Your bedbug-free apartment will thank you.
Nathan Hescock owns a used furniture store on the corner of 32nd Street and Broadway in Manhattan. He also teaches an evening ballroom dance class at the United Nations; when the weather is nice, he’ll leave work and walk there, a half hour through Murray Hill and over to the headquarters on the East River. Along the way, he scans the sidewalk for discarded furniture. Once, he picked up a chandelier. Getting it though the security scanners at the UN, he says, was a struggle. But it was worth it.
“I’m a huge advocate of picking up found furniture,” says Hescock. The things that people throw away have a sense of history about them. Plus, “there’s the environmental aspect,” he adds. It’s hard to justify always buying new when, if you know what you’re looking for, city streets can become your personal flea market—one that’s delightfully free.
That is not to say furniture dumpster diving is always the right move. There’s another line of thinking here, one that cautions that when something is thrown away, there’s a reason for it, and it’s probably not anything you’d want to bring into your apartment.
But the lure of found furniture can be very hard to resist. So we spoke to some experts about what’s safe to grab when you’re out scavenging the streets, what definitely isn’t, and how to clean your newly adopted décor.
Fine to take
Metal and wrought-iron pieces, like patio chairs and bistro tables, are usually a safe bet, says Cindy Dole, the co-host of the radio show Home Wizards. Those materials create a hostile environment for bugs and other critters, and they’re more resistant to damage than wood. The one major concern with metals is aesthetic: rust. “Sometimes, once it’s there, it can just be there, and you have to deal with it,” says Mark Alverson, who works at Ohmega Salvage in Berkeley, California. But if you want to take a whack at removing it, Dole suggests using a wire brush or steel wool to scrape off what you can, then applying a mixture of lemon oil, salt, and ammonia (or a store-bought rust remover) to clear off the rest; coat it with durable outdoor primer and paint when you’re done.
Plastics, like lawn sets, are generally fine to take, too. Just make sure to wipe them down with a disinfectant, like Lysol, Dole says. A homemade mix of vinegar and water usually does the trick, and can eliminate take most odors (even the ones you might not notice right away, amid the city’s other olfactory delights).
Full disclosure: my senior year of college, I slept on a mattress I took from the sidewalk in front of my house in Philadelphia. Upon hearing that, every one of the experts I spoke to reacted the same way: with horror. Why? Bedbugs.
I got lucky; my mattress was mercifully crawly-free. But, Hescock says, “I would never take a mattress, ever.” Bedbugs thrive in soft environments, like cushions, rugs, and couches. Once they’ve settled in, they get everywhere: into clothes, suitcases, nooks and crannies. Even the most aggressive steam cleaning and disinfecting, Hescock says, doesn’t guarantee an infestation-free item. Plus, there’s no way to know how long something’s been sitting out; soft furnishings left out during a rainstorm or a dewy spring morning are basically mold factories.
When it comes to these items, your best bet is to swallow your thriftiness and just buy new.
The one exception for the “no upholstered furniture, ever” rule is if you stumble across something like a dining room chair, where only the seat is made of fabric (aim for 75 percent solid material, Hescock recommends). If you can remove and re-cover the cushion, the chair will likely be salvageable.
However, if the chair is made of wood, you’re not necessarily home free. Rot can render a piece problematic or useless; it manifests in soft, brittle, or cracked areas, often covered in a very unappealing gray dust. And of course, there are critters to consider: bedbugs and termites thrive in wood, Dole says. The same goes for cheaper materials like laminate: even though the outside is plastic, the interior is composed of cheap wood composites like particle board, which are very susceptible to damage.
Dole recommends doing a thorough scan, starting at the bottom, before deciding to bring an item home. “Most often, bugs will lay eggs in furniture feet or in the floor- or wall-facing crevices,” she says. They also tend to hide out in the seams and creases of furniture, or in the holes created by drawer knobs. Use a flashlight (the light on your phone works, too) to do a thorough scan of all these areas. If you see any evidence of bugs or eggs, don’t bother taking the piece.
Even if you don’t see any signs of bugs, Dole says, it’s still a good idea to clean your find thoroughly before bringing it inside. Remove all the separate pieces—drawers, hidden compartments—and blast the whole thing with a strong fan or leaf blower. “You’ll be surprised at how much excess dust and debris there is,” Dole says. Then, spray it down with all-purpose bug spray and let it dry out; you can use the same vinegar and water mixture from above to tackle smells. Water stains, she says, can be treated by rubbing the affected area with mayonnaise, then applying white toothpaste over it with a soft cloth until the stain disappears.
The excess of caution, Dole says, is worth it, especially if the piece you find is an antique; they’re more soundly constructed, and are made from materials far more durable than modern substitutes like laminate or veneer. Plus, they look good.
When you bring home something found on the street, you’re making a statement, Alverson says. “You’re seeing the potential in something that wasn’t desired before.” Just make sure, he adds, that your intrepid altruism doesn’t land you with a sticky situation in your apartment. “I don’t mean to sound like a hippie,” he says, “but if you’re getting a weird vibe from something, don’t take it. You’ve got to use your eyes, your hands, your nose—it all comes down to common sense.”