Furnishing Your DC Home on a Budget

The summer transfer season is approaching, and many Foreign Service families may be wondering how to furnish a new residence in the DC area. Or, wondering what will come out of the storage unit they haven’t opened in ten years. Or wondering how to furnish bedrooms for the children they somehow acquired over the last few tours. Or just standing there wondering!

I was in this position myself a few years ago, when we returned from overseas and decided that we would like our new house to look like grownups lived in it, not college students. Out went the utility shelves and ratty armchairs that had graced our living rooms in years past to make room for we knew not what, but we were pretty sure it would at least be made of wood with some kind of finish on it, and that we wouldn’t have to throw a blanket over it when company came.

Of course, we were on a budget. As you can imagine, our mortgage payment doesn’t leave a lot of extra cash lying around for Pottery Barn shopping sprees. Fortunately, the Washington, DC area may be the best market in the world for second-hand furniture. There are many people with plenty of money and taste who need to make room for new furniture. Lucky for those of us who love a bargain!

Starting at the top end of the market, try antique stores and consignment shops such as Upscale Resale in Falls Church. Many antiques and near-antiques cost less than new furniture and are made to a higher standard as well. Prices generally drop the longer the item has been in the store. One of my favorite consignment pieces is a china cabinet made of reclaimed Brazilian hardwood that is both completely unique and large enough to store my collection of pottery, china and glassware from all over the world. It was a splurge, but still cost less than half what a comparable piece would cost retail.

Flea markets and junk stores are another great option for unique pieces. Just about every area of the city has a flea market at some point–check the Weekend section of the Washington Post for updates. Antique/junk stores tend to cluster in outlying towns: some of my favorites are located in Leesburg and Lucketts, Virginia.

Thrift shops can also offer excellent bargains. Some are better for home furnishings than others. Goodwill usually doesn’t carry much furniture at all, but Salvation Army seems to specialize in it. Items often just need a good wiping down, but some need to be refinished or repainted. Still, when you can get a large solid maple dresser for $85, as I did, it’s worth a little elbow grease to make it shine.

Most of the lamps in my house also came from thrift stores. I don’t think I paid more than $10 for any one of them, and they are all the good solid kind that would cost upwards of $40 new. If you like a lamp base but not the shade, buy a new shade at Target. If you like the base, but not the color, spray paint it to suit your taste. If the switch is broken, a new one costs 99 cents at the hardware store. If the plug looks suspicious, you can easily rewire the whole lamp with a kit purchased at the hardware store for about $6.

When shopping for used furniture, look for well-constructed items made of solid wood, not particle board or plywood. Look for nails, not staples. Dovetailed drawers are always a plus. Furniture should sit solidly without wiggling or tipping, and drawers and doors should open and close smoothly. Don’t worry too much about the hardware. If a piece is missing a drawer pull or knob, just find something to match at the hardware store or on eBay, or buy a whole new set of hardware–you will still end up with a bargain. Remember, an ugly or damaged finish is just a finish, and can easily be painted over or replaced (a small orbital sander is very helpful). Sometimes, a good polishing with denatured alcohol is all it takes to give a shabby varnished finish a nice antique look.

Craiglist is another excellent way to find good-quality used furniture and other items for your home, such as bathroom fittings and light fixtures. I have bought (and sold) several items this way, including a twin sleeper sofa, a pedestal sink, and most of my office furniture. Search by keyword, price or location. Prices are usually somewhere between what you would pay at a consignment shop and a thrift shop. Sales are generally cash-only, and some bargaining is expected.

Some Craigslist sellers will deliver large items to your home for a fee. For security reasons and to help lift things, I try to bring someone else along when making a purchase, but this is a matter of personal preference. (eBay also offers local sales, but you pay in advance for your purchase and do not have an opportunity to check it out first.)

Moving downward even further in price, DC-area yard sales are not to be missed. They are often community events at which people sell items at rock-bottom prices just to get them out from underfoot. Some of my favorite bargains have been large terra-cotta planters for $1 each, a Ralph Lauren comforter set for my guest room for $10, a Herman Miller desk chair for $5, and metal porch furniture for so little I don’t even remember what I paid for it.

Check Craigslist for yard sale listings, and stick with the wealthier areas of town for the really good stuff. It’s all about the ZIP code. And get started early! Prime yard-saling time is between 8 and 10 AM for the best selection; however, if you show up around noon you may be given leftover items for less, or even for free. Bargaining is perfectly acceptable, especially if you are buying several items at once. Aside from furniture, yard sales are an excellent place to shop for baby and children’s gear, toys, and clothing, books and movies, and sports and hobby equipment (I bought my husband an entire home brewing kit for $10, to his immense joy).

If even yard sale prices are too rich for your blood, try Freecycle, an email list on which people literally give away everything up to and including the kitchen sink. The quality of the goods does vary; however you would be surprised some of the high-value items that are posted. I acquired a very cool Victorian dresser for my front hall through Freecycle, just for a start.

Here’s how it works: go to freecycle.org and look up the group closest to your home. Join that group, and start watching for items that you can use to be offered via email. There can be a large volume of mail, so sign up for the digest version if that is a problem for you. Be polite, always show up promptly to pick up items, and of course, offer of your own items on the group when you can-for example, when you move back overseas. Freecycle is also great way to get rid of the college furniture that came out of that storage unit!

The Washington DC area offers excellent opportunities to find very nice furniture for your home at a bargain price. And you will undoubtedly realize that the best thing about your new home, after years in government housing, is that the furniture won’t all match. Enjoy the hunt!

Consignment and Thrift Stores

The National Association of Resale Professionals. Click “Shopping Guide” to search for thrift and consignment stores by merchandise offered and/or ZIP code.

Upscale Resale located in Falls Church, VA, buys and sells gently used furniture, antiques, and art.

The Salvation Army operates some of the best thrift stores in the DC area. Enter your ZIP code to find the store nearest you.

Goodwill Industries operates several stores in the Washington area, including one very close to NFATC.

Very large, well-run thrift “department stores” operated by Value Village. Locations in Falls Church, VA, and Silver Spring and Wheaton, MD. Smaller Value Village stores are located throughout the Washington, DC area.

Other Ways to Buy Secondhand Goods

Craig’s List, a free online classified service, has a regional site for the Washington, DC area. Search for furniture, appliances, cars, yard sales, etc.

“Freecycling” or simply giving items away using email offers, is very popular in the DC area. Find a group close to you, offer your items to those who can use them, and look out for offers of items that you might need for your home.

Kelly Bembry Midura is AAFSW ‘s Content Manager. She blogs at wellthatwasdifferent.com.

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