Five challenges of buying used – and how to overcome them

Buying used takes a little more work and patience. But the rewards can be great.

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    Heather Mitchell shops for her two-year-old daughter at Beanstalk Consignment in Hingham, Mass., in this 2008 photo. One key to buying used is patience.
    Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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I revel in used stuff.

I use PaperBackSwap almost religiously. I love shopping at thrift stores and consignment shops. I look forward to yard sales and make a day out of “community yard sale day.”

Undeniably, though, there are drawbacks. Sure, you get a nice financial bargain, but no purchase is a perfect one. Whenever I talk about my love of buying things used, I hear from people about the problems of buying used – and some of the same topics come up time and time again.

Used stuff smells funny or isn’t clean
Used books can sometimes smell musty. Used clothes sometimes don’t seem perfectly clean. The same goes with used dishes and countless other items. The amazing thing, though, is that things can actually be cleaned really easily.

Take those used clothes home and give them a washing before you wear them. Take used dishes home with you and scrub them. It doesn’t take that long and isn’t that hard – really!

If an item smells musty, it’s probably got a high moisture content and a touch of mold. Sit it in front of a running fan for a while, then put it in a box with a dish of baking soda for a few days. The musty smell will be gone.

It takes too much time to buy used stuff
Compared to just running down to Wal-Mart and picking up whatever $3 shirts they have freshly imported from China, buying used does take more time than buying new. However, if you normally invest at least some time in the purchase of an item, it’s not particularly more time effective to go to a “name” retailer than it is to buy used.

The key is patience. It’s not a matter of taking too much time to find what you want when shopping used. It’s more a matter of convenience. If you expect that you’re going to go out for a day of shopping and come home with two outfits, period, then you’re missing the point of buying used.

The point of buying used is to slowly make a list of the stuff you need. “I sure could replace that lawnmower … and I do need some new shirts … and maybe I could use a few cheap books, too.” That’s the attitude to take when you’re shopping used.

I feel cheap buying used stuff
The good old cult of the new rears its ugly head again and again. The idea that something “new” is inherently better than something “used” is often wrong, particularly when you consider that the “used” item is for sale at a lower price than the new item.

I view it a bit differently. For me, a good used item often has most of its lifetime left, but you’re only paying a fraction of the cost for it. Used books. Used shirts. Used pants. Used dishes. Used Kitchen Aid stand mixers. Most of the time, when you find these items used, most of their useful life is ahead of them.

I have a used stand mixer in my kitchen that would have cost $600 if I had purchased it new. Many (possibly most – I’d have to count) of the shirts in my closet, the ones I don’t mind wearing to any event, were purchased used.

The idea that we need new, new, new is planted in our heads by marketers who have a product to sell, so they make new look as sexy as possible and used look as unsexy as possible. In truth, used merely means you’re finding a new home for something great.

Used stores and sales simply don’t have the specific item I need
If you’re shopping for something highly specific, you’re likely going to have to pay for that specificity. Specificity has a price. If you must have a blue striped shirt made with at least 80% cotton, you’re going to have to search more and likely have to pay more than if you simply need a new dress shirt for work.

This is particularly true when buying used. If you go to a used sale with a highly specific item in mind, you’re likely going to be disappointed. The more general your desire, the more likely you are to find success.

So instead of looking for a very specific shirt, simply go in with the mindset that you simply need a shirt that fits. Instead of looking for a specific kind of dish, go in with a general idea of dishes you might buy. You’re much more likely to find just what you need if you’re a little less specific in your desires.

Used stuff is junk; no one else wants it
Over the years, I’ve taken a lot of high quality items to thrift stores. I’ve taken barely-worn clothes that just didn’t fit but were missing tags and gift receipts. I’ve taken countless gifts such as dinner plates because they were gifted without receipts. I’ve taken piles of barely watched DVDs and barely listened CDs. I’ve taken children’s toys that our kids simply don’t play with – practically new items.

And so do other people.

There’s an awful lot of good stuff at secondhand stores. Yes, there’s some dreadful junk, too. But that’s easy enough to handle – just ignore it and look for stuff you actually want.

I have no interest in 95% of the junk at an average thrift sale. I also have no interest in 95% of the junk at your typical department store. So what’s the difference?

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