I’m writing this article on a laptop which is almost exactly a hundred years younger than the 1920s writing desk it’s sat upon.
I found the desk in a junk shop in Brighton six years ago, and it has since lived in five houses with me. Aside from some wood-stain, new screws, and coasters to protect it from tea, I haven’t had to do a thing to it.
It sits proudly opposite my front door, so that it’s the first thing I, guests, delivery drivers or the next-door’s cat see upon coming in.
There isn’t a single room in my house which doesn’t contain at least one piece of secondhand furniture.
As a long-term student, I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash for brand new furniture, but I still craved the chance to make my house a home. I fell in love with second-hand furniture shopping as a wallet and planet-friendly way of injecting character into my rentals.
My furniture now has an eclectic quality which tells a story, and invites comment and conversation. Don’t get me wrong – I love IKEA, and I buy new when it’s necessary and I know I’m going to hang onto something.
But for me, a stylish interior ultimately means mixing old and new.
If your style changes, you find yourself in a new and different space, or you need to free up corners, there is nothing stopping you donating or selling things on again, contributing to someone else’s joy and to a circular economy.
But if you’re anything like me, you’ll fall so deeply in love with most things you bring into your homes that passing them on won’t feel easy.
Now, let’s look at some tips to truly fall in love with second-hand furniture.
Secondhand certainly doesn’t mean second-best, but you may have to kiss a few frogs (read: cry over a broken melamine cabinet) before you find a prince (read: the vintage drinks cabinet I replaced it with).
Being patient and selective will, if nothing else, reduce the amount of time you spend moving furniture around. I’m currently cooking up plans for a big, squashy armchair to fill a gap in my lounge, but I’m trying to be patient so that when I do find the right thing, its space hasn’t been nabbed.
Seek out inspiration
I have collections on Instagram and Pinterest full of furniture inspiration, partly from accounts which specialise in secondhand homeware, but also from brands and accounts I love whose style I’d like to emulate by finding similar things which have been pre-loved.
I’ve learned a lot about furniture styles and history from doing this, which has been a great perk.
Have a theme
I like eclectic furniture, but there’s a limit.
As I’ve refined my interiors over the years, the balance between ‘this is a collection of things I love’ and ‘let’s group things with some kind of rationale’ has shifted.
When I moved into my current house, I grouped things roughly by colour of wood. That still means I’ve got an art-deco cabinet sat next to a wobbly bookcase from John Lewis, but the room is at least singing from roughly the same hymn sheet.
Try before you buy
if you find something beautiful while browsing, make sure you have an opportunity to see it in the flesh before you transfer any money.
I recently bought a small electric piano on Facebook marketplace, and was delighted when the seller offered me the chance to come and test it out before I paid her.
It wasn’t a vast amount of money, but to have spent it and only later discovered the piano was an octave short of an orchestra would have been very irritating.
She could also have been a scam artist, rather than a lovely woman with a lively cocker spaniel. I did once manage to buy a WW2-era trunk from a gentleman via Ebay, only to discover once I had driven it 20 miles home that he had forgotten to give me the keys. He very kindly popped them in the post, and the trunk has contained my DVDs ever since.
Where can I start?
Some of my favourite pieces of furniture have simply called to me like sirens on the sea from the shop windows of Brighton, which is replete with vintage and secondhand shops.
But even if you don’t have a city like Brighton within touching distance for window shopping, there are plenty of places you can start a secondhand hunt.
charity furniture shops are typically very inexpensive, offer a good amount of choice, and let you rest assured that the money you’re spending is going to a good cause (in fact, their shops are often one of the most significant sources of income for high street charities).
The British Heart Foundation has specialist furniture and electrical shops all over the country. I found an ex-uni-halls wardrobe in one, which has since travelled the length and breadth of the country in the back of removal vans, and is so sturdily built that I expect it will outlive me.
My hometown boasts Sue Ryder Shop which is consistently full of beautiful pieces. I not only secured a shabby-chic dresser there, but managed to get my mum hooked too: she is now the proud owner of a beautiful executive desk so elaborate I keep expecting Nicholas Cage to turn up and find the original Declaration of Independence squirrelled away in a secret compartment.
And then there’s Emmaus, a charity which supports and employs people who have experienced homelessness, and which also has a network of shops across England, including a full emporium on the South coast.
I could lose days in Emmaus shops, where I’ve found everything from vintage champagne coupes (4 for £1!) to plants, to the £5 coffee table I now keep in my home office.
Whether you’re part of the Ebay generation or more team Facebook Marketplace, it’s well worth scouting these sites out for nearby sales and donations, using the settings to filter offerings by location radius.
People often donate things completely free of charge, or at very low prices, and some will offer to deliver to you in exchange for money to cover their fuel costs.
You may also find there’s an ‘Acts of Kindness’ or similar free-cycling group for your local area where people can offer and request things free of charge (some have rules about not selling things on for a profit, to maintain the spirit of the group).
Pro-tip: it’s best not to go alone if you’re meeting strangers from Facebook or Ebay in order to collect something – partly because you may need help lifting and maneuvering bulkier items, but also because you’re putting yourself at less risk should the seller turn out to be trying to lure people out to strange places alone.
Same goes if you’re giving something away – try and make sure you’ve got someone else in the house, or consider meeting on ‘neutral’ territory so you aren’t giving your address away to strangers.
I’ve got both Gumtree and TrashNothing downloaded to my phone for periodic browsing. They aren’t as popular as Facebook and Ebay, so there is typically less choice, but that can also mean less competition for better quality items.
Secondhand clothes giant Vinted is also moving into the homeware market, though its postage-based design means it’s better for smaller items.
Friends and family
If you don’t want to buy, could you help a relative free up space in their loft first?
When I first rented an unfurnished property, a hunt through my parents’ loft threw up a coffee table that belonged to my dad, which my ,um hated so much she had banished when they first got married. It’s a perfect TV table.
A downsizing godfather donated a sofa I’d never have been able to afford new. My partner’s colleague’s parents heard that we were moving house and offered us a fridge-freezer and tumble drier – all we had to do was collect them.
And in the same spirit, I’ve donated white goods and bookcases to my sisters, as well as kitchenware to family friends headed off to uni, and a beanbag to my niece.
So, are you ready to fall in love with second-hand furniture and create a stylish home that does not cost the Earth and actually helps the planet by keeping economy circular?