15 flea market secrets; how I find the best vintage pieces

How to shop at a flea market: Scoring those killer pieces can be challenging, so here are some tips to help your flea market trips get less, well, trippy.

I like the flea market.

Also, the sky is blue.

It’s ma thang, those flea markets. Part of why I’m good at it is because I’ve been dumpster diving and thrift store shopping since I was old enough to spot my first brass animal. It’s in ma blood. But it doesn’t have to be in your blood to be good at it. It can be learned, grasshopper.

Here are 15 tips that can help anyone shop and buy the best pieces at the flea market whether they are a flea market virgin or a pro.

flea market

1. Get there early. I know, I know … so boring. Everybody says, “Go early! Go early!,” but the truth is you can find average, good pieces all day long, and sometimes you can absolutely find great pieces at 2pm. But those great pieces aren’t normally the no-brainers, those are the risk-takers, the ones that you need to have a huge imagination for and a lot of guts.

But if you don’t want to have to turn on that part of your brain, then know that all the obviously amazing stuff will get eaten up by designers, store-owners, and collectors by 10am. All the Milos’ or Mccobbs’ are gone before the sun is up. Go early if you want incredible pieces. Go later if you want just good stuff. I shoot for 7am at the Rose Bowl Flea Market and 8:30 at the others.

That’s Orlando and I at 6am, FREEZING. Lord, I miss winter flea markets. It’s been 90-100 degrees every Sunday the last few months. I long to wear scarves.

2. Bring a list. It’s easy to get distracted at the flea market because it’s total sensory overload — the loud people, the hot dog breath (hot-dog-o’clock — 9am is the worst … so much hot dog air in your face at such an inappropriately early time), people are bumping into you, and so many colors and shapes to see … it’s just a lot. So if you write a list beforehand it helps curate things in your head, and then if and when you get distracted, you can reference it constantly to remind you of what you are there to do. You’ll be shocked how often you forget that you are looking for vintage castors for your stools. Write it down. You’ll forget about the stuff you need and just end up seeing the stuff that distracts you.

 

rose-bowl-flea-market-dining-table

3. Go big first, small second. “Bigs” are furniture, “smalls” are accessories. So if you are looking for furniture then go around the market fast the first time, soley looking for furniture because that is what goes the fastest. Cruise around quickly and if as your eye catches something amazing, slow down and check it out. AS you spot things take photos, get prices, write down booth numbers, and then pull the trigger or decide to wait. The second time cruise for accessories, artwork, lighting, jewelry, and clothes. If the “bigs” are still there, then offer a price, but think big first, small second. Don’t dilly dally looking at earrings at 7am when you are there for a new coffee table. Race around. Fast. Then go slow for the smalls.

4. Love the shape more than the color.  If you are wondering if something is good, picture it in a different color. If you still like it then it’s probably worth the splurge. Remember, the finish, color, and fabric can always change, but the shape really can’t. So if the shape is amazing, but the color is bad, calm down. It can all be changed, but if the shape is just OK, but the color is good then don’t spend a ton. Make sure you are in love with the shape if you are spending actual money.

Like this piece. I just got two of them for $80. Amazing shape. Terrible color, obviously. But worth the splurge … which brings me to my next tip.

 

5. Splurge on the unique.  The is one of the most frequent questions I get — “Dear Emily, what do you splurge on?” It took me a while to realize what I splurge on, and that’s items that will start a conversation. If you see something that sparks something inside your insides, that sings a song inside your brain, that draw you to it, then that is what you splurge on. I am confident that I could design a room with Ikea furniture, and then use a few great weird and inspired statement pieces to turn it into a room that people will talk about. Sure, your sofa needs to be comfortable, but if you are about to spend a ton of dough on it, try to make it really unique as well. Otherwise go crazy with art, sculptures, weird furniture — that is what will turn your house into something truly conversation worthy.

These guys are now in beautiful gray belgium linen and totally amazing. And still for sale for $3400. Email me at emilyhenderson – at- mac.com

 

6. Don’t hoard unneccessarily. I have this rule for myself. If I wouldn’t spend $100, then don’t spend $30. But I have a SH*T-TON of stuff. Accessories are not what I’m lacking. If you feel like you don’t have enough “smalls” in your house then yes, buy cute, great, personality-filled accessories, but if you are worried about bringing more into your house that you don’t need, then ask yourself that question: “If this were $100 would I still buy it?” Then listen to your answer.

7. Calculate in all costs. Furniture costs normally don’t stop at the purchase. When I see a $100 sofa that needs to be reupholstered, I automatically add $600-$800 for the labor of the upholstery, plus $300 for the fabric, plus delivery to and from the upholsterer, maybe $60 each way. That obviously changes the price of the sofa, and therefore I have to LOVE it in order to put in all the time and money. Just be prepared for the added costs before you get hosed.

 

orlando-soria-at-the-rose-bowl-flea-market

8. Stay away from the new stuff.  I know that flea markets are expanding and they are starting to include many a cell-phone cover and imported tablecloth, but in general avoid these. I’m pro-small business, LORD KNOWS, but the flea market is not the place to be marketed to for your jewelry. What is acceptable are things that are made from vintage things — like pillows from vintage fabric, furniture from reclaimed stuff (although, come on, let’s get some innovative design out there, if i have to see one more “reclaimed wood and iron industrial bench” I’m going to get all Russell Crowe on it). For sake of time, just stick to the old stuff. The new stuff will just distract you while Mr. and Mrs. Fast-Paced-Johnson are buying all the amazing regency pieces.

9. Look high and look low. People often wonder how I find things that they don’t and one of the biggest reasons is that I have CRAZY EYES that have the patience of hungry two-year-old T-Rexes; they are constantly wondering, darting, not making eye contact during the most serious of conversations. But also because I look really high and really low. Don’t forget what people are hanging on the walls or above their tents and don’t forget what is under the tables. You have to dig to be properly rewarded, so make sure you cover all the highs and lows of most booths.

 

nautical-lamps-rose-bowl-flea-market

10. Bring cash, but know they take checks. EVERYONE enjoys cash most and they will give you a better deal with cash. But if you need to most will take checks. If you promise someone cash but you don’t have enough, simply offer them a deposit then go to the ATM and bring the rest later. Give them your phone number and take theirs just in case. But if you are on the fence about whether you should bring your checkbook or not, the answer is YES, many take checks.

11. Haggle respectively.  I could write a whole book on this. Here’s how the dialogue goes every weekend:

Me: Sir, how much is this?

Him: $120

Me: It’s amazing, I love it.

Him:  Right? Look how great the lines are.

Me: I don’t need it, but i love it … What would your bottom price be?

Him: $110

Me:  That’s a great deal and totally worth it. I’m not sure if it’s in my budget, but you’ll definitely get it for that.

Him: Well, what’s your top price?

Me: Probably $90.

Him: Alright. Give me cash and it’s yours, but only because you love it so much.

It’s EXTREMELY simple. Ask them what they are charging, counter with WHAT IS FAIR and then if you love it, tell them that you love it. I have friends that have huge manipulative strategies, but I don’t (also people know me, so I can’t). These vendors have spent hours, days, and tears finding the perfect pieces. Please don’t try to insult them by low-balling them unless you truly believe that they are overcharging. If you can’t even come close to affording it, then tell them that. Say how much you love it and how you’d use it but that it’s not in your budget. Then they might budge. As much as they are in it for the money, they are also emotionally involved with these pieces and they really want them to go to a good home. So if you make a case for how much you love it and how well you’d take care of it, then you can get the best discount. This isn’t meant to be manipulative. It’s common sense.

In short: Be nice, be grateful, be respectful. We are not in the mid-evil ages where people are trying to “getcha” all the time. These are real people, collecting things they love and trying to make a living. Be respectful and you’ll get the best deal. It’s that simple.

… Although yes, there are times when people overcharge and I have got into skirmishes, although unfortunately because people know me I have way less leverage than I used to.

OH, wait … the more you buy, the better deal you get. I’m sure that’s obvious but just in case it wasn’t, know that if you combine items at the same vendor you’ll get a better deal.

12. Furniture needs to be special in order to be expensive. I’ll buy a standard but pretty mid-century chair for $250 from the flea market, but once it gets to $400 it better be VERY special. If I can get two chairs for $600, then that changes the story because a pair is more unique. But in general make sure that if you are spending real money that you are getting something unique. Mid-century can be average, uncomfortable, and boring, so get it at a good price or make sure it’s unique.

milo-baughman-chair

13. If you love something pull the trigger. It’s like finding the perfectly nice, hot, talented, edgy dude when you are 28; if you don’t pull the trigger SOMEONE ELSE IS ABOUT TO. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bought something and then later when I go back to pick it up, the vendor tells me that so many people came back for it, but they didn’t have the balls to pull the trigger fast enough. Don’t be hasty, but if you love it, if your friends love it, if your partner loves it, and it;s not a bad price, then BUY IT before it sells. Because it will sell and you will be sad.

round-vintage-chair

Like this round chair for $100. I shoulda pulled the trigger, but I didn’t and now I will regret my life.

14. Buy quality, not knock offs. How to find quality pieces: I get this question all the time and it’s a hard one to answer. In general, you don’t have to worry about it as much at the flea market as you do at thrift stores. Normally the vendor isn’t selling total crap. But otherwise ask the vendor if he knows who made it. Look for signage: on dressers, it’s inside the drawers, on chairs, it’s under the seat, on tables, it’s underneath. That will help you know if it’s worth a splurge or just a few bucks. Feel the weight of it; pick it up. If it’s super lightweight, then it might not be too high of quality. Check to see if the wood is solid or if it is just a veneer (which is just thin wood on top of cheap wood).

rose-bowl-flea-market-dining-table

Like this dining table for $350. I love the shape of it so very much. But the wood was cheap. It looked and felt like pine. I could paint it and it could be fine, but that would be like $300-$500 to do it right, and since it’s a dining table that will get a lot of surface wear, that isn’t something I could do myself. So I passed on it, but vowed to have it made by a furniture builder, in quality wood. I actually normally love tables that can fold down for practicality sake, but I hated the seams on top, so I’d make it to not fold down.

15. What to bring:

Cash money

Checkbook

Phone camera

Notebook to write down what booth pieces were in — you won’t remember, trust me.

Sunscreen

Food. The food normally sucks; you are a captive audience so at least in LA, they feed you absolute garbage.

Bottled water

A canvas bag. I love the huge canvas bags from Lands’ End because they are super lightweight so you aren’t weighed down at the beginning.

And that’s how you do it, folks.  Go forth, and shop.

Congratulations to Megan for winning the Rose Bowl shopping trip with me in December.  I hope you are more prepared for it now. :)

This post is in partnership with Smartwater.

smartwater, simplicity is delicious.

 

 

  1. other things to bring:

    - a tape measurer! and dimensions of whatever space(s) you're shopping for (if applicable)

    - a truck/van or have a truck/van on call. it's the worst when you find a perfect leather Chesterfield for $100 and then you are stuck at the curb while all the vendors are packing up, cause you can't find someone with a van to come get you and your magical sofa.

  2. Jessi

    Lucky, lucky Megan. Congrats!

    Do you ask before taking pictures? I've gotten yelled at by snooty vendors for taking pics…lame.

  3. As a vendor, it is always really nice if someone asks to take pictures. Often the way we as vendors present our objects is no different than if you were in a shop, and we work hard to create vignettes. I have never yelled at anyone, but sometimes I have asked if photographers are bloggers just to strike up a conversation, and I politely ask that my space be credited in their blog post, and hand them a card.

  4. Kimberly (LolaLalaBean)

    Okay…please…for the love of God…HELP ME!! Who is the designer of those chairs in that second picture? The gold, double-wide pink, green chairs are an obsession of mine. I have sent message upon message upon message (twitter, facebook, E-mail) and have never gotten any kind of response from Emily or anyone on her team. I have become obsessed with those chairs. She used one of those chairs in the Eclectic Artsy Odyssey episode where she had it reupholstered in grey linen (interestingly enough that episode re-aired on HGTV this week) but she originally had the chair in its original fabric (the gold chair) in the first look for the 'Oh Joy' blogger Joy Deangdeelert Cho episode.

    I am beyond obsessed with owning one of those chairs and ottomans. I've even put posts on this blog asking about them and nobody ever can tell me anything about them. PLEASE!!! I live in the Massachusetts and will pay anything to own one of them. I've even sent this to Apartment Therapy trying to find out about the chairs. Again, nothing. How can that be? How can this most wonderful chair exist and NOBODY knows anything about it? Please!!! Help me!!!

  5. EmilyHS

    grrrr, I hate it when I don't win a flea market shopping trip with Emily Henderson.

    Thanks for all the tips! I'll have to put them to use without you and Orlando helping me in person.

  6. Megan

    I love the lines of those curvy tufted chairs – they are beautiful.

    and Megan WHO won the flea market trip???

  7. andrea

    I'd like to know about those chairs as well!

  8. Kimberly (LolaLalaBean)

    Hi Karen,

    No, but I do love that chair. I saw one on an auction site recently and almost bought it (strangely enough I knew that was Milo Baughman).

    The chair I'm referring to is the one in the picture in this blog post where there are 3 chairs shown (it's the second picture in the post). In the Oh Joy episode Emily left it in the gold upholstery and it was only in the first look and was removed for the second/final look. That's probably why it isn't in the portfolio because it wasn't the final look. To see it in the first look you can go to this link: http://www.stylebyemilyhenderson.com/blog/episode-four-recap.html

    When she used the chair in the Eclectic Artsy Odyssey episode she had it reupholstered in the grey linen (you can see it here: http://www.stylebyemilyhenderson.com/portfolio/single-gallery/11916513).

    I've literally sent countless E-mails, tweets, FB messages and nobody ever responds…not even to say "sorry we don't know". It's so frustrating because I'm totally obsessed with the chair. Then I saw this blog post and literally jumped out of my seat. It's like fate keeps bringing me back to them only to be disappointed because I have no clue who designed it or how to find it.

  9. OK, you're totally making me want to drag Mr. Forager to the flea markets in LA while we're living in Joshua Tree. Great tips!

  10. elz

    Aw, man. I kind of hate Megan, I really wanted that Rose Trip adventure with you. I have to say that the food at the fairs here in Texas is good-I'm talking Marburger-Round Top area.

  11. Megan Tinkler

    I'm with the other Megan, Megan WHO won the contest? I'd give anything to go to the Rose Bowl. The southeast has nothing like this :(

  12. Nicole Malcolm

    Perfect timing Emily!! My hubby and I are going to the Randolph Street Market this weekend in Chicago, woo hoo!! I truely wish that you could help us in person…but at least I have your expert tips :) Let's hope we get some good treasures!

  13. karen

    Kim, I still don't know who designed that BUT I DID FIND ONE FOR SALE! No ottoman though… DM me on twitter so I can send you the link (twitter.com/karen_kuo)

  14. Dana

    Can anyone recommend a good flea market in San Diego? Just moved here from Seattle, where there was NOTHING, so hoping S. California will have more to offer.

  15. Kimberly (LolaLalaBean)

    Thanks Karen – message sent:)

  16. Kimberly (LolaLalaBean)

    Actually I think I found the listing myself (eBay) but like you said, no ottoman:( really want the ottoman to go with it.

  17. Kimberly (LolaLalaBean)

    Wow! Those are great resources!! Oh I wish I had known that auction in February. I have been crazy over this chair and ottoman from the first time I saw it. I'm certainly adding those sites to my rolodex!! You have been such a huge help!

  18. Kailee

    Hey Kimberly and Emily!

    I actually own all three of those chairs in the picture! I got them at the rose bowl and the vendor told me Emily really really loved them. It's so funny to see them here cause I'm sitting in the green one right now. The pink love seat with the ottoman is my favorite. The green one is actually a rocker and has a ottoman as well. We were thinking about selling one of them and still might but we brought them to AZ. I looked to see if I could find the maker but there are no tags. Anyway you can email me if you are super serious but other wise good luck with the search! I about died when I saw them and snatched them up on the second go around when they were still available.

  19. Kailee

    Also Emily is right about bringing extra cash or checks cause we ALMOST bought those yellow chairs too but had to run and get extra money. By the time we got back they were gone. Every time I see them now I die and wish they were mine :)

  20. tia

    Big help for my next trip to Alameda Antique Fair…thanks!

  21. Lauren

    I can't decide who is luckier right now… Kailee or Megan. Ok, Megan, definitely. I hope she appreciates this prize as much as she should! I've never wanted to win anything so bad in my life. But Kailee, I just pinned your pink loveseat and ottoman before I read the comments. I'd die for them. So, if you're ever willing to part with them, PLEASE email me (lpcrenshaw@aol.com). Thanks! :)

  22. Kimberly (LolaLalaBean)

    Hi Kailee – OMG! You own all three of them? You are a very lucky lady!! I literally spent my day in Warren, Barrington and Bristol, RI going to vintage/consignment/antique shops looking for those chairs. I found one shopkeeper in Warren, RI who took my pictures and details so that he can search and find me one of those chairs with the ottoman. I love them all but I think the green with the ottoman is the perfect cocoon to snuggle up with a good design book. It looks like it has to be the most comfortable chair in the world. If you consider selling please give me a shout… kmfitzgerald27@gmail.com

    Thanks!!

  23. Great tips. I would kill to go to the rose bowl flea market. It's a bucket list thing for me.

  24. Rebecca

    Seriously Emily! I can't believe that you wouldn't think of wearing a disguise to the flea market. You could have too much fun changing it up each time you go. You could even get hubby to go along with the disguise. I could totally see you in old lady gear with hubby as your "grandson" escorting granny to the flea market. Think of the great deals you could score when people meet you and think it is so sweet! You could really have fun with it AND probably get some great deals. I dare you to do this AND then post some pics! I think it would be a blast!!

  25. cassy

    I've been waiting so long for you to write this one!!! And it's a really good one! Thank you miss Emily.

  26. Lori

    I wish I could find a good flea market around here. I've had absolutely no luck. Anyone know of one in or around Baltimore?

  27. I've been searching for a unique sofa, and I'd love to get something antique/vintage re-upholstered. However, all of the shops in San Francisco have quoted me $1800-$3000 to re-upholster sofas! Do you get $600-$800 just because you're a designer? Or is SoCal just cheaper? Let me know if you have any tips to find an affordable place!

    Thanks!!

  28. Michelle

    Dana – There is the San Diego Vintage Flea Market, which is this Sunday, November 18th at 9a – 3p. At the Heart Masonic Temple located at 695 Ballantyne St in El Cajon. Check out http://www.facebook.com/sdvintagefleamarket for more info.

  29. Thanks for the tips. I have two issues with flea markets: (1) I am NOT a morning person; and (2) I live in the Louisville, KY, area. I can get over the very early alarm clock, but unfortunately flea markets around here are the permanent kind in former Kmart buildings, and the stuff is usually crap. Like, trashy yard sale crap or hygiene products purchased at some sort of demented drugstore closeout. But … we are traveling to Germany this summer and my husband found some info on a huge flea market on Sundays in Berlin, so I'm going to try to schedule our visit to that city around it. I'm sure I'll find the most amazing large piece of furniture that I can't afford to ship back home, but at least it will be an experience!

  30. Carol

    Just re-reading this great post. Regarding Secret #4: "Love the shape more than the color" — If I'm having trouble visualizing beyond a blinding color or obnoxious finish I photograph it in black and white. Voila! Distractions gone!

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