9 Thrifting Tips to Ensure You Find the Best Secondhand Items

Thrifting experts Kat Steck and Bronwyn Tarboton share their secrets to a successful thrift shopping trip.

For some, the appeal of thrift shopping lies in the thrill of the hunt and the joy of finding items that are totally unique. Others shop secondhand to reduce their environmental impact, extending the lifespan of existing items that might otherwise head to the landfill. And for those on a budget, thrift stores provide a resource for home furnishings that don't cost a fortune. Whatever your reason for thrifting, the trick to scoring the best finds at the best prices is knowing what to look for and how to search for the best finds.

Without a clear objective, it's easy to become overwhelmed amid a thrift store's sprawling aisles of home goods and racks crammed with clothing. But with the right shopping strategies, you can uncover some amazing finds at unbeatable prices. We turned to expert secondhand shoppers— Kat Steck, the Los Angeles-based thrifter behind The Junkyard Journals, and Bronwyn Tarboton, who runs NYC Trash to Treasures—to hear their best thrifting tips. Read on to learn what to look for at thrift stores, how to find the best deals, and more secrets to successful thrifting.

dining room chair dresser and art decor
Laurey Glenn Photography

1. Familiarize yourself with local thrift stores.

The best way to get comfortable thrift-store shopping is to start local. If you're a true beginner, Steck suggests stopping by a nearby thrift store simply to look around. Familiarize yourself with the types of items they sell and how things are organized. "Looking at the layout can give you an idea of what kinds of donations they get in frequently and gives you the ability to pop in quickly to check for items on your list because you'll know right where to go," she says.

2. Know what you're looking for.

Sifting through piles of stuff at a thrift store becomes much easier if you know what you're looking for. Of course, it's always great when you stumble upon something special you didn't expect to find, but it's best to go in with a clear picture of what you want to avoid getting sidetracked or overwhelmed while shopping. "I keep a mental list of things I have my eye out for, and then I browse often and wait for the right thing to appear," Tarboton says. Steck suggests using the Notes app on your phone (a physical notepad works, too!) to create a list of specific items you need—but be open to surprises if they come up.

3. Take a tactile approach to thrift shopping.

To help you distinguish quality thrift-store finds from more cheaply made items, Steck suggests utilizing your sense of touch. "I'm always petting my way down aisles of clothes to feel for the silk, linen, and 100% cotton items," she says. Get a feel for the item's material, texture, and weight to help you determine what it's worth and how long it'll hold up. Even if you buy it at a bargain, you don't want the item to fall apart as soon as you get home.

orange dining room skirted table
Laurey Glenn

4. Check thrift stores often.

Persistence is key to successful thrifting. New items cycle through thrift stores all the time, so finding the exact thing you've been looking for might take a few tries. "Check back often and don't be discouraged if you don't find what you are looking for right away," Tarboton says. "When I'm looking for something specific, I check daily or multiple times a day because new things pop up all the time."

5. Tailor your search when thrift shopping online.

If you're looking for something very specific, searching online is often more efficient than combing through various thrift stores. When shopping secondhand on sites like Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, and eBay, you can often specify exactly what you're looking for and set alerts for those items. "When new items are posted that fit the keywords you set, you'll be notified immediately," Steck says. "A lot of my best finds have come to me this way." Be sure to specify the style, brand, or type of item you're looking for, and try setting up notifications for a variety of similar keywords (such as "sofa" as well as "couch") so you don't miss anything.

black chalk finish hutch
Adam Albright

6. Check that you're getting a fair price.

Some sort of discount off the original price is generally expected for used goods, but prices can vary widely between various thrift stores and secondhand sellers. Tarboton notes that thrifted items are usually less than half the price of new retail items, and you can often find deals at a fraction of the initial cost. Whatever the price, make sure it's in line with your perceived value of the piece. For Steck, how much she's willing to pay depends on how much she likes the piece and how long she expects to use it.

If you're not sure what price is fair, do a quick Google search and see what similar items (whether used or new) are selling for online. When shopping on a resale site like Poshmark or Facebook Marketplace, you can simply screenshot the listing photo and search for the image in Google, Tarboton says. "It will often pull up the exact item being sold in other areas online so you can compare prices and read more about the item," she explains. And if the price doesn't seem fair, you can always ask to negotiate.

7. Verify dimensions and other characteristics before you commit.

Return policies at thrift stores can be tricky (if they allow returns at all), so it's best to purchase only items you know will have a place in your home. Measure your space before you head to the thrift store, and bring your tape measure so you can check dimensions as you shop. Carefully consider the item's color, material, shape, and other characteristics to ensure it's what you want.

Due diligence is especially important when shopping online because you can't see the item in person before you commit to the purchase. "Make sure you can see very clear photos from multiple angles of the actual item (not stock photos) and that you check the dimensions," Tarboton says. "You can often get a sense from the photos and from communicating with the seller what environment the item is coming from." Watch out for any red flags that might make you regret your purchase.

master bedroom remodel with wall decor
Laurey Glenn

8. Inspect thrift-store finds before you bring them home.

Small imperfections and light wear can add character to thrifted finds, but major damage could be a deal-breaker. "I always inspect items for cracks, breaks, and holes and see if it's something I could fix myself or outsource a repair on before I buy," Steck says. You should also look out for issues you can't see, such as musty smells or pest infestations. Give the piece a thorough once-over, and be prepared to walk away if you notice any major problems.

9. Don't be afraid to DIY.

Some thrift-store finds just need a little love. As long as the piece is generally in good shape, easy fixes might be all you need to give it a fresh look, Tarboton says. She often gives thrifted light fixtures a new coat of spray paint and swaps out the artwork in thrift-store frames, both quick projects that offer personalization and an updated look. Just be realistic about the amount of time and effort you're willing to put into the project as you decide whether it's worth it.

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