Nesting for cheapskates
July 30, 2008 1:36 PM   Subscribe

How can I have a nice house when I have such a hard time paying money for furniture?

My husband and I are both 37. We bought our first house two years ago and are about to have a second child. The house is furnished with a mix of Ikea/Target/West Elm cheap stuff and college-era castoffs, none in great condition. I would happily freecycle nearly everything we have and start over.

We recently received a windfall of about $10,000. Both of us would like to use some of this money to improve our living space, but I'm finding myself paralyzed. Obviously it's not enough to redo the entire house (7 rooms), and I don't want to simply replace all the junk we have now with different junk.

We're also having trouble reaching consensus, especially when it comes to seating. His priority is comfort and durability; I'm much more aesthetically motivated, although I want comfort and quality, too. There are a lot of designs I can't stand and would really make me unhappy if I had to look at them every day.

We both agree that we want to mostly avoid the big box stores if we can, for environmental and social/economic justice reasons. His inclination is to go to the local furniture chain whose quality is one step up from from assemble-it-yourself places. I'd rather troll Craigslist looking for higher-quality used pieces. They often need work, however (I still haven't reupholstered that chair in the office...), and the whole process of buying and getting them home can be a huge hassle. Even though we could afford it, for some reason I can't quite bring myself to pay, say, $2500 for a bed from a higher-quality maker, even though we seem to have no problem shelling out that much for computer and media equipment every few years.

To top it off, I often experience buyer's remorse, and even stuff we paid a decent amount for doesn't get treated too well and ends up looking shabby. (Admittedly, the cat, the dog, and the toddler have something to do with that.)

I guess my question is: With a limited, though not insignificant, amount of money available, how do we prioritize what's worth buying 1) new/high-quality/custom, 2) used/high-quality, and 3) new/cheaper? (I don't see the point of buying used particleboard bookshelves -- leave something for the college students.) How can I get past my block that decent furniture is actually worth paying real money for? We need, among other things, a bed frame and clothes storage; living room seating and storage; rugs, lighting, art, and side tables.
posted by libraryhead to Home & Garden (22 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Are you me? I could have written this post, minus the $10,000. What about getting a professional interior designer, explain what you want and what your priorities are and they can show you a narrowed selection tailored just for you. As well as where to place it. Their fee would be off-set by the savings on furniture cost (since they know where/when the good quality bargins are).

Looking for inspiration you might want to tour model homes, some of the stuff they do is fabulous and there is usually someone that can tell you where the pieces came from. A friend of mine worked at one of those "one step up from ikea" places and he used to warn customers not to buy furniture from them if they hoped it would last a couple of years (he didn't last there long).
posted by saucysault at 1:49 PM on July 30, 2008

model homes are great for inspiration since they are often decorated by pro's. Don't know about other locations but we have a store here that resells model home furniture. Great deals on nice looking stuff. used but not, you know? see if there's anything like that in your area. might even deliver
posted by Redhush at 1:55 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

You've got another kid on the way - kids are hard on stuff, but quality furniture will tend to stand up better than the Ikea stuff which is basically throwaway after a year or two. Frankly, Ikea isn't that cheap either - some bookcases, a few chairs, a sofa, pretty soon you're out thousands easy.

That said, new furniture carries a premium that is often hard to justify. From what I can tell a good 50% of the value evaporates after even a few days of ownership.

I shop CL for quality used stuff. Some things I won't buy used - namely rugs (unless they are antique) and bedding. Anything else though and I'll consider it.

The trick is to setup some RSS feeds with a few search terms - I setup a few searches for Ethan Allen, Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, Macy's, etc. and then added them to my news reader (I use Google's Reader.) That way I could just casually wait for new stuff to show up.

The thing is, doing it this way saves money, but it takes time, and you may not get exactly what you're looking for. An argument can be made for just going to the store and buying up everything all at once... I'm not very persuaded by that argument as my time is pretty cheap.

You should take your time, and gradually build up a collection of good quality furniture which got for a steal. Then take your left over money and roll it over into savings for your kids.
posted by wfrgms at 1:58 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, meant to include a link or two! This explains how to get the most out of CL.
posted by wfrgms at 1:59 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm with you, sister. I'd like to have nicer furniture but am reluctant to get it. Our elderly cat recently shuffled off this mortal coil, but the kids are still small and hard on the upholstery, and my inner cheapskate cringes at paying thousands of dollars for furniture.

We've gotten a lot of mileage out of slipcovers (some of which come with the package, as with some Pottery Barn couches, and some I've made myself). That might be a good strategy for you for the near term, if you've got pets and kids still at the toddler stage. If you're not totally confident about your sewing skills to make them, find a pro who can do it for you.

Ultimately I take comfort in the fact that most peoples' houses do not, actually, look like the pictures of interiors in magazines. Particularly the homes of people with little kids. When the little buggers are all grown up we'll have plenty more money to buy nice stuff and to arrange it as it best suits grownups!
posted by Sublimity at 2:02 PM on July 30, 2008

I would stay away from furniture that can get ruined by the 'family', such as fabric sofas, etc. and focus on an amazing bed frame, bookshelves, etc. Nothing that will get a spill, chew, or pee and you will be out $2,500.

I live by a Macy's Outlet store, and am now sitting on a 2,500 leather Ralph Lauren sofa that was picked up there for $400 (with only one flaw).

Granted the people who bought it gave it to me for free, but the price they got at the outlet store was way more than reasonable, and it was a high quality piece of furniture.
posted by Vaike at 2:04 PM on July 30, 2008

If it were me, I'd get one or two nice things from DWR (say a chair and a kitchen table & chairs) and troll around antique stores or craigslist, willing to pounce on a high end item in good condition. Unless you are a professional restorer, it ain't worth your time when you have two kids!
posted by mattbucher at 2:06 PM on July 30, 2008

I'm wondering if some of the problem is that you're not sure what denotes quality in furniture besides price, as compared to the more familiar realm of computers and media?
If that's the case, some research is definitely in order - mainly to help give you some perspective of what counts for quality in furniture construction and how much longer it will last you than junk you'll just freecycle in a year.

If you know quality furniture but it's more of a psychological block, try breaking down some of the costs involved by the amount of time it's likely to last.

Even though we could afford it, for some reason I can't quite bring myself to pay, say, $2500 for a bed from a higher-quality maker, even though we seem to have no problem shelling out that much for computer and media equipment every few years.

So you spend $3k on a computer etc and replace it every three years, say.
If you spend 3K on a nice bed or bedroom set and keep it for six years - that's the same amount of money for something that will last that much longer.

Given that you have kids and pets and your time is at a premium, you need to be honest with yourself about the likelyhood that you'll have the time, expertise or desire to bother refinishing and transporting home. From what you've said, the crystal ball says the odds are not good. I'd side with your husband here, and buy some durable pieces from that local place (which I'm sure they'll move in for you) for the common rooms, and maybe splurge a little bit on some pieces that will go just in your room, where they might be more protected.
posted by canine epigram at 2:07 PM on July 30, 2008

Buy antiques (or nearly antique). Dining room, Bedroom, even some living room stuff can be found in ready to use condition at estate sales, and better quality flea/antique marts. Most dealers will deliver. I see you are in MA. Go to Rowley on any given Sunday, or Brimfield ( The next one is in September). If you buy quality you don't need to fix, and if you wait for bargains then you shouldn't have buyer's remorse. Buyer beware on painted items, lead paint and children don't mix. Luckily the trend is stripped oak and chestnut these days.
posted by Gungho at 2:08 PM on July 30, 2008

You sound a little overwhelmed at the prospect of replacing everything. Don't be. You don't have to do it all at once.

If you know what pieces need to be replaced, and you know what you like, you can just keep your eyes out for those pieces—on craigslist, at estate sales, at antique stores, and regular furniture stores. Some good deals will get away. That's life. Make it a point to shop around and you'll get a better idea of what things cost and what's really worth the cost to you.

Antique/vintage items, if they exist in a style you like, are often better bang for the buck than buying new. Ebay has caused a real collapse in the price of many collectible vintage items (I have a bit of a Heywood Wakefield fetish, and have been surprised at how cheap that stuff has gotten [btw, if you like the aesthetic, Heywood Wakefield made absolutely bulletproof furniture]). Custom is expensive, and rarely worth discussing in the same breath as 'budget.' Not all Ikea is created equal—some of their stuff is actually solid wood, not particleboard, and a judicious application of Ikea can look good.

I would recommend against seating that's covered in upholstery—there are modernist chairs and couches out there where the only textiles are on the cushions. Easier to keep clean, and you can replace just those covers when they wear out.
posted by adamrice at 2:49 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you like the look, go rustic, Mexican, or Arts & Crafts, so the inevitable dings and scratches look right at home. This will also steer you toward solid wood and sturdiness in general, so the furniture will last forever, and it will be easy to mix old and new pieces together.

If you like a Mexican or Mission look, you might like the furniture at La Fuente Imports. I've been happy with the quality and price of their furniture, though I add several coats of satin poly to their table tops. My dinner guests and I are especially fond of this extremely solid trestle table, which looks a lot better in person than it does on the web. The insides of La Fuente trunks and drawers will smell like wood stain, however. Speaking environmentally, the furniture mixes old wood with new pine. It's possible that the new pine was logged irresponsibly; there's no info on the site about it.

If you don't have reservations about it, I'd also recommend leather. I finally bought a medium-quality leather couch and it has been far easier to keep clean and nice-looking than any upholstered couch or futon that I've had, even with a dog.

For lighting, I've been mostly happy with Tiffany lamps from Overstock. They're very heavy, and though they don't always seem to be real glass, if they're plastic, it's very thick and does a good glass imitation. However, they're made in China. It's also (usually) easy to rewire old lamps.

If you decide "eclectic" is acceptable, that means you don't have to buy matching sets of anything. My cool trestle table is surrounded by older solid wood chairs, each one unique (and each from a thrift store or yard sale).

If you want handmade rugs, you might consider getting ones that are certified by Rugmark to be free of child labor.

For shelves and such, I build my own. I buy solid wood boards from Lowe's and use a hand plane to round the edges so they match the overall "handmade" look of the rest of my furniture.
posted by PatoPata at 2:54 PM on July 30, 2008

Try looking around apartment therapy. They have really awesome house tours of real houses of real people. most of the houses are a mix and match from Design Within Reach, Ikea and thrift/craigs list/antique.

You can keep a copy of the photos you like, and after having a critical mass analyze which elements and colors you like.

They also have a directory of quality used furniture which might of interest after you figure out what you like.
posted by ye#ara at 2:56 PM on July 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

if you're willing to put the time into it, auctions can be a source of good furniture for cheap. At small auctions that aren't full of professional hunters, I've seen people get amazing deals simply because no one there had the ability to deal with getting big, heavy pieces of furniture home. A good deal can make it well worth the rental of a uhaul truck, and most auction houses will hold furniture until the next day (of course you should check on that to make sure).

Check out, you can look for auctions in your area by zip code. Most auction houses now put photos in their ads there, so you don't have to waste a trip to the auction just to see if you like the furniture.
posted by the bricabrac man at 3:17 PM on July 30, 2008

I've made a ton of costly decorating mistakes. I'll give you my opinion on the matter.

Ten thousand dollars is a nice chunk of money. You can do a lot with this kind of money. You do not need to do everything at once. Concentrate on one room that is important to you, like the family or living room, and go from there.

I'm like you. I like antiques and "good quality". I would like to do my part to recycle and reuse, but sometimes this isn't practical. You are going to end up paying through the nose to reupholster a sofa found on Craigslist. I would buy new. There is no reason not to buy an antique desk or some other small piece to infuse some personality into the space. Antiques prevent a room from looking like a showroom, but I'm siding with your husband on this one. Get to a furniture store. Ethan Allen, Crate and Barrel, Room and Board, they all make decent furniture. Buy your couch from a quality store. Other items like console tables can be bought at West Elm and such because nobody is going to be sitting on a console table. I wouldn't think of custom unless you are great friends with a cabinet maker or furniture maker. Custom is pricey. You can have a beautiful house without custom.

Do not follow trends. I have done this. I like my trendy rooms but it is a mistake. Do not buy what is cool or what is in. Do not design your room around trendy color combos. Buy what you like and what will look good ten, twenty years down the road. If you read ApartmentTherapy or other design blogs long enough you'll want to decorate everything in Eames and "cool" antiques. This is a mistake, unless you're truly a fan of a particular design era. I would advise comfort and functionality over anything else. Design the house for you family first and foremost. Think about what you and your husband really like. I have designed rooms around the desire to look good for entertaining. This is completely ridiculous because I hardly entertain.

I love sectionals. Big, comfortable sectional sofas. I've seen them at Ethan Allen, Macy's, etc. Not the ones with big poufy cushions and drink holders, but a tailored sectional that is still comfortable and covered in a durable fabric in a neutral color. Sometimes sectionals are hard to find with tight backs. They can be found. I've seen some beautiful ones with tufted backs. Avoid loose cushions on the back of your sofa. Always buy a neutral color sofa. You can add color with throw pillows and change them out with the seasons and trends. Sectionals are great for hanging out with the family to watch TV and read. Look for a couch with rolled arms. A nice rolled arm is elegant and allows you to take a nap on the couch. Make sure the couch is long enough to spread out on. Avoid things with sharp corners and high arms. Yeah, this looks cool, but it's not practical. Where are you going to put your head? On that skinny little arm? It can have a low profile but make sure it is long enough. After sectionals, I like tight back leather sofas. They're practical and attractive for family life. The Manhattan sofa at PotteryBarn is just about perfect. You could probably find one with a little more understated arm, but it's still pretty. (if you're not adverse to leather that is.)

Swivel chairs are useful. You can position two of them adjacent to a couch to form a conversation area. They allow a member of the family, or guest, to swivel to watch TV, or face a conversation. Most people like to put their feet up. I like the concealed recliners from LazyBoy and other companies. They look like regular chairs, but you can recline. They're attractive and not the Laz-y-Boys that your grandfather had. You would never know they were recliners. Ottomans are useful. You can scatter a couple leather ottomans on casters for extra seating, foot rests, and storage. They also flip to reveal trays for drinks and snacks.

I think you can kind of scrimp when it comes to headboards and foot boards. 2,500 dollars isn't an outrageous amount. Don't be afraid to buy quality pieces if you can afford it. You'll be better off in the long run. That being said, headboards aren't going to be jumped on. My kids' have maple Mission style headboards from Target. They look as new as the day I purchased them. The same goes for my maple bed that I have had for over ten years. Put your money into quality dressers and chests of drawers. And always shop sales.

Crate and Barrel sells quality ready to assemble furniture. It's less expensive but isn't particle board. Look for these for media stands and the like.

Buy a piece of art or lighting here and there. There is no reason to amass all of your artwork in one go. Buy a piece at an art show, browse on Etsy. Accumulate things that have meaning to you and your husband. Your house will be more warm, authentic, and "you".

I like Restoration Hardware for lamps and lighting. You can save money by flanking your sectional or couch with two floor lamps. You won't even need end tables. Buy a big coffee table, preferably with a shelf to store art books and such. Consider round or oval coffee tables. They're easy on kids and you're not always running into sharp corners. Avoid glass and mirrored tops. With a nice coffee table, and a couple of the flip-top leather ottomans, you're set. You can always add to your room. A couch or sectional, two chairs (or one if you have a sectional), two floor lamps, a coffee table and/or a couple cube leather ottomans and you've got a room that is functional, attractive, and comfortable.

Round pedestal tables are best for dining in my opinion. They're good for conversation and you can fit a lot of chairs around them. They never go out of style.

I obtained a lot of this information from Lauri Ward. I love her books. Use What You Have and More Use What You Have have been very helpful. All of her books are great. She also has a website and blog.

You can make your house look great for a 10,000 bucks. You have kids and pets. Think real. Think practical. Think durable. Your rooms can still be beautiful, but how you really live should guide you in all of your choices.
posted by LoriFLA at 3:34 PM on July 30, 2008 [9 favorites]

I paid little or nothing for some of my furniture, and it looks pretty good. Dining table & chairs last a long time, so get good quality. I've seen nice sets on CL for not much money. Be patient, watch CL and you'll find something nice. Upholstered furniture - couches and comfy chairs - has a wide range of quality. It costs a lot, and the color and pattern make it not very flexible if you decide to change styles. I have a vintage couch & chair and spent serious money reupholstering them, but they look great. My bed was $25 at a yard sale; I refinished it and it's really nice. Side tables, dresser, and other furniture is a mix of funky, antique and new. I love rugs. A beautiful handmade Oriental rug, or a very high quality wool machine-made rug really dresses up a room, makes it warm and cozy.

Get on the Pottery Barn mailing list. It's home decor porn, full of great ideas.
posted by theora55 at 4:38 PM on July 30, 2008

How can I get past my block that decent furniture is actually worth paying real money for?

I failed to answer your question.

It seems that you are kind of unhappy now with your lower quality stuff. You just have to bite the bullet and go for it. You'd be surprised how far that kind of money can go and you'll have a living environment you can both appreciate and enjoy.

I'll give more advice because I can't stop talking. Make a shopping list. If you have a shopping list there is no room for distractions or expensive impulse purchases. Make it as detailed and specific as possible. Example) One dark wood coffee table with shelf and rounded corners. Two 56" floor lamps with white or ivory drum shades, etc. Buying classic, quality when it matters, and sticking to a list is good advice no matter what your style.
posted by LoriFLA at 5:11 PM on July 30, 2008

Take your time; make furniture hunting and interior design discussion something you both do together for fun, as a hobby. Spend more time looking and discussing than purchasing. And, when you do see something and you both think "oh, wow, that's perfect, but too expensive" do not buy it, but go looking for similar cheaper things.

My wife and I did this, because the first time we spent too much and bought things that didn't work well for us. This time, it's taken us almost a year from windfall to purchasing, and we're still not done yet; we even hired an interior designer and then gave that up when she didn't present anything different/better than we had come up with ourselves.

Ultimately we figured out exactly what we wanted and where to put it for a couch, for instance, but I dragged my feet on saying "go" because of the cost -- then we went to a place we hadn't visited since we'd had a much different view of the decorating, and found a perfect couch for 35-40% of the cost.

There's our bedroom dresser, which took six months, but we've never had second thoughts about, or our computer desk, which looks like a weatherbeaten table and has a hidden chair, and we decided to buy it months before we actually went through with it.

So, in short: make the pursuit your hobby, and embrace your choosiness -- the longer you wait to choose, the longer it'll be before you feel compelled to buy new furniture again.

Oh, and Flor makes great carpeting that you can self-install and change up, and you can buy samples cheap.
posted by davejay at 5:48 PM on July 30, 2008

Forgot to say: when you've hunted long enough, you'll not only be better at knowing what you'll be happy with, but you'll be that much more familiar with prices, so that you'll either be willing to accept the higher cost of the purchase, or you'll know a good bargain when you see it.
posted by davejay at 5:49 PM on July 30, 2008

Look around for unique sources of furniture. For example, most of our furniture is solid oak, Mission-style stuff that came from the Amish in nearby Lancaster County, and the prices were amazingly reasonable for beautifully hand-crafted stuff. $10K will get you a significant chunk of a house, but they don't do couches/upholstered stuff.

Hell, you might even consider taking a ride down and renting a truck when the stuff is finished. (The store we went to prefers if you order the stuff, which is then made to your specifications rather than selling off their floor). If you're interested, email me and I'll give you info on the store. Because it's run by Amish, there are restrictions on things like phone calls (there is only a 30 minute window in the morning when they're in the out-building with the telephone).
posted by JMOZ at 7:20 PM on July 30, 2008

For sofas, take a look at They have inexpensive, renewable sofas, couches, and armchairs. Really neat concept - I'm about to order one for myself.

Another idea is to sign up with Rent-a-Center. I did that when staging my house for sale. They will deliver and pick up the pieces free. This is one way to see how different pieces fit into your space. As long as you don't keep the pieces too long it's not too bad of a deal.
posted by ebellicosa at 8:01 PM on July 30, 2008

I came into a $10k windfall once but I had no problem running out and spending money! Like they said up top, prioritize. I wanted to buy decent living room furniture that was comfortable, durable, and reasonably stylish. I wound up spending $5k on four pieces that I am very pleased with. I've since moved and split these pieces across two rooms and they work like a charm. Couch and two end chairs from Norwalk Furniture, and this mini round sofa from Dania Furniture that is just fantastic for kids to play on.

Now - about your choking on $2500 for a bed - get over it. Even if you don't splash out on the bed frame you will probably drop that kind of money on mattress and linens alone. You're not buying that shit used. I had my husband build a bedframe for $60 in wood, and we still wound up spending $2200 after we bought a new mattress from the local "mattress outlet" and then bought 2 sets of sheets, duvet, duvet cover, pillows, mattress cover. Let me tell you, it was worth. every. penny. So get over the nice headboard but do spend real money on a mattress and sheets. Your body will thank you for that every night.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:35 PM on July 30, 2008

Buy more traditionally styled furniture, rather than trendy, sleek modern furniture. That way it will look good forever and not go out of style, and if it gets dinged up, it will still look okay. Buy furniture made of solid wood. It You can't sand or refinish particleboard.
posted by lsemel at 10:36 PM on August 2, 2008

« Older I'm in a loving but sexless relationship. What...   |   What to monogram for a gift for a new baby girl? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.