Thrift shops can be wonderlands of bargain-priced fashion and quirky home goods. But it can take some digging and shopping savvy to separate the true treasures from items that aren't worth the money.
Insider spoke with current and former thrift-store employees to get their take on what to always buy at a thrift shop and which items to avoid bringing home.
Used books are a smart thrift-store purchase.
Thrift stores often have a range of genres. Former thrift-store cashier David Burbridge told Insider that used books are some of the best items to pick up at a thrift store.
"Books never go out of style, you can't buy the wrong size, and they're often a great value when compared to buying new," said Burbridge.
Burbridge also explained that since so many people donate books to thrift shops, some stores may actually have too many in stock. This often leads to sales where you can pick up books for mere pennies.
Stock up on clothes hangers at secondhand stores.
Some thrift shops will give hangers away for free. Why spend money on pricey hangers when there are piles of cheap ones to be had at your local thrift shop?
"I wish more people would come in to buy hangers! We're almost always drowning in them," Burbridge told Insider. "They're usually just a dollar or two for a huge pack, though sometimes we'll give them away for free."
Solid-wood furniture is usually a great investment.
Wooden furniture isn't always easy to find. Karen Spintzhauser, a former Salvation Army employee, told Insider that picking up a solid-wood piece of furniture at a thrift shop is typically a good idea.
"So much modern furniture is particleboard held together by glue and plastic screws. Finding a solid wood piece that is well-constructed is like finding treasure," said Spintzhauser. "I'd buy every time."
If you don't like the finish or color of an item of wooden furniture, stripping and staining or repainting it can breathe new life into the piece.
Thrift shops are the ideal spot to pick up baby clothes.
Babies grow out of new clothes in the blink of an eye. If you're expecting a baby or know someone who is, buying a pile of baby clothes from a thrift shop is an incredibly economical way to dress a new family member.
"Baby clothes were some of our most donated items, and they're also extremely popular purchases," said Spintzhauser. "If your child is only going to fit into something for a few months, I think it's smart to buy it used."
Dishes and cups are the perfect items to buy secondhand.
You can find simple and colorful cup and plate designs. Whether you're trying to fill bare kitchen cupboards or are just on the hunt for some quirky tableware, thrift shops should be your first stop.
"For me, there's no reason to buy glasses, mugs, or plates new. You can find so many nice sets and fun items at thrift shops for a fraction of the full price," said Burbridge. Though it can sometimes be tricky to find a full set of the same dish or glass, it's worth poking around in a thrift shop for bargains before buying full-price tableware.
On the other hand, electronics and appliances can be risky thrift-store purchases.
There's no guarantee the items you purchase will work. Burbridge told Insider that even though most thrift stores will try to make sure gadgets function as intended before placing them for sale, it's hard to really know the quality of any electronics you buy.
"With an electronic or appliance, you don't know how long it's been in use and whether all the wiring, buttons, and pieces are in good shape," Burbridge told Insider. "I would pass on electronics that aren't in their original packaging."
That bargain toaster may only last you a few breakfasts, but Burbridge noted that thrift stores can be good spots to find deals on batteries and vintage electronics.
Some furniture or toys for young children should not be bought at thrift shops.
Be sure to check items for loose or broken parts before purchasing them. Although the toys and nursery furniture at thrift shops are often very cheap, parents should avoid bringing home certain secondhand children's items. This is because outdated manufacturing standards or incorrect assembly can make some items unsafe for kids.
"It's tough because some families can only afford secondhand toys," said Burbridge. "I would not buy anything with visibly peeling paint, small loose parts, or anything that looks like it's been put together by an amateur."
Parents should also check toys for loose components that could be swallowed, such as plastic eyes or small batteries, and always secure any freestanding nursery furniture to the wall to prevent accidents.
Buying clothing at a thrift shop can be hit or miss, so just be extra meticulous when shopping.
Keep an eye out for stains, rips, and missing buttons. Most thrift shops offer steeply discounted clothing, but not all items are equal. Burbridge explained that buying secondhand means that you need to pay extra attention to the quality of the pieces on offer.
"From an environmental standpoint, it's always good to buy clothes secondhand. But practically, it can take some digging to find items that are worth the money," said Burbridge.
You should check seams, test buttons, and make sure the hems of pants and dresses are in good shape before you buy.
You may want to reconsider buying mattresses and upholstered furniture at secondhand stores.
Some furniture could contain allergens. Burbridge told Insider that shoppers should be wary of buying cushioned or upholstered furniture at thrift shops or secondhand stores. That's because pillows, cushions, and mattresses may hide bedbugs or fleas.
"It depends on where you're shopping, because a lot of places will check for bugs before selling. But many places won't, especially smaller shops," said Burbridge. "I would never buy a mattress secondhand."
Even if an item of furniture isn't harboring insect hitchhikers, shoppers with allergies may want to avoid upholstered goods due to the risk of lingering pet dander or mold allergens.
By Sophia Mitrokostas, Insider