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How to Shop Flea Markets (and Furnish Your Home) Like a Pro

two women shopping at a flea market
Don’t be intimidated by the crowds or the dealers — put these 10 tips to work and you’ll land great deals.

The first time I went to a flea market, I came away empty-handed and cranky from spending hours in the summer heat wandering past an endless array of tube-sock-selling vendors. The experience put me off the idea of flea marketing entirely.

After all, why spend my precious weekend time sifting through dusty piles of junk when there are bottomless mimosas to be had? Fast-forward a few years, and you’ll find me strategizing my approach to Brimfield, the weeklong flea market-on-steroids that turns a sleepy Massachusetts town into a vintage hunter’s paradise three times a year. (The next one’s coming up July 14 to 19.) I left with a set of 1960s side chairs and enough fine cocktail glasses to fill a speakeasy. The total: $100.

So, what changed? I started shopping with vintage-dealer friends who knew how to find the gems hidden in plain sight. Through them, I learned to get over the intimidation factor that comes with facing a field full of bargain-hungry shoppers and found out that flea markets are truly the best place to find fabulous items for your home for far less than what you’d pay at an antiques or retail shop.

I also learned how to tell if a flea market is worth the trip, where to find the best deals, pro-caliber negotiating tactics, and, most importantly, what can and cannot be fixed. Here are their tried-and-true secrets.

1. Research, research, research

Flea markets are advertised heavily the old-school way: in newspapers. Pick up the paper and you’ll find them listed on the community calendar. Then Google the heck out of the name. (If you’re starting from nothing, Google your county name and “flea market.”)

You’re likely to find reviews of the market (if it’s an annual thing) via Yelp or Facebook, which will give you a sense of what you can find. Occasionally, the market will have its own website, but that tends to be a rare sight. Generally speaking, outdoor flea markets tend to yield a more diverse array of vendors than indoor markets. Also, city flea markets tend to be pickier about vendors but often have higher-priced merchandise.

2. You’re going to need a bigger car

Some of the larger flea markets can arrange for delivery. But being able to transport your finds home immediately can save you time, hassle, and money. If you plan on buying furniture, rent an SUV, van, or truck. Line the bed with old blankets to protect the vehicle (and the finish of the furniture). Invest in bungee cables, which will keep that fabulous sideboard from rattling around and getting damaged, and a hand truck or dollies to haul with ease.

If you’re here for smaller items, you’ll want to bring your own tote(s) and perhaps a small wheeled cart. (Just be mindful of pushing around your cart in a stall packed with antiques.)

3. Go either very early — or very late

Pro shoppers, like the stylists who work for designers, are there as soon as the market opens to cherry-pick the best from the vendors. Take this approach if you have a highly competitive streak. If you’re more concerned about finding a good deal, go later in the afternoon when vendors are starting to think about packing up. They’re more likely to give you a great deal on what they don’t want to haul home.

4. Remember your ABS: Always bring snacks

Seriously. Flea market food is of the fried variety that, while delicious, can leave you feeling … uncomfortable. Vintage expert Beth Lennon of Retro Roadmap also recommends carrying an “emergency” kit: wet wipes, tissues, water, headache medication, and lip balm. Don’t forget your measuring tape!

5. If you’re at a big market, start from the inside out

You know how you’re supposed to shop the perimeter of the grocery store first, as that is where the good-for-you stuff is? The opposite is true at a flea market. The most expensive spots at a big-time flea market (like Brimfield) are bordering roads and high-traffic areas. Expensive rental locations for vendors can lead to higher price tags. Walking further into the field of vendors will yield more affordable (albeit harder to find) treasures.

6. Cash is king

Bring plenty of cash, especially smaller bills. Having an exact amount gives you more leverage for negotiating, plus it endears you to the seller (who has probably dealt with at least five people seeking change for $100).

7. Know the rules of haggling

Most prices you’ll see are negotiable — within reason. If the price is already low (like a pristine Mid-Century coffee table for $25), just take the deal. The better the condition, the more likely the asking price won’t budge.

There are three instances when you’ll gain leverage for negotiating: if the item is damaged, if it has a bigger price tag, or if you’re buying multiple items from the same vendor. Then ask, politely, “Is this your best offer?” Or if the total purchase comes to, say, $83, you can ask: “Can you do $80?”

8. Hot on Pinterest? High in price

Mid-Century furniture is always more expensive, since it’s in high demand. Same goes for quirky things like old signs, colorful typewriters, globes, and trophies. You’re probably better off finding these items on eBay, in antiques stores, or even at thrift stores.

9. Do the “knock test”

Most vendors are honest, but some will try to sneak in more modern pieces that merely look old. If you’re shopping for larger furnishings, take extra care to really check the materials. Cheaper modern-day reproductions are often lighter and sound hollow when you knock on the wooded surface.

10. Kitchen items are always a good bet

If you don’t know what to look for, start with accessories for your kitchen like tea towels, glasses, trivets, etc. “They’re almost always well-priced, they’re easy to transport, and make a great gift,” Beth Lennon says.

Finally: Special advice for damaged goods

Think twice before you pass up furniture that’s in need of a little TLC. If the piece is made of wood, then nicks, scratches, and other surface imperfections will be easily covered with a coat of primer and paint. Another easy fix is an ugly seat on a dining chair. All you have to do is unscrew the seat, smooth over a fresh piece of fabric, and staple to secure it to the underside.

If an item needs any of the “three Rs” (reupholstering, refinishing, or rewiring), it is best left to an expert. Leave it behind. You’ll also want to walk away from anything that has a warped frame, shows big water stains, or is downright smelly. There’s only so much paint can fix.