If you find yourself longing for some shabby-chic style or just the chance to find something unique to brighten your home without spending a fortune, you may want to take the advice of local interior designers: Head to a thrift store.
Thrift stores, consignment shops and flea markets all can offer up low-cost treasures for those who know where to look and what items offer the best value.
Sherry Petersik, who with her husband, John, writes the YoungHouseLove.com blog from Richmond, said, “Thrift stores can be an amazing resource, particularly for solid-wood furniture. It can be cheaper than buying particleboard furniture; plus, you can refinish solid wood, which is nearly impossible to do with laminate or particleboard furniture.”
Mrs. Petersik said the most important thing to look for when shopping at thrift stores is whether you like the lines of the furniture and the sturdiness of each piece because the stain or paint color can be changed.
Kelley Proxmire, principal of Kelley Interior Design in Bethesda, loves to go “junking,” as she calls it, and has found interesting objects as well as some terrific bargains.
“For people who are just starting out shopping at thrift stores, I recommend looking for one-of-a-kind items, such as small accessories that you could display on a table, or a vase,” Mrs. Proxmire said. “If you want to look for furniture, you should be aware that you may need to put in some elbow grease to fix something up or to pay extra to have someone else do that for you.”
Items that have caught the eye of Jessica Bonness, an interior designer with JBG Interiors in the District, include a stained-glass square with a multitude of colors that was used by a stained-glass maker as a model to display color choices.
“I always recommend that people look for something that is personal to them or catches their eye, such as accessories, picture frames, stained glass and storage containers like baskets,” Mrs. Bonness said.
Mrs. Petersik also recommended looking for small items such as bookends, lacquered boxes and old books at thrift stores.
“We always look for great frames, too, even if we don’t like the art, because you can easily switch out the art,” Mrs. Petersik said. “You can keep the old wood frame or stain it or paint it.”
Mrs. Bonness said small pieces of furniture, including end tables, desks and dressers, can be great thrift-store finds, especially for those who want to stain or repaint something themselves.
All three interior designers recommend avoiding upholstered furniture unless it is a dining-room chair with a fabric-covered seat.
“A stuffed armchair or a sofa could have mold or bedbugs or anything underneath, even if it looks clean on top,” Mrs. Petersik said. “Unless you are going to strip off the fabric down to the studs, which, of course, adds a lot to the cost, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Mrs. Petersik said re-covering a dining-room chair is simple, even for novice do-it-yourselfers. She said the seats usually are held on with one or two screws, so they can be popped off quickly, stripped of the existing fabric and then re-covered with new fabric with help from a staple gun, and screwed back together.
The Petersiks purchased two chairs for $30 each, re-covered the seats and painted them to use as desk chairs. She said she has seen similar chairs selling for $275 each.
Mrs. Proxmire found an armchair for $25 and had it reupholstered and painted because she recognized the value in the classic lines of the chair.
“While it is easy to re-cover dining chairs, you still have to make sure they are well-made and sturdy,” Mrs. Proxmire said. “If the chairs have seen a lot of wear and tear, they can collapse.”
Mrs. Bonness said households with young children should be wary of buying anything that could have lead paint.
“If you find something older that has been painted, you should either refinish it or place it out of the reach of children,” Mrs. Bonness said. “Lead can also be in older windows and stained-glass windows, so it’s best to keep those away from children, too.”
Mrs. Bonness said consumers should not buy cribs and toys and other children’s items at thrift stores because they could be a safety hazard.
While safety is important, thrift-store shoppers also need to be wary of buying things just for the sake of buying.
“Just as in a regular store you should ask yourself if you would buy an item if it weren’t on sale, you should ask yourself in a thrift store if you are buying something just because it is inexpensive,” Mrs. Petersik said. “Think about whether you have a place for something or not.”
Interior designers also recommend that you comparison shop among thrift stores, yard sales and stores such as Ikea and Target - as well as more expensive stores — to get an idea of the cost of various items.
Thrift stores and consignment stores have different rules about negotiating. Some allow negotiations, some will accept only the price marked on each item, and others have a system whereby the price will drop on specific dates.
“I recommend making friends with the owners of various shops,” Mrs. Petersik said. “Some stores even allow you to put your name on [a] list and they’ll call you if something comes in that you might be looking for.”
Mrs. Petersik said she always asks, “Is this your best price?” and then just waits for a response.
“You should never say your price first,” Mrs. Bonness said. “You can ask how much someone wants for a particular item or what they think it’s worth.”
Some thrift stores or flea-market sellers will throw in a free item or two for customers who buy several things at once.
“It can’t hurt to ask, right?” Mrs. Petersik said.
While thrift-store finds can be a great way to decorate on a budget, Mrs. Petersik and Mrs. Bonness both recommend using thrift-store finds sparingly.
“Distressed pieces look great next to things that are sleek and modern, such as a lacquered or glass table,” Mrs. Bonness said. “It’s better to save unusual thrift-store finds for conversation pieces rather than furnishing your whole house with old items.”
Mrs. Petersik said about 10 percent to 15 percent of her furniture and decorative items come from thrift stores and flea markets.
“A home that is all from thrift stores could look messy or like a hodgepodge of items,” Mrs. Petersik said. “You can unify a home with paint, accessories and hardware and then mix it up with new and repurposed items.”