A Guide: What to Look for When Buying Vintage Furniture & Home Goods

I’m not going to pretend to be an antique expert, so I’m going to write about what I know and that’s what to look for when buying vintage furniture and home goods. The eclectic look that I’ve curated in our home has come from lots and lots of time spent scouring antique malls, thrift stores, and vintage shops. It’s those pieces — a vintage brass cowboy boot, a Greek key coffee table, a mod set of mirrors, 19th-century lithograph prints — that bring our Ikea Sofa or Target ottoman alive.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR WHEN BUYING VINTAGE FURNITURE & HOME GOODS

But, for those that have never shopped vintage or antiques, where do you start? It’s always been the way I’ve decorated my home, but I know that, for some, wandering into a massive antique mall or a cluttered thrift store can be intimidating. So, I’m here with my tips on what to look for when buying vintage furniture and home goods. 

Know what you like and go in with a plan — but stay openminded.

Sure, some people prefer to walk in with absolutely no idea what they need and then leave with whatever called their name. Those people have room and square footage. I do not. Unless I’m just searching for small accessories and odds and ends, I need to have a plan for what exactly I’m looking for. I know I prefer mid-century furniture silhouettes, but I can lean a bit more ornate and classical when it comes to artwork. I’m a sucker for anything from the 1960s. I know what I like, what I need, and that’s what I’m looking for

Have patience and persistence.

I am sure my husband is sick and tired of going in every antique store we see on the road and the same ones each time we find ourselves in the vicinity of my favorites. But, each visit is a different adventure! These stores are constantly getting in new pieces, so, while today could be a bust, next week could bring exactly the item you’ve been searching for — and you’ll never know unless you pop in.

Bring a measuring tape.

Most antique stores will have one, but it’s easier to bring your own. Trust me, you don’t want to fall in love with a piece and bring it home…only to find it doesn’t fit

Decide whether you’re buying for your home or an investment.

I’ll be honest, I don’t really care about a piece’s provenance or its future resell value. When I buy vintage furniture, I’m buying it for my home. I’m not an antique collector. And, while I love a good story, what I care about is the beauty and style it adds to a room

If a manufacturer’s stamp is visible, do your research.

Different than scouting out the potential investment in a piece, I do think it’s important to know whether you’re buying a quality piece that is worth the price tag. When I bought the lingerie chest for our bedroom, I did comparisons with similar pieces by the same manufacturer, in the same era, to see if the price made sense — and it did. Of course, that’s not always possible. When I bought the two 1960s mirror that now hang over our sofa, I couldn’t see a name. I did a quick search online to see if the price seemed right for two 48″ x 26″ mirrors and it did. Beyond that, I had to decide that, yes, I loved them and didn’t care who made them. There are also times this is a pleasant surprise — take the $40 Craigslist coffee table that turned out to be worth somewhere in the range of $3,000-$4,000.

Look beyond the item’s obvious use.

Last week, I bought a magazine rack to display coffee table books. On more than one occasion, I’ve bought a piece of art that is decidedly not my style…because the frame was a steal. I even brought two frames back as my carry-on from Texas because they were $12 for two gold bamboo-style frames. The man who boarded behind me asked about the art I was carrying — I told him I only bought it for the frames and he responded that he often goes to auctions and purchases the ugliest art because no one realizes it’s hiding a $200 frame.

Recognize the difference between surface flaws and structural flaws.

If you’re someone who has a talent for DIY, then you can answer this better than I can — and you can take on more than I can. My DIY skills are minimal, at best, so if I see anything more than a missing piece of hardware or a scratch, I steer clear. I can’t fix a broken leg on a chair or install a new drawer mechanism, so I’m not looking for fixer-uppers.

Look for quality.

Y’all I love mid-century furniture and it’s definitely having a moment. However, not all old furniture is good furniture. Many of the mid-century pieces I see are fake wood with that terrible vinyl coating — it’s amazing they’ve lasted this long and, unfortunately, I’m not willing to take a chance on investing in a piece that may not stand the test of time. I want solid wood pieces that I know I’ll have for decades and that I will pass on or sell when I’m done with them.

Pay attention to the details.

The details are what separate vintage furniture from new furniture. Interesting carved wood details, inlaid wood, funky hardware — these are all the things I’m looking for. I want a piece to stand out and tell a story. If I just wanted something to look stylish, then I’d go with something new. It’s far easier to skip the hunt. But, I want something unique — and that’s in the details.

Follow your favorite shops and antique malls on social media.

Not all vintage and antique shops are great about utilizing social media, but, for those that are, follow them! You never know when they may post your next great find on their feed. They may update regularly with new acquisitions and you could be the first to spot it.

 

how to shop vintage - mid century modern mirrors 

A FEW OF MY FAVORITE PLACES TO SHOP

I’ll do a separate post on some of my favorite places for vintage finds, but this is the short list of my go-to spots for searching for treasures. I often shop vintage while I’m traveling, but these are the places I go to again and again — all of which are in cities where I return to often.

Emporium Antiques, Frederick, MD: I’m going to dedicate an entire post to antiquing in the Frederick area at some point, but, this is my go-to spot. You’ll find all price points at this large antique mall and all styles, however, everything is fairly well-curated—there are very few booths that feel dusty and cluttered (don’t worry, there’s still plenty of digging to be done!). This is where I got the mirrors in this post.

West End Antiques Mall, Richmond, VA: This place is MASSIVE. It’s definitely the largest antique mall I’ve been in and it has so, so much stuff — and it’s decently well organized. You’ll find lots and lots of federalist dressers, mid-century furniture, books, and anything else under the sun. 

Kilmarnock Antique Gallery, Kilmarnock, VA: Whenever I’m at my parent’s river house, I make a stop by the Kilmarnock Antique Gallery. It’s not huge, but it’s definitely big enough that it could take you a couple of hours to get through. And, if you love oyster plates, you need to make a stop here.

 

And, no, that’s not an optical illusion below…I somehow really did manage to only get a leg in one mirror and nothing in the other. It only took about 10 takes.

 

how to shop vintage - mid century modern mirrors

 

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