Everyone loves a bargain. Especially when it comes to furniture shopping. And there are always some good deals to be had if you know where to look. Seasoned bargain hunters can usually find some real treasures shopping the weekend garage sales or visiting the occasional estate auction. More tech savvy shoppers might take advantage of helpful apps like OfferUp or Letgo to find and score some money saving bargains on home furnishings. These are all great ways for people on a budget to furnish a new home or apartment.

However, there can be a downside to buying second hand furniture. First and foremost you never really know where the item you’re interested in has been. Even if the piece looks clean and fresh you can’t really be sure of its history, and that can be a real problem for bargain hunters. Let’s face it, none of us wants to find out that the bargain sofa we bought off of Craigslist is home to a colony of bed bugs. So, what can you do to protect yourself and your home while still managing to score those furniture bargains? Well, let’s look at a few simple tips to help you avoid bringing any unwanted pests in your home when buying second hand furnishings.

Use Common Sense with Roadside Finds

Fist off the mark, let’s get the obvious tip out of the way. We’ve all seen abandoned furniture on the side of the road. Quite often there will be a sign propped up on a discarded easy chair or love seat encouraging passersby to take the items free of charge. Sometimes the pieces will even look to be in pretty good shape. Perhaps someone has gotten a new living room suite and these older pieces just need to be retired, even though there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them. It seems like a great deal.

But is it? Remember, you don’t really know why the family has decided to get rid of that furniture and you don’t know what their home environment is like. Also, remember that bed bugs can hide in the smallest recesses of upholstered furniture as well as in the cracks and seams of wooden frames. It’s true that bed bugs can be easily spotted with the naked eye, but a quick inspection on the side of the road isn’t likely to be very thorough. Caution is key, and in this case it’s smarter to drive on by than to risk bringing unwanted pests into your home.

Avoid Upholstered Furniture

Who doesn’t love a comfy chair? The problem is, upholstery is a paradise for bed bugs and once they move in they can be nearly impossible to detect. Chances are the person selling the furniture will have vacuumed, or perhaps even dry cleaned, the piece. Unfortunately, neither vacuuming or dry cleaning is enough to totally kill off a bed bug colony. This is likely to be stragglers still lurking in the folds of the upholstery. There are some over the counter chemical treatments that claim to kill bed bugs on contact, however the success rate of these treatments is questionable at best. Even if they do work you’ll be left with a chair or sofa full of dead bed bugs and lingering chemical smell. So, unless you know the seller intimately (say a friend or relative) it’s probably best to avoid second hand upholstered furniture all together.

Beware the Hard Sell

The majority of second hand furniture sellers working out of a privately owned shop are honest vendors. That being said it’s always best to take what a seller tells you with a grain of salt. Many will promise that the items they are selling are bed bug free, claiming they’ve taken the necessary steps to protect their customers. Still, the truth of the matter is, it’s extremely hard to be certain that a piece of second hand furniture is entirely free of pests.

Many vendors do take proactive steps to ensure that the furniture on their showroom floor is pest free. Unfortunately, many of these steps are closer to myths than to science. For example, it is commonly believed that extreme heat or extreme cold will kill a colony of bed bugs. While this is largely true, the extreme temperatures needed to kill a family of bed bugs are nearly impossible to produce in anything other than laboratory conditions. In order to totally eradicate a bed bug infestation a piece of furniture would need to be subjected to temperatures exceeding 110º Fahrenheit for more than six hours or temperatures of less than 20º Fahrenheit for roughly a week. Neither option seems likely for a second hand furniture salesmen.

Some vendors will also claim that their stock has been housed in a clean warehouse for months before it goes out on the shop’s floor. Remember, bed bugs can survive up to 18 months without food. It’s unlikely any seller would sit on stock for that long before putting it out for sale.

Buy Clean, Hard Surfaced, Streamlined Pieces

If it seems like we’ve eliminated all of your buying options when it comes to second hand furniture that’s not entirely true. There are still some good deals to be had. If you’re going to go second hand for any of your home furnishings stick to items with hard and easy to clean surfaces, preferable with few or any crevices that could be home to unwanted pests. Book shelves, nightstands, tables and dressers make good second hand purchases. As always, closely inspect anything you are considering purchasing before closing the deal. In fact, here are a few inspection tips for any second hand furniture purchases.

Inspect Before You Buy

Bed bugs are experts at hiding, but they aren’t invisible. If you know what to look for you can reduce your chances of buying an infested piece of second hand furniture. If you find an item you’re interested in, grab a flashlight and a magnifying glass and follow these steps to check for any signs of bed bug activity:

  • Look for tell-tale black spots on hard and soft surfaces. These deposits are left by bed bugs after feeding and is a good indication that the piece has been, and probably still is, home to a colony of bed bugs.

  • Look for reddish smears or streaks on fabrics or other soft surfaces. Again, these are typically left by bed bugs while they are feeding.

  • Check the backs of headboards and the undersides of tables and shelves for live bed bugs or molted skins. Also the insides and undersides of dressers and nightstands. If you find what appear to be dead bed bugs don’t be fooled – others may be hiding in deeper crevices or the woodwork.

  • Check furniture joints, seams, cracks and crevices for any signs of bed bug activity. Give special attention to screw holes and nail holes.

  • Check any painted pieces for chipped paint. Bed bugs can hide behind loose or peeling paint.

For those of us on a budget shopping second hand can be a great way to furnish a new home, apartment or dorm room while still saving a bit of money. However, as always, it is important to shop smart. Only buy from trusted sellers and take the time to inspect any and all items before making your purchase. Remember, bed bugs can reproduce and multiply at an alarming rate. A small family of bed bugs on a second hand chair can quickly turn into a full scale home invasion, and if that happens the money you saved won’t seem like such a good deal after all.