Will my vintage couch bug me?
November 5, 2012 6:51 AM   Subscribe

Is good-quality (not obtained from Freecycle or off the street) used furniture, from a reputable dealer, still a high (or high enough) risk for bedbugs?

I'm asking this question because the previous bedbug and furniture questions were about stuff taken off the curb or obtained from Craigslist or Freecycle, and my situation is a bit different.

I want nice furniture - not Freecycle, not Ikea and not the semi-nice Pottery Barn type stuff. Because I can't afford to splurge on more than one or two really high-end pieces new at retail prices, I'm looking to "curate" bit by bit, scouting antique and higher-end vintage stores, and maybe Ebay.

My question is, how high is the bed-bug risk from higher-end used furniture? Do I need to be as vigilant as someone who is hauling a used couch away from Freecycle or the curb? I'm assuming that most reputable resellers do not want to be known as bedbug havens, and Ebay reviewers would say so if they got an infested couch.

I'm in the San Francisco Bay Area, and live in a detached house (so no buggy neighbors).
posted by Rosie M. Banks to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
Here's how I look at it.

If you buy a couch from a single person selling it on Craigslist, your chance of getting bedbugs is pretty low (i.e. the person who was selling it would have to A. have them and B. not know or not care).

If you buy a couch from a second-hand store, I would assume the risk goes up somewhat because multiple pieces of used furniture are being stored together, so you're not just dealing with the risk from one couch, but that risk multiplied. (Though to really have problems you'd have to take home either one bug of each sex or a pregnant female, and I don't know why the bugs would be crawling from one couch to another unless there was one that people tended to sit on that they were traveling towards -- they follow the scent of our exhalations.)

That said, people also get bedbugs in hotels, at the library, at the movie theater, on public transportation, in cabs and rental cars, at restaurants and cafes, at their shrink's office, at a party, at work, at school, and in stores which sell new clothing and furniture. So while I wouldn't pick a couch up off the street in New York City, avoiding bedbugs is a "risk management" rather than a "risk avoidance" game, and I wouldn't let it keep you from buying the nice second-hand couch that you want.
posted by feets at 7:22 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Imagine getting bed bugs like getting a mosquito bite. It's possible anywhere because the bugs are everywhere.

Get a piece that you like and if it has fabric or cushions, do a thorough cleaning. It's hard to say who may or may not have bed bugs.
posted by Yellow at 7:29 AM on November 5, 2012

It depends where you go. I've been in second hand stores that I would be worried about, and in ones where it would never cross my mind.

The best kind of place is a dedicated "furniture consignment store." These generally have the nicest pieces, and have a lot of items that bed bugs couldn't live in (only a few couches, but a lot of desks, table, dining room furniture, bookshelves, etc). They check things out thoroughly before accepting them, so that combination makes it really low risk.
posted by DoubleLune at 7:38 AM on November 5, 2012

Rosie M. Banks: "My question is, how high is the bed-bug risk from higher-end used furniture?"

I'd say approaching nil. I think that bedbugs are way more common than people think, while bedbug infestations are way less common. But beyond that, a reputable furniture seller gets by on reputation (there's a tautology for ya). They're not going to want to sell you a piece of furniture that's infested with bugs.
posted by mkultra at 7:41 AM on November 5, 2012

Technically, bedbugs can live in bookshelves and desks and so on - in the crannies and corners. However, these are not preferred bedbug dwelling places. I guess I would buy furniture that was amenable to close visual inspection and then vacuum it well before bringing it into the house. Ie, avoid deep, overstuffed pieces, favor mid-century style stuff that has a wood frame and cushions.)

But consider that bedbugs have been found in commercial shops selling new clothes!

Past a certain point, you just have to charge ahead or resign yourself to living without furniture.
posted by Frowner at 7:43 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think the chances are very low. However, if it's going to bug you then get buy upholstered pieces new and get unupholstered stuff from consignment. Your chances of picking up bedbugs from a dining room table approach nil (though it is possible).

What's the good of having a sofa and chairs where you can't relax?
posted by 26.2 at 7:50 AM on November 5, 2012

Thanks everyone! I guess a really determined bedbug can find its way anywhere! (And, fwiw, I haven't had any hitchhike home on secondhand clothes.) It's just that I'm one of those people who can't help scratching at even the mention of bedbugs.

I already have a few nice pieces handed down or inherited. Unfortunately, none of them is a sofa, which is the one item I really need! I think that and a bedframe will be what I wind up splurging on, and buy from reputable consignment stores and cross my fingers for the rest.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:45 AM on November 5, 2012

Rosie M. Banks: "I think that and a bedframe will be what I wind up splurging on, and buy from reputable consignment stores and cross my fingers for the rest."

Actually, I'd do the opposite. A bedframe is made (usually) from wood or metal, which makes it (a) generally resistant to infestation, and (b) durable. Upholstered furniture does not age nearly as well, and usually requires more work to be made comfortable.
posted by mkultra at 9:07 AM on November 5, 2012

Something in your favor is that you live in a detached house--which at least means that if on the off chance you somehow DO get bedbugs, you'd be able to get rid of them more easily than someone living in an apartment building where they could spread to your neighbors' apartments and keep coming back if the whole building isn't treated appropriately. That's where a lot of nightmare stories come in.

If you want to be super-cautious and have the time and space, you can wrap stuff up properly and store it for a set amount of time until any possible bugs or eggs are dead.

But if not, I would look for furniture from people who don't have a lot of traffic in their homes. Apartment shared by a few roommates who travel and have guests often and have people moving in and out often? High risk. Estate sale or older established couple who buy everything new or have had their home furnished for years? Low risk.
posted by needs more cowbell at 9:08 AM on November 5, 2012

It doesn't matter how high quality a piece of furniture is. Bedbugs can still live in it. Bedbugs don't know the difference between a Herman Miller couch and an Ikea couch.

That said, I think bedbug hysteria is overblown in most cases, and I don't think there's anything wrong with buying (some types of) gently used secondhand furniture.

I'm a flea market junkie who buys secondhand for both aesthetic and environmental/humanitarian reasons. Here are the things I'm willing to consider:

- wood, metal, and plastic furniture with NO UPHOLSTERY.

- can't be a bed or a couch. Nightstands are iffy, too.

- should be sold be a reputable seller. Someone with a flea market booth or a vintage shop, OK, you're going to be back here next weekend and you rely on reputation and word of mouth. Salvation Army, Craigslist, and Freecycle are Caveat Emptor city.

- I think that if a friend or family member wants to give you hand-me-downs, that's fine pretty much across the board as long as they haven't had infestations in the past.

In suburbia, I think none of this is an issue at all, though I certainly wouldn't buy a used mattress or anything, because ick. People outside of cities just don't live in close enough quarters to make bedbug infestations a huge thing.
posted by Sara C. at 9:44 AM on November 5, 2012

For a sofa, first, inspect the piece carefully. Know what to look for in terms of bedbug "leavings." If you see no evidence of this and want to proceed with the furniture, buy a cheap steamer or steam cleaner ($30-$50 on Amazon) and steam the upholstered furniture very thoroughly the first time you bring it into the house. Steam heat kills them. Wipe down all wood surfaces with a healthy dose of Murphy's Oil Soap. I've done this in a bedbug-infested neighborhood twice with used pieces, and have had no problems.
posted by amoeba at 10:09 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm marking this resolved as the responses have answered my question. I have no intention of getting a used mattress (yuck indeed) and plan to splurge on a new bed (because a good-quality bedframe looks much nicer, and I'm an insomniac) and sofa (due to upholstery issues). The steamer suggestion was a big help, too.

It's also nice to know that suburban dwellings are much less likely to be buggy. And estate sales are one source I plan to buy from; good to know they are on the safer side.

Thanks everyone!
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 1:56 PM on November 6, 2012

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