If you’ve been around the decorating world as long as I have, then you may have heard about people going on antique-buying trips to the Marché aux Puces in Paris, on furniture hunts in Brimfield, Mass., and to pick over the showroom samples in High Point, N.C., but the other day I heard about an unusual furniture-buying trip that I could imagine as the next road-trip reality show.
My cousin’s 30-year-old daughter, Suzanne Nussbaum, is the quintessential crafter and thrifty do-it-your-selfer. She trolls Web sites looking for just the right items to give her small apartment in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen character and style. Last year she set out to find a sofa, the one piece of furniture — and arguably the most important piece — that was missing in her home. Suzanne, a television programmer, spent a couple of months searching Craigslist, Etsy, Krrb and various other used-furniture Web sites for a model that suited her style and her budget. She kept finding “gems,” as she calls them, but they were mostly in places she could not get to without a car, and renting one each time she wanted to check out a piece was financially unrealistic. She figured the best thing to do was to borrow her parents’ SUV and go on a big road trip, check out as many sofas as she could, and hopefully come home with one.
Suzanne began mapping out her trip by narrowing her search to one Web site, Craigslist. She quickly found that when searching for a specific item over a large geographic area, it was better to use the cPro Craigslist app rather than the site because the app allows you to search multiple cities at once. “Considering I was searching across eight or nine states, this was a huge timesaver,” she says. She also got smart about the keywords she used in her searches. For example a search for a “vintage sofa” will result in something more expensive and probably better quality than a search for a “blue sofa” or an “old couch.”
Part of the reason Suzanne cast a wide geographic net for her search was that she found prices differed from city to city, with the general rule of thumb that items in bigger cities such as New York and Chicago tended to be more expensive, and more rural areas were less expensive. The biggest differences in pricing tended to be between those sellers who knew what they had and what good vintage furniture was worth, and those who were moving, downsizing or just trying to get rid of their grandmother’s old couch. The cities tended to have higher concentrations of antique dealers and furniture aficionados.
Suzanne planned her road trip over Labor Day weekend, tacking on a couple of extra vacation days. Scheduling all of the appointments wasn’t easy. She had to remain flexible, and every so often she had to reschedule or cancel a meeting. She had planned on starting her trip in the Washington area (Suzanne grew up in Annandale, where her parents, Barry Nussbaum and Debbie Rachlin, still live) so that she could borrow her parents’ SUV and then work her way as far as Chicago, before stopping at home with her prize. Yet when she mentioned the trip to her parents, they said they wanted to join her and that the trip and sofa (if found) would be her birthday present. The three, in true road-trip fashion, set out not just to find her a sofa, but also to have fun. They planned on seeing and staying with friends and family along the way, plus they made sure they hit important stops like Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams in Columbus, Ohio, and Walker Bros. Pancake House in Wilmette, Ill.
Suzanne’s parents picked her up in Allentown, Pa., where she had scheduled their first sofa-viewing. That sofa, she said in an e-mail, “was an absolute steal at $80, especially considering the cushions had all just been re-foamed (by an amateur, so not the best quality workmanship, but still a great deal) and the slipcovers recently dry-cleaned.” The sofa was priced low because the seller just needed to get it out of his house. Suzanne was tempted, especially because she knew she would never see a price like that in New York, but she ended up passing on it because it wasn’t exactly what she was looking for (an important lesson when bargain/thrift shopping: $80 spent on something you don’t like is just like flushing $80 down the drain). The trio continued on, making overnight stops in Dayton, Cincinnati and finally Chicago
It was there that Suzanne finally struck gold, checking out a sofa she had been tracking earlier in the summer. The first time she saw it, it was bought before she had the chance to inquire about it. But about a week before her trip, the listing popped up again with a note from the seller saying that he had bought it, but his girlfriend hated it, so he was now selling it again to get “out of the doghouse.”
After making sure the sofa would fit up the stairs and through her apartment’s front door, Suzanne happily helped save the seller’s relationship and ended up with exactly the sofa she wanted.
Online classifieds sites such as Craigslist are basically virtual yard sales; they both require some shopping savvy. Elizabeth Mayhew and Suzanne Nussbaum offer their lessons learned.
●Only search online when you are on the hunt for something specific — you don’t want to buy just to buy. When there’s something you want, search once a day. Any less and you will worry about missing out on things; any more and you might make yourself crazy. Bookmark furniture sites that you check every few days and check the Craigslist app daily.
●Do your homework. Study competing sites, including www.krrb.com and www.etsy.com as well as curated sites like www.1stdibs.com, www.chairish.com, and www.chairloom.com. The curated sites are very particular about what they sell (usually the items are more expensive and better quality), so you won’t typically find bargains, but the more you see, the more educated you will be.
●Always take a tape measure with you when viewing furniture; people don’t always post dimensions, and even if they do, they might not be accurate. Measure your door frames, stairwell and/or elevator to make sure you can get your purchases inside your home.
●Be open to bargaining. Some sellers add on a pre-bargaining markup because they know that for many buyers, bargaining is part of the game. But not everyone is comfortable with haggling. Suzanne says that she “doesn’t have that skill set.” Instead she looks only at items offered at a price she would be willing to pay in full. “I know a lot of people consider bargaining part of the game, but I find it so much more pleasant when everyone is just upfront to begin with.”
●Act quickly. Craigslist is about striking while the iron is hot. Chances are if you are interested in an item, so are a lot of other people. Plus, many sellers want to sell their stuff quickly — for them it’s less about making money than it is just getting the items out of their house.
●Unless you’re buying from a dealer, be prepared to pay in cash, and ideally with exact change. For a big purchase like a sofa, you should know your ATM’s daily withdrawal limits and either take out money ahead of time or going to the bank.
Chat Thursday at 11 a.m. Architect David Benton of Rill Architects, who designed the facade of this year’s D.C. Design House, joins staff writer Jura Koncius for our weekly online Q&A on decorating and household advice. Submit questions at washingtonpost.com/home
Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is the author of “Flip! for Decorating.”