Money College: First-class bargains with second-hand furnishings

furnitureSigning the dotted line on the first apartment is only the beginning of independent living. Gone are the luxuries of furnished dorms, but then again, so are those hefty on-campus housing rates.

You might be glad to leave behind that standardized wooden dorm furniture and express your inner interior designer. Your checking account doesn't need to determine your new pad's appearance either. Before you run out to the nearest IKEA, consider buying used.

Prep work
Shopping for used furnishings takes prep work. Before you hop on Craigslist, you need a plan. Start by asking yourself: How much space do you need to fill? What do you, your family, or your friends already own that can contribute to your spot? How much are you willing to spend?

Once you figure out a few of those essentials, its time to get together a budget defining how much is too much to spend on furnishings. Be reasonable with yourself -- it's used but you'd still be hard-pressed to find a couch for $5.

And remember those measurements you were dwelling on when trying to figure out the price by square foot? Those measurements are important again. Before you move something in, you have to make sure it will fit. If your bedroom is 10 x 10, you probably won't want to squeeze in a queen-size bed. Other set-ups won't be so obvious so know room and wall measurements before you start to shop.

Unless you brought your family's minivan to college, you might need to consider how you are going to transport your finds. While I do have a friend who carried a futon down Chicago's city blocks back to his apartment, its better to ask friends with cars or vans for assistance.

You can also rent a U-Haul or other rental transportation. It is worth figuring out in advance -- it would be a shame to find your dream dresser only to discover you can't get it back to your place.

Start shopping
The best way to shop used is to figure out what you can get for free. If your parents won't part with their old kitchen table, that doesn't necessarily mean you'll have to pay. Curbside scavengers and Dumpster divers know that people throw away furniture among other items that are not really damaged or are easily repairable.

However, examine closely -- you don't won't to bring home a couch that appears fine only to find its covered in cat pee once moved into your apartment. Most people prefer to stay out of the Dumpsters and the free section on Craigslist accomplishes essentially the same action with a bit more competition.

While postings offer anything from free haircuts to a set of baby bottles, in general, people want to get rid of their larger items -- pianos, love seats, cabinets and desks. Another way to find furnishings is through Freecycle, a non-profit organization that sets up the giving and getting of unwanted goods. With it's eco-friendly message of keeping "stuff" out of landfills, its an easy way to get gratis goods. Membership is also free and its organized on a local level.

Craigslist is also the place to shop when money is involved. Click on the furniture tab under the "for sale" header to browse through 100 postings at a time. Use the search box as well as price maximums to your advantage. Along with the convenience of this online haven came scams so follow Craigslist's terms on personal safety and advice on avoiding scams.

Once you arrive on the scene to conduct the sale, you have the right to examine the piece. If something is damaged, think of how it can be repaired before writing it off completely. You also can try to haggle. Maybe this piece is in hot demand online or maybe the seller can't wait to get rid of it. So make an offer, worst case, you end up paying asking price.

Etsy is home to handmade crafters and vintage sellers. You can use the site to find one-of-a-kind furniture. These pieces may not be the cheapest, but they could add flair to an otherwise bland apartment. But beware that Etsy is a worldwide marketplace before you fall in love with a hand painted dresser in Australia. Vintage stores such as Cleveland's Flower Child have done the legwork for you. While the prices might be higher, they tend to sell retro items in peak condition.

Antique sellers will take the same care of vintage pieces. Thrift stores like national Salvation Army locations and Chicago's Brown Elephant carry reasonable furniture. To make it even sweeter, funds from these thrift store sales go to a good cause (the Brown Elephant benefits the Howard Brown Health Center).

Don't forget to check estate sales and yard sales for deals. It may be an old school way to shop, but the potential for haggling makes it viable option.

Whether in person or online, free or a nominal fee, buying used is the best way to punch up your apartment.
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