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Secondhand is my first choice

Estate sales, flea markets, and the art of haggling

A big rectangular, underground pool is surrounded by tall trees. You can see a mountain peak in the distance. Mercedes Kraus

I told someone the other day that I hated shopping, when in fact that’s a total lie. I love shopping—I just don’t like buying new. Originally I bought secondhand because I wanted things that no one else would have. I’ve since doubled down: Buying used is one of the best choices for the planet. Here are a few top strategies from my two decades of experience, though I’d really like to hear your tips, too! —Mercedes

Use me up

In my normal Los Angeles routine (read: pre-baby), I hit at least one estate sale or one flea market each weekend—often, two. That’s thanks in part to my secondhand sage, Ann Friedman, a writer, podcaster, expert Angeleno, and friend. Before we move forward, you must know that I have picked up crucial LA estate sale and flea intel from her. Last year for Curbed, Ann wrote about the magic of estate sales; I highly recommend it for all you secondhand heads. (The pool photo above was taken at an estate sale we visited last year. Exploring new homes every weekend is the cherry on top.)

This week in shopping used, I’ll cover strategy, estate sales (with a quick note on LA flea markets), and haggling. More in a future edition!

General strategy

You can definitely go into any secondhand situation without a goal and just enjoy the ride, but if you’re looking to buy and don’t have any constraints—budget, a person to buy for, or even general priorities—it’s terribly easy to get sidetracked. So try to pick a method, but don’t be strict about it: Feel the place out for a few minutes first.

For instance, maybe I’ll realize that I hate all of the textiles at this place and will set about scouring the glassware. Beyond prioritizing your favorite types of goods, you can also turn on your style lens to sort through it all. For the past year, I’ve been focusing on retro futuristic design (any interpretation of that phrase) and Mexican dishware or table linens (bountiful here).

Having a category you’re into makes it easier to make decisions, but try not to go too far down that path: An item that’s too specific may be unattainable. For example, your locale might mostly have one prevailing style of something, and so you may never find even a similar version.

When shopping, the absolute best advice I can give you is: See the tree, not the forest. Just because a home—or a market booth, or a store—has a style that feels tacky or janky to you doesn’t mean that everything in it is tacky or janky. If you can remove an item from its context, you can spot some real gems.

A hand holds a ceramic, painted plate with a blue bird in the middle. In the background is a three-shelf cabinet holding a stack of white plates, wooden bowls, red coffee mugs, and various other kitchenware.
I bought this shallow dish at an estate sale last weekend for $5. Nearly everything on my shelves, except my dinnerware set (Bennett from Crate & Barrel), is secondhand; the other exception is on the far right, bottom: the Pedro mug from Of A Kind (RIP) by artist Debbie Carlos, a gift from Ann, in fact. (Eep, I might have to buy Debbie’s squiggle soap dish now.)
Mercedes Kraus

Estate sales

My hottest tip is also my most basic: There is also an app! In LA, I am on two estate-sale company mailing lists, but I ALWAYS check the app because it gives me something the emails don’t: photos. That’s right, folks, you can pre-shop estate sales to see if you think they’re worth your time. You’re welcome!! Note that you can sort sales by date, and that there is a description of each sale that generally notes if it is cash-only or if it takes cards.

Go early—early!—if you know there’s something you really want, because there will likely be a line when doors open. Sometimes there’s even a line after doors open because the place is small.

My best hack is for deal-scroungers: Many estate sales are half-off after lunchtime (usually 1 p.m.).

What to buy that’s unique to estate sales

  • Hobby items: Art supplies, sewing supplies, sports balls—whatever tickles your fancy.
  • Home basics like pillows—yes! Where else can you buy gently used pillows and feel good about it? You’ve seen the home, you’ve gotten the vibe; more than likely you can imagine that these folks were your grandparents’ pals. And anyway, most estate sale companies have reputations to maintain and won’t sell stuff that is gross.
  • Yard/garden-maintenance stuff: Why buy a new shovel when you can buy a used one that’s just as good? Other garage-located items: camping gear.
  • Potted plants: This is my favorite. Though they are sometimes less beautiful than what you’d get at a nursery, a plant with a pot included is likely to be half the price—or less—than what you’d pay new.
  • Furniture: Remember the decontextualizing tip: You can find some great things if you ignore their surroundings. For example, this Silver Lake sale this weekend is a vibe, but I would go snag this Pietro Costantini chair (you have to CTRL+F “Costantini”) and just have the cushions re-covered.
  • Kitchen gadgets: I was once seeking a vintage ice cream scoop—one that’s one piece of metal—and easily snagged one. Also, things like garlic presses and spatulas. I’ve found these at thrift stores too, but they’re consistently at estate sales.
  • This is a home, so people’s home things will be there: blankets, unopened boxes of Q-tips, printers, you name it. This sort of miscellany is why it would be good to keep a list of misc shopping needs.

Los Angeles flea markets

I have admittedly largely given up on flea markets, in part because they are so exhausting, and often more expensive than estate sales, but I will occasionally hit the Pasadena City College flea on the first Sunday of every month. It’s free (parking is $2), unlike the nearby, very popular Rose Bowl flea, which is more expensive the earlier you go. Y’all, if you go at 5 a.m., it’s $25! That is not for the faint of heart. Ann has also said the Long Beach flea is good (third Sunday), and items from the same vendors at the Rose Bowl go for cheaper there, but I haven’t been because I’d have to drive across all of Los Angeles.

A four-tiered white cabinet holds a collection of colored glass in shades of purple, orange, yellow, green, red, blue, and white.
I have a thing for colored glass, and almost all of it is secondhand. I bought those red glass tumblers at Angel View Thrift in Palm Springs and those long-stemmed wine glasses from the Rose Bowl Flea. But my favorite are the bulbous blue tumblers (with matching pitcher!) that I scored from a shop called Family Tree Antiques in Maine.
Mercedes Kraus
Four wooden chairs with tall backs surround a long wooden dining table. In the background is four photos displayed in black frames.
I paid $200 for this dining table (with two leaves) and eight chairs, including delivery (!), at the Pasadena City College flea. The set is a bit more Jennifer Furniture, but it fulfilled my Mission-style desires well enough. The red chest of drawers is Nikkeby from Ikea; the sombrero is from an estate sale, and the lucite chandelier is from Chairish.
Mercedes Kraus

On haggling

I love negotiating, but I know it’s not for everyone. My proudest, most absurd win was the time I bought a vintage Versace rug from Betsey Johnson’s yard sale: the man repping the family asked for $1,500, and I got him down to $1,000, but then said that was still too much. I went back the next day and told him I had $500 and could take it away right now. And I did. You, too, can do this! But read the room. For instance, it was clear to me that Johnson’s rep had a lot of stuff still to clear out on day two, so I went hard.

I once heard that you have to get right at the edge of offending someone to negotiate the absolute best deal, and if the seller isn’t even a little annoyed once you’ve closed the deal, you could’ve gotten the thing for less. I live by this.

The absolute easiest way to negotiate is on a group of items. I learned this from my mom; if they total your picks at $33, ask, “Would $30 work?” If it’s a lower-end sale (like a yard sale), you can push harder—to say, $25. But the general rule: Round down to the nearest five dollars—or 10, if you’re feeling confident. I’ve also candidly told the vendor or check-out person that I only have $20 cash, so I’m trying to make that work. A few times people have voluntarily offered to let me have that extra $3 to $5 item. This invitation-style negotiation makes for a more gentle approach.

You tell me

What I’m saving for a future edition: Shopping for used home goods online, what’s worth buying that you can fix or save, and my old fave—thrift stores. What are your questions, and your tips, on these matters?

And, what are your local tips on estate sales or fleas? I’m all ears. Reply in the comments or email me so I can share your wisdom with your fellow readers.

Sign up now to get Editor’s Notes directly in your inbox before everyone else. Every other week, you’ll hear from Curbed interim Editor-in-Chief Mercedes Kraus as she shares her latest observations, intel, advice, and shopping recommendations.