Buying Guides

How to: Shop at flea markets

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Buying Guides

How to: Shop at flea markets

When it comes to mastering the flea market experience, there are a few basic rules: Dress down, be unfashionably early and drive a clunker. Why? You'll be on your feet all day; you don't want other shoppers snagging your must-have items; and larger pieces might be tough on your leather interior.

Kim Murray, owner of Ottawa-based online store anythinggoesonline.ca, scours flea markets for the vintage and antique furnishings available on her website. She follows more advanced rules for this kind of thrifty shopping. Here are Kim's tips for making the most of your experience.

Before you go:
Study -- If you're looking for antiques, learn all you can about the time period. "Investigate the era's construction methods, materials and design," says Kim. Train your eye to spot them quickly -- and from further away than the average shopper. You'll get the best deals and get them first.

What to bring:
Cash -- Not all flea market vendors take credit cards and most won't accept personal cheques. Small bills are best, especially if you want to haggle.

A list -- It won't guarantee that you'll find what you're looking for, but you'll always be mindful of what you set out to get if you've got it written down.

Tool kit -- If you're looking for a table or large piece of furniture, you might not be able to get it into your mini-van without taking off the legs or the doors first. You'll also want to measure pieces before you even try to haul them away (to make sure they'll fit your car and your home). A screwdriver and tape measure are good staples.

Your own packing materials -- Bubble wrap for breakables; blankets for items that scratch and mar easily; plastic bags for small collectibles. Don't count on merchants providing these items for you.

Photos and measured floor plans of your home; swatches of fabric; and paint chips as well -- That way you can spot items that weren't on your list, but that might work wonders in your space.

When you arrive:
Be prepared to bargain -- "But be respectful," says Kim.

Look past the obvious -- Items that are prominently displayed tend to be the most expensive.

Pick up and feel everything you can -- The wear of an item can be an indication of how old it is. "If you're looking at a wooden chair that's supposed to be 100 years old," says Kim, "and there's no wear on the rungs, it's either refinished, a reproduction or was never used -- that's rare." Older wooden items often have subtle uneven hand-planed surfaces. They feel "wavy" when you pass your hand over them. When it comes to vintage cabinets, the backs usually are a darker-colour called "air burn," according to Kim.

Inspect closely -- At most flea markets, you're buying "as-is." Plug in electrical items, pull up extra table leaves, open and close hutch doors...make sure everything is in working order before you leave.

Ask for what you want -- Just because the seller doesn't have a 1950's crystal chandelier out on her display table, doesn't mean she won't have one in her truck.

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Buying Guides

How to: Shop at flea markets