It's possible to dress your place up in down times: Assemble your own furniture or buy it secondhand


If experience is the best teacher, some people are undoubtedly learning some valuable new coping skills these days. Like it or not, the economic recession is teaching some people to be by necessity what they never were by nature: frugal.

Of course, shoestring decorating never went out of style for some of us. Sprucing up the living room always took a back seat to the light bill, taxes, tuition, car payments and orthodontia. But for others, budget decorating may be an acquired skill.

If you're among them, don't fret. Furnishing and feathering a nest on a tight budget need not make you feel deprived. Be patient, resourceful and shop smart, and you can probably afford everything you need to make your home comfortable and attractive.

There's no better time than now to buy from conventional furniture stores or from the furniture department at department stores. Many of them are on the financial ropes themselves and have drastically reduced prices. Many are also offering very attractive financing plans. So, if you've been planning to make a big-ticket purchase -- sofa, chair, dining table, bedroom furniture -- now is the time to buy.

The advice from here is to buy high quality and lasting style. This age of austerity may be with us for a while. Good-quality furniture can be refinished or re-upholstered over and over again. Cheap, poor-quality furniture will fall apart long before it can be restored.

Also, it may be wise now to reconsider what used to be called "knockdown" furniture, recently rechristened "ready-to-assemble" furniture. Cost-conscious consumers will be happy to know that the price for RTA goods comes in at half to three-quarters of the cost of comparable already assembled furniture. Once the poor relations of factory-assembled furniture, RTA case goods -- television/stereo cabinets, shelving units, computer desks, coffee tables, bookcases, night stands, wardrobes and dressers -- have come a long way in the past few years.

The truth is, American RTA furniture had a long way to go to catch up with the European imports that flooded the domestic market in the early 1980s. The European products looked sleek and contemporary and incorporated concealed hinges and fasteners. A wide variety of components -- shelves, drop-down desk lids, glass or solid doors and drawers -- meant consumers could customize the units to suit their personal needs. At the time, similar American-made goods were cheap-looking and often flimsy.

Now, though, American manufacturers such as Sauder Woodworking of Ohio are giving the Europeans a run for the money. Not only has Sauder made significant improvements in the quality of construction -- concealed hinges and fasteners and magnetic touch latches are standard -- but it is also making its RTA furniture look much more appealing than ever before. That's important for consumers because until recently one of the most frequent complaints about RTA furniture was its plain-Jane character.

For more bargains, shop the recycled furniture market. Estate sales, thrift stores, antiques malls, consignment shops and auctions are all good sources for good furniture. True, you may have to wade through acres of schlock before you come across something worthy, but that only adds to the thrill of the hunt. Drop by secondhand outlets fairly often if you're looking for a special piece because the inventory moves fast. If you have something specific in mind, alert the shop owners. Many will be happy to call you if and when a particular piece turns up.

In upholstered goods, sofas and chairs from the '30s, '40s and '50s are still relatively plentiful and good buys. One of the best indicators of quality is weight. Heavy pieces suggest solid wood frames and quality construction. If you find a piece that is stylish and hefty but a bit shaky on its feet, use the last fact as a bargaining chip. Almost any upholstery shop can tighten loose joints, in addition to retying springs and replacing old cotton batting with synthetic padding. As with new sofas and chairs, look for quality in construction and an enduring style that can be brought back to life with new upholstery or a slipcover.

In recycled case goods, the market is even broader. Bookcases, wardrobes, cabinets, chests of drawers and dressers from a century or a decade ago are abundant. One recent trend is that bedroom furniture from the '30s, '40s and '50s is beginning to become collectible and is surfacing at secondhand sources. Many of these pieces were surfaced with beautiful, but often fragile veneers. Anything more significant than a minor flaw can cost more to fix than the piece is worth.

And don't overlook antiques shops, either. While shopping for antiques during an economic recession may sound extravagant, the truth is, antiques are often less expensive than their freshly made equivalents. Generally, you'll find that pine is still popular and often overpriced. But oak pieces -- tables, chairs, armoires, dressers, even elaborate Victorian-era oak beds -- are plentiful, affordable and attractive. There is also a renewed interest in darker woods -- mahogany, walnut -- as well as in maple and cherry.

For those not wedded to matched-set decorating, furniture shopping from a variety of high- and low-end sources makes a lot of sense. It allows you to make the most of limited resources and at the same time furnish your home with an eclectic mix of individually appealing pieces.

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