Freebies to a Good Home

It’s possible to furnish your entire apartment without spending a dime

December 28, 2012

To reduce her impact on the environment, 30-year-old Heather Carter decided to furnish her Adams Morgan apartment with only used furniture.

Heather Carter is not, repeat NOT, a hoarder. She just really hates throwing things away.

“We manufacture or import a great deal of stuff, and a great deal of it hits the landfill,” Carter, 30, says, sipping homemade cider in her two-bedroom apartment in the Kalorama Triangle area of Adams Morgan. “The idea for me is to slow it down on the way to the landfill or stop it from getting there entirely.”

After moving into her apartment in May, Carter, a former lighting designer who now helps put on theater productions, embarked on a unique project: to furnish her entire apartment without purchasing anything brand-new. This meant scouring such sites as Freecycle.org and Craigslist.org to find the items she needed for free or at a low price.

“I’d read a lot about reusing things,” says Carter, who has been freecycling since 2004, when she learned about it in a newspaper and thought it would be a good way to save money.

The nonprofit Freecycle, launched in Arizona in 2003, has more than 5,000 local groups and 9 million members around the world. Each group is moderated by local volunteers, and membership is free. On it you’ll find furniture, appliances, electronics, dishes and even holiday decorations.

Craigslist is another great place to find used furniture or art for your apartment ­— on its “Free” page or for sale at low prices, Carter says. She also posts items on Reuseit DC, another site where unwanted items find new homes.

Carter’s apartment project started with three free Ikea chairs that a neighbor left on the curb. Over seven months, she’s gradually added two couches, a coffee table, a mirror she found in a Dumpster, a metal coat rack she carried home on three different buses and a traditional painted Chinese credenza from a D.C. resident who was moving and didn’t have room for it — just to name a few of her finds.

There are hazards to bringing in used furniture, including bedbugs, so Carter shies away from mattresses.

“I was wary about the sofas, but having met the people and seen where they were beforehand, I felt OK about it,” she says.

It takes time to find the pieces she wants and then arrange for pickup or delivery, Carter says. Even for “free” pieces, she has to factor in the time spent and the cost of Zipcar rentals for some pickups.

“There have been a lot of times when I was just so done and ready to rent a truck and go to Ikea,” she says.

But she doesn’t. For her, this is a lifelong mission.

“When I leave, I don’t plan to throw anything away,” she says.

More Go Green

Freecycle’s popularity is on the rise, says Joyce Dowling, 59, who co-moderates the Southern Prince George’s County Freecycle group, which has about 1,300 members.

“I started this listserv around 2005,” she says. “It’s grown in leaps and bounds.” For Dowling, freecycling is part of her Unitarian Universalist religious beliefs to take care of the environment.

Freecyclers caution that the site isn’t just a place to post wish-lists and wait for them to be fulfilled. The D.C. site limits members to one “wanted” item per week. Freecycle doesn’t set a minimum for how much members can give away, but local group moderators can add their own rules.

“It’s not all about getting, it’s about giving,” Dowling says.

Gretchen Koitz, a principal at the Koitz Group, part of Keller Williams Capital Properties, in Bethesda, first learned of the group when a client gave a bag of leftover Valentine’s Day cards to a local free-cycler. Now Koitz spreads the word to other clients, especially if they’re downsizing, changing their furniture style or moving.

“You look around and say, ‘I don’t need that, I don’t have space for that,’ ” she says. “People are trying to be more aware of being green.”

Beyond being green, Carter says, Freecycle has allowed her to meet interesting people from all over the city. “I’d go to pick up a piece of furniture and I’d just end up talking with folks about what they did or how they got the thing,” she says. “People like to share.”

Freecycle Do’s and Don’ts

Do be patient: When getting something for nothing, everything happens at the convenience of the owner, freecycler Heather Carter says. She’s occasionally been stood up, especially when giving things away, so patience is important. “Anytime you’re getting anything for ‘free,’ even though you’re paying for it in time, people take it less seriously,” she says.

Don’t post a wish-list: “Every so often you see on Freecycle, ‘I’m furnishing my apartment and need XYZ,’ ” Carter says. Instead: “Put in your time checking the list.” Members emphasize giving as much as getting, and D.C. limits members to one “wanted” post per week.

Do set deadlines for “fixer-uppers”: Carter’s apartment is peppered with half-finished furniture projects – a wooden side table that needs to be glued back together, a cabinet missing a hinge. “Those are hazards of Freecycle or checking the curb,” she says. “Suddenly you’ve got these projects.”

Don’t post your address: For your privacy and protection, don’t include this identifying information publicly, the Freecycle site says.

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