hiding inside?

Well, I have.

And trust me, it was quite disturbing.

Thankfully, I hadn’t found anything alive. What I did find were old shed skins of some sort of insect (a cockroach, I believe??).

(I’ve got the creepy crawlies just seeing this pic!)

This was from a mid century modern dresser I picked up at the thrift store (see all my thrift hauls from Value Village and Unique Thrift):


Thrift store tips: Be sure to check screw holes in furniture for pests before bringing it home. - ThriftDiving.com


Thankfully, this dresser never made it into my house.

But what about your vehicle? What if you transport something home and you didn’t check it properly?

Imagine the horror!

The truth is that I’m much more wary of thrift furniture now. I love it and will still buy it, of course, but I’m making sure that I put together a “thrift kit” for my van (for those impromptu thrift stops) and will make sure that every piece gets a total inspection before I even buy it, just to make sure it’s safe!


TIP #3: Know How Soon You Can Wash It

When I buy thrifted clothing, I immediately come home and toss it in the washing machine. If I can’t come home immediately, I try to have it either double-bagged. I won’t take it out until that time.

Ask yourself, “How soon can I wash this?” And if the answer is, “Not until later,” then store it somewhere tightly sealed until you can wash it.

For things like rugs and upholstered furniture, your best bet is keeping it outside in the garage until you can steam clean it–either yourself or professionally.

Plan to thoroughly reupholster pieces of upholstered furniture so that you can be sure there are no bugs hiding inside the upholstered pieces.

Related Read: My Reupholstered Wingback Chair From the Thrift Store


TIP #4: Know What Tools to Bring Along to Thrift Stores

This is a rule I break all the time. I simply don’t have one (yet!). But I need one and plan to put one together! Over the years, this is what I have seen is essential when thrifting. Keep it in your car for impromptu thrift shop stops. Inside, it should have:

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  • a flashlight (or use the one on your phone)
  • a pair of long scientific tweezers for picking up specimens
  • disposable gloves
  • baby wipes
  • old blanket to cover the floor, trunk, or seats (for things that aren’t bagged)
  • cotton swabs for swabbing cracks and crevices
  • magnifying glass for closer exams
  • a RYOBI hand vacuum for cleaning out furniture
  • insecticide spray or sprinkling all-natural diatomaceous earth inside
  • a screwdriver set (this one is pretty and compact–all the screwdrivers hide inside the hammer!)

Floral screwdriver set to take along in your car. - Thrift Diving


TIP #5 – Know How to Properly Inspect Something Before Lugging it Home

This isn’t something I have always been so diligent about. Especially if I see a piece of furniture that I absolutely love: I usually buy it, store it, and worry later about the chances of something being run amuck with bugs while it sits in my garage. Ick!

Ideally, every piece should be thoroughly taken apart, flipped over, and checked with your flashlight and magnifying glass…before you buy it!

  • Remove all the drawers and check the body of dressers.
  • Turn it over. Do you see anything in the little cracks and crevices?
  • Check the screw holes. Do you see anything there?
  • Pull back (or cut) the lining of the bottom of upholstered furniture. Look way up inside if you can (especially sofas and oversized chairs). Anything creepy and crawly up there, or old shed skins of insects? You may not be able to do this because if you cut the lining, you may have to buy the piece. But if there is a stitch loose, or the dust cover isn’t in place, be sure to check under the chair.


TIP #6: Know Your Dimensions – Trunk, Home, Rooms

Nothing sucks more than finding a great piece of furniture and then realizing–crap!–there’s no way to get it home! Not only is your trunk too small and you have no friend with a truck who can do you a “solid” (i.e. favor!), but you aren’t even sure if that little desk would fit perfectly in that nook in your kitchen.

Best to be prepared.

First, measure the size of your trunk–length, width, and height. (I’ve got a minivan and when I measured, I realized that I can only lug home pieces of lumber that are no more than 10 feet long before it hits my dashboard. 😉 This tip came in handy when I was installing my own DIY crown molding!).

Next, measure your rooms, your doorways, your nooks…all of them. Then make sure you keep the little piece of paper with the measurements with your “thrift kit”!


TIP #7: Know Thy Thrifted Self

Are you one of those thrift hoarders that stores up all the projects that have sooooo much potential? But then you get overwhelmed and end up doing none of them? Raise your hand. I know you’re reading this!!

Before you even hit the thrift store, you need to know this about yourself.

Because if that’s you, then you need to own it….recognize it….and then decide to only buy things that are in a pristine condition that just need a good “wiperoo” and can go into your house immediately!

If you know you’re always seeing the best in some broken down tragically abused piece of furniture, but you know you don’t have the time, energy, or focus (or skill!!) to make it beautiful, just leave it. Don’t even buy it. You’ll just be adding to your stress of all the other projects that you’ll never get to. Just buy the things that look like they came store-bought.


TIP #8: Know the Difference Between Valuable and Desirable

Just because something is valuable, doesn’t mean it’s desirable.

Think about that for a moment.

Just because those little figurines you bought from the thrift store for $2.00 (which you searched and found they were worth $75 each)  doesn’t mean that someone would ever buy them. If you bought them because you love them–great. If you only bought them to sell…umm….keep reading. 😉

This has happened to me time and time again!

At one time, when I first started shopping thrift stores more regularly, I used to buy name-brand shoes there on 50% discount days and attempt to sell them on eBay. Totally not a great return on investment!

These were name brand shoes that were at least $150 retail, paying only $7 – $10 for each pair.

Well…..just because they were valuable didn’t mean they were desirable. Big difference.

Nobody wanted them!! I ended up wasting my money and donating all of them, along with all the other “valuable” stuff I have accumulated, including these thrifted Cole Haan shoes that were valuable but no one wanted to buy them. My friend told me they looked like “old lady sandals.” Go figure.


Cole Haan shoes at the thrift store - Thrift Diving

Cole Haan shoes at the thrift store that no one wanted. - Thrift Diving


The same thing happened with this vintage Victrola, which plays records. It was a splurge purchase at the thrift store for–gasp!–$150, which is crazy. Stupid me bought it because I saw some on eBay for $400. I thought it would be cool in the house, and it was “only” $150 when it’s worth so much more!


10 things you MUST know before hitting the thrift store - Don't buy things just because they're valuable. They might not be desirable. - Thrift Diving


But……where in the heck was I going to put it?

It ended up sitting in the garage for years, and later when I tried to sell it, there were no bites. Because just because it was valuable, doesn’t mean it was a desirable item (at least, not on Craig’s List!). See where I am coming from with this?

Just keep this in mind before you decide to buy valuable things from the thrift store simply because they’re valuable.


TIP #9: Know the Meaning of True Love

You know those special pieces you’ve found at thrift stores that make you gasp?? (That vintage Victrola was not one of them).

Those are the pieces that you fall in love with. And those are the pieces that you should buy.

You have to know the difference between “I-dare-someone-else-to-even-think-of-trying-to-buy-this!!” and “yeah-it-seems-like-a-great-deal-I-guess…” Knowing the difference will prevent you from making a lot of crap purchases.

For me, one of those true love pieces was my vintage drafting table in my basement office.


10 Things You MUST Know Before You Hit the Thrift Stores | ThriftDiving.com


I would have gouged eyes if someone had tried to steal it from under my nose.

Same goes for that jewelry box above that I use for crafting supplies.

Someone once mentioned a True Love test they do with themselves to determine if they should buy something: They imagine someone else coming up to buy it, and if they feel they’d be really upset about it, they buy it. If they realize they wouldn’t give a rat’s butt, they leave it.

Best to know this test before hitting the thrift store!

Related Read: What To Do When You Can’t Find Anything Good at the Thrift Store


TIP #10: Know Your Own Vision

This is the hardest tip, I think.

What I mean is, know your vision for your own home… for your own life… for the way you want to spend your time…

If you’re buying things from thrift stores that you saw on a blog but they’re really not your style, then leave it. Don’t buy it just because it’s what’s “in” right now (or because it’s so cheap!). If you know your own vision for your home, then when you see the right things, you’ll know it (they’ll pass the True Love test). You won’t waste your time trying to imitate someone else’s vision.


What do you think people should know before they hit the thrift stores?

Since you love thrift stores as much as me, what piece of advice do you have for others to know before they hit the thrift store? Leave a comment below and let’s talk about it!

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  1. Ramgopal Seshan says:

    Definitely very useful advice in thrift stores esp shopping furniture. I too had experienced with hiding bugs inside furniture that is quite disturbing sometimes.

  2. All very great tips, except for the cutting of the undersides of the upholstered furniture. I myself work in a thrift store and I promise you we wouldn’t appreciate people cutting the merchandise, as that would make it very difficult to sell with scissor cuts in it.

  3. All very true and very useful tips! Thank you so much! I never thought I could check all the things that have cords at the store. Usually just avoid buying them.

  4. I have been remodeling our master bedroom for a while now, and the time has finally come to get new furniture! Of course, I want to make sure that I get the right pieces but at a great price as well so to the thrift stores I go. I like how you suggested that one thing I want to do before making any purchases is making sure that the piece will be able to fit in both my trunk and getting into my house without difficulties. So going in with the knowledge of the right measurements is very smart. Thanks for the information!

  5. Thanks for the wonderful tips . I see people sitting on the couches at the
    thrift stores and all I can think of is bed bugs! Be careful with the luggage
    too . You do not want to take these home with you !

  6. Kim Becker says:

    They are not pill bug shells. They are the empty egg casings (oothcae) of oriental cockroaches. They are a household pest in the northwest, midwest and southeastern U.S. They live in dark, damp places like basements. Check it out on Wikipedia. Here, we just call them waterbugs. The dust coming from the wooden necklace-wood bores. Good thing she got rid of it! Untreated they can infest any wood in the area! Tell-tale signs are little holes that look like nail holes. Many people that are trying to make furniture look older than it actually is will use a paddle with nails through it to smack the wood to mimic this. Also, I know it is a trend now, but painting antique or vintage furniture can actually ruin the value of the piece, especially veneered pieces. If you are able to set something up with Maxsold, I’m certain they will tell you the same thing. A similar trend went on during the late 60’s, early 70’s that was called “antiquing”, ironically. Happy hunting! If you are ever lucky enough to find an old piece of Stickley (they are still in business), please don’t paint it!

  7. Holly Courtney says:

    My mom, the ultimate thrifter, used to bring a couple of different sized batteries to use in clocks or children’s toys she found. That way she could see if they item that needed batteries worked before she purchased it. Most thrift stores have a station where you can plug in electrical items but battery operated items are bought “as is” so it’s nice to know that they actually work before you leave the store.

    1. That’s such a great tip, Holly! Would she carry the batteries around, or maybe just keep different sizes in the car and run back and grab them if needed? I’ve love to create a “thrift pack” that has a compartment for batteries! šŸ™‚ Thanks for the idea!!

  8. Great tips! I’m always one of those people that wing it (no inspecting, no measuring, no way to lift a huge dresser into the car). Luckily it’s worked out for me, but I’m definitely going to start following some of these tips.

  9. This is a great post! It will definitely save thrifters money, time and space in their home from making impulse purchases. I have curbed my thrifting appetite until I clear out my garage and have ample room to work.

    1. Glad you like it, Joselyn! šŸ™‚ SPACE is a huge issue! I was just saying today to my 9-year-old that I would like to be able to buy furniture, paint it, and then donate it to a women’s shelter or some other charity that could use it after I made it pretty. And if I bought just one piece at a time, and FINISHED it, it would be a great way to keep doing what I love, without junking up MY house! šŸ™‚

      1. That’s a wonderful idea and similar to a dream I have of teaching low income families how to DIY furniture for their spaces. It would be wonderful to give back through DIY:)

  10. Best advice I ever got from the lady who started me thrift-shopping was, “If it’s not a definite YES, it’s a definite No.”

    1. I love that!! We just have to learn to stick with that and our homes will (and spouses!) will be happier! HAHA

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