Frugal homebuying

By Mir
May 21, 2008

Oh, not that I have any tips on how to actually buy a home frugally (um, buy low and sell high!), but everyone knows that the money is just starting to flow out the door when you first buy the house. After that, you have to start moving in, and that’s where you end up nickeled and dimed to death, right?

The very pretty Allison writes:

I have been a fan of your website for many months now, and appreciate your ideas and advice. My husband and I will be first time homebuyers by the end of this month. This is wonderful, but leaves little money to do aesthetic fixes such as painting, putting up a backyard fence, getting new furniture (patio furniture too), etc.

Do you have any advice on ways to find good deals on things such as paint, or light fixtures, and especially furniture?

Allison gets an A+ for sucking up. Good work, Allison! I, however, get an F for timeliness, because Allison sent this to me a month ago and probably already moved. Whoops! Sorry about that! Let’s see what we can do, anyway.

The first thing you need to do—if you haven’t already—is go sign up for 10% off coupons from both Home Depot and Lowe’s, assuming that you have local stores where you can use them. The good news is that every time you move, you can sign up for 10% off coupons! The bad news is that (assumedly to prevent abuse of said coupons) they can take a while to come. These are excellent items to have in hand, though, for when you do the big trip where you buy all of those little things like door stops and blind pulls and lightbulbs and you get to the checkout line and realize you have $800 worth of stuff in your cart.

Not that that’s ever happened to me. Ahem.

Alright. A few things about the kind of stuff you’ll buy at the home improvement store:

Don’t skimp on paint. I want to save money on paint, too, but the reality is that cheap paint is, well, cheap paint. And it isn’t cheap if you have to repaint a year later. Do some poking around online to get a sense of what’s worth it and what isn’t. I had already read that Behr paint was highly-rated but then I had several contractors tell me that “it’s called Behr because it BAREly covers!” I used Behr in my old house and had some chipping problems. Lowe’s house brand is ValSpar and I’ve used that with good results. Do your own research, of course, and then check to see if stores around you ever put stuff on sale. But do not just buy the cheapest paint. Please.

Invest in items you’ll use, buy cheap for things you won’t. If you’re going to be cleaning out rain gutters twice a year, for the love of all that’s holy, buy yourself a decent ladder. On the other hand, if your husband is fixing that one funny pipe that requires a specialized strap wrench that you can’t used anywhere else in the house, buy the cheapest one they have. This is common sense, of course, but the point is to stop and think: How much will we use this? For many items, the price difference is small, but it adds up.

Prioritize your needs. If there are no lights in your kitchen, you need new lights. If the lights in your kitchen are ugly, you don’t need them, you want them. Take an honest assessment of your budget and categorize purchases into three categories: To Do Right Now, To Do In A Year, and To Do When We Can. Seeing it all laid out in a grid will help you figure out what you can afford.

For patio furniture, you probably already know that this is the wrong time of year to get a smoking deal. It’s not impossible, of course, but the best time to get a deal on outdoor furniture is at the end of the season. If you don’t want to wait a couple of months, check out Target (free shipping on select patio stuff right now), Overstock, and your local “bargain” stores like Big Lots. Heck, even places like the grocery stores ’round here carry patio sets, so depending on what you want and your timing, you may luck into a deal.

Overstock carries a ton of discounted regular furniture as well, although of course the problem there is that you don’t get to see it in person. We bought our dining room furniture at Pier 1 after visiting it several times; the salesgirl finally took pity on us and told us when it was going on sale. As soon as it did, we snapped it up, along with a store credit card that gave us another 10% off and some bonus certificates for a future purchase. (We later spent them on a coat rack. Score!)

You really need to spend some time trolling your local furniture stores and figuring out what you want before you know what compromises you’re willing to make to get things cheaper. Are you willing to buy furniture you’ve never touched in person? Are you willing to take a “scratch-n-dent” item in return for a discount? Do you have your heart set on a particular item that can only be gotten a particular way, and therefore the right thing to do is just put on your big girl pants and pay up? You’re the only one who can answer those sorts of questions.

For me, for example, there were years where I bought those cheap office supply store bookshelves, and because I’m a total book hound they periodically fell apart and then I bought more. They were cheap, but they were also ugly, and furthermore, not very sturdy. One day I realized that I could shell out money for some real bookcases and only do it once, forever and ever amen. That was a good day.

Bottom line: Be mindful, and the rest will follow, grasshopper.

Readers, more tips to share?


  1. This is a great time of year to check out garage sales. Ones listed as moving sales often have nicer furniture. You could check if there’s a Habitat for Humanity ReStore around to find some fixtures, etc. I’ve also been using Freecycle (has local things people want to part with for free…sometimes very nice people part with some very nice things!) One more thing to check, but may not pan out…My state has a website where it lists state auctions for things such as forfeited vehicles, etc. Recently there have been other things: office furniture and a couple of weeks ago an entire online auction of patio furniture sets. Check and see if your state has these auctions.

  2. Just want to echo Mir’s comment about Pier One and sales. If you have your eye on an item, and you’re interested in buying it, just ask when/if it’s going to go on sale next. They have that information (or at least they did when I worked there, I doubt it’s changed in the last couple of years) and they’d rather sell you something on sale than not at all. Just ask! The worst thing they can do is say: “I don’t know” or “I’m not allowed to tell you”–but it doesn’t hurt.

    That probably goes for most places, actually. 🙂 Especially if you say, “I love this couch, but I can’t afford it if it’s not on sale.”

  3. Also see what you can do yourself, when we need new book cases and simple things we buy the lumber and my handy hubby builds exactly what I want, I paint it and then we have a sturdy attractive bookcase, simple desk, storage bins for comparatively cheap; there are great ideas on and Also check goodwill, salvation army and consignment shops for great deals on furniture, even patio furniture–it may need a new coat of paint but that’s an easy fix. And antique shops, auctions, and estate sales are another great way to outfit a home. Also let friends know what you are looking for so that if they spot a deal they can give you a call!

  4. My BIL is a painter and would only let us buy Benjamin Moore. It is expensive but we have never had a problem. Also with painting it is probably as important to know what you are doing before you do it. Make sure the walls are clean and primed or you’ll have a bad result and end up starting over.

    Put the word out that your priority is working on your home. Be specific. Then if your neighbor sees a big carpet sale on his way to work, he might mention it. If your mom notices a deal on plants for landscaping, she can pass it along. Birthdays will all of a sudden consist of collecting gift certificates to Lowes and Home Depot and you won’t feel as guilty about buying that new light fixture that you really don’t need. By putting the word out about our wishes, I was able to score a Thomasville china cabinet when a coworker was renovating her house and it didn’t fit anymore.

    Take your time, finish one project before you start another. We are (were) in the same boat and 2.5 years later, we are still crossing things off of The List (new downstairs doors this month). Its a very slow process but it can be fun (I’ve heard… I think it gets fun when you start to see yourself in your house. I’ll let you know whenever that starts to happen).

  5. I worked in the paint department of a Home Depot for a while, and I can tell you these things:
    1)Behr paint is overrated and smells bad. They put a fungicide in it, and smelling that for hours is sure to take care of some of those pesky brain cells for you.
    2)Glidden paint is cheaper, smells better, and works great, especially for the price.
    3)You can pretty successfully color-match a Behr color to a Glidden, so don’t let that stop you.
    4)PRIMER! PRIMER! PRIMER! Even if the paint you’re going over is new. ALWAYS use primer. If you are are going with a dark color or a red, use a tinted primer. Ralph Lauren (also at H.D.) makes a good one that is worth the bucks.

    Those are the basics of my paint knowledge. I hope they help someone.

  6. Ooo! One more thing- it’s worth it to but a quart or two of the colors you are thinking about (after narrowing down as much as possible) so that you can test on the wall. Seeing it in real life can make a HUGE difference, and save you a lot of time and money.

  7. I used Behr. Once. I hated it. We moved into a house where the kitchen was light pink. Painted over it with a medium bright yellow which was much darker than the pink, actually. After 3 coats, I gave up. The pink just kept looking darker and showing through. I painted every other room in the house with Glidden and it worked great. Just don’t use the cheapest Glidden. Go for the higher priced one it has much better coverage, especially if you are doing a darker color. 2 coats of a dark blue worked great in my daughter’s room over a white primer. Also, I ALWAYS use KILZ for a the primer. Always.

  8. My “secret sources” for renovating/redecorating:

    Marshall’s/TJ Maxx/Home Goods has bathroom fixtures – not the hardware (i.e. faucets) but towel bars, tp holders, door hooks, shower rods. Prices well below HD or any other source. While you’re there, check out the cool decor stuff. Love their framed mirrors, eclectic lamp collection, piles of baskets, large vases, funky accessories…

    Goodwill Thrift Shops – at least here in NYC, they have a partnership with Target, who sends them all their returns/open box/last season stuff. I’ve scored a floor lamp, a king-size comforter, a small area rug, and more — all brand new and at least 50% off the regular price.

    With some things, like appliances, you can save quite a bit by price shopping online, of course. Start with

    I second Freecycle, too! Most of the stuff I’ve gotten has been sport & kid related, but I’ve GIVEN (open, but barely used) gallons of paint, leftover ceramic tile (enough to do a large kitchen backsplash), and other construction surplus that otherwise would have taken up precious closet space or ended up in a landfill! Post what you need – more than once! Be specific – but not too specific – and you just may get what you need.

  9. We recently bought some lovely new lamps for our living room. We had very specific lamps that we wanted (not usually the way to go if you’re looking for deals), and ordered them from an indepedent furniture store. But I just ASKED them if I they could help me out with the price and they gave me 20% off, which was significant.

    So that’s my tip: Ask nicely for a discount, and you might get it!

  10. Join your local FREECYCLE site. We freecycled so many light fixtures (we immediately put ceiling fans in all over the house) that were still in good condition. I know there were some happy people that came to pick those up. We also freecycled an old rug, all the old carpet when we installed hardwoods, and all the old bathroom toilet, sinks, and cabinetry when we remodeled.

    We have also obtained a set of patio furniture, a floor lamp, and an airmattress from freecyclers.

  11. Having just done this myself, I have lots of tips……
    Use freecycle, craigslist, or consignment shops, you will be surprised at what people get rid of sometimes. I know craigslist has a section called “material” It has countertops, sinks, tile, etc. at low prices for contractor overstocks. Check them out!

    Talk to friends and family. People have all sorts of treasures stored away, or that they want to get rid of. Offer them some money for it instead of them having to have a garage sale to get rid of it.

    Whenever possible, do the work yourself. Having someone do your fence is expensive (adding to an already expensive fence) doing it yourself will save you lots of coin.

    Good luck.

  12. We have had great luck with the Lowe’s brand of paint (called Valspar now, I think). They almost always have a paint rebate sale at Memorial Day and Labor Day, which helps you to save some $.
    As someone mentioned, our Goodwill stores have agreements with Targets and I have found some amazing deals on brand new items (area rug, bathroom shelf, like new drapes, etc). I usually breeze through the picture frames/decor/etc. because you can change out a photo if it is in a great frame, paint something, etc. You would not believe what people donate.
    Moving sales are great, as is TJMaxx, Ross Dress for Less, etc. Just keep your eyes open and remember it all takes time! I still carry paint chips around in my wallet (now 3 years that we’ve been in this house) in case I see that perfect item!

  13. has some great deals on high-end light fixtures, sinks, and stuff like that. Just try to price-match online before buying to make sure you’re really getting a high-end item. saves me money regularly on online purchases– check there before you buy anything to see if someone’s posted a good coupon. I bought house numbers and a clearanced light figure at Restoration Hardware a few months ago and saved an additional 20% because I hunted there for a coupon.

    My opinion on bookshelves: Good wooden bookshelves are usually pretty expensive. Finding a place in your house to build in a wall of bookshelves, however, can be surprisingly cheap (esp if you do the building yourself and can paint and use MDF instead of wood where possible). If you do a good job, they’ll add value to your house, too.

    If you’re not handy, start asking around your town now for referrals to good handymen/carpenters/plumbers/electricians. You want to have a contact on hand when something goes wrong and your need help right away– and knowing where you can hire good help can help motivate you to start/finish the more difficult redecorating projects.

    Habitat for Humanity runs resale shops for construction/home items; you can sometimes net amazing deals there, esp. if your taste runs toward vintage. If you don’t have a Habitat store, check for “architectural salvage” stores.

    Flea markets can yield amazing treasures, if you have the patience for the hunt. Even if you’re in a flea market with booths, ask the cashier if they could take 20% less for an item. He/she can usually either bargain with you or call the both owner to get their approval. I regularly save 15-25% this way.

    Finally, I’d say DON’T BE IN A HURRY. If you take your time, you can score great deals and your home’s “look” will develop naturally and gradually. If you buy it all at once, you’re more likely to pay out the nose, and your entire decor will be from one time period in your life (and one design fad period)– which means you’ll someday wake up and be sick of the whole darn thing.

  14. For Paint, this goes against what everyone has said, but it works for me, so feel free to ignore me if you are AGHAST at what I’m going to put out there….

    Many home improvement stores sell “oops” cans of paint.. gallons of paint that they either mixed in the wrong finish (Eggshell when the customer really wanted super glossy or whatever) or the color was wrong or something like that.

    I check the Oops paint every time I walk through just to see what colors they have. If it’s even remotely close to the color I’m thinking of, I stop and check the finish and think about how it could be added to in order to get the right color. A lot of times, on a slower day, you can talk the person behind the counter into fiddling with it to get it closer to the color you want if it’s not already there and at $5 a gallon, that’s a cheap can of paint.

    I painted my son’s entire room dark blue with one gallon of $5 oops paint from Home Depot, my laundry room is a bright cheery yellow (again, $5) and their playroom has four different colored walls from other Ooops paint bargains – one of which was a bit too pink for my taste, so I had the paint guy add in some blue and it’s a nice shade of purple.

    Obviously, if you are super picky about the exact right wall color, this isn’t going to work for you, but to me it’s really fun and I can afford to change the colors of my walls a lot more often if I’m only paying $5 instead of $40.

  15. We have a local place called Habitat Restore. It sells housing materials that have been donated, and the proceeds all go to Habitat for Humanity. If there’s such a place in your neck of the woods, you could score some good deals and make a worthwhile contribution at the same time.

  16. Valspar paint at Lowes is great. Benjamin Moore is nice and all, but I doubt the average person can tell the difference–and it’s really expensive, especially when you have a whole new house that needs stuff.

    Lowes has an awesome markdown section, often on a hodgepodge pile of shelves stuffed over by the appliances. In nice weather they sometimes put it out front. Last summer I found table lamps marked down from $100 to $15!

    PAINTING TIP: Start in the room not seen by most guests! Like your bathroom or laundry room. That way you’ll be in the groove with edging and corners and stuff by the time you hit the living room and kitchen, and your early goofs will be hidden from view.

    Big ticket stuff like fences: Ask your neighbors who their builder was. And don’t cheap out. This is gonna be expensive no matter what, and you want it to last a long time. Get the best fence maker, and the best fence, you can afford.

    We funded many of our first-house purchases with a cash-back credit card, making sure to pay it off each month. It forced us not to spend too much too soon AND gave us a hefty chunk of change over time.

    GARDEN: Wait till fall and buy the rough-looking perennials on the markdown racks. I got a bunch of gallon-size coneflowers and stuff for $1 each at Lowes last fall. Sure they looked rough then, but fall’s the BEST time for perennial planting, and you’re really after the nice big root ball. Now we’ve got BIG plants that would’ve cost upwards of $20 a piece if we’d bought them in spring at their current size.

  17. I was going to comment the same thing Wendy did. At Lowes’ the returned paint is called Mistints. I bought a gallon of mistint in a green color by Olympia (a good brand) for $8.00.

  18. Craigslist!! Lots of people are out buying new stuff for themselves this time of year, and want to get rid of their perfectly good stuff. Some of it needs a little TLC, but it’s well worth the money to spend an hour or two fixing it up/painting or whatever.

  19. Linens and Things allow you to use their coupons beyond expiration. I started saving them as they came in the mail a year before we moved. 20% off total purchases! Bed Bath and Betond also honors theirs but will only let you use it on one item, but you are not limited to the number of coupons. JC Penneys always has great deals on rugs, lamps, etc. Kirklands is a great inexpensive home decorating store as is Homegoods. Always google for coupons ahead of time. Often there are online coupon codes or printable coupons. Good Luck! We have been in our new home 3 onths and are not nearly settled!

  20. Oh ADifferentLaura, I’m so jealous–I moved away from my Goodwill that had a partnership with Target, so no more super cheap store returns for me… 🙁

    Thumbs up for Freecycle. Last time I moved, I gave away so much stuff that I didn’t want to take with me, it was crazy.

    As for the 10% off coupons for Home Depot and Lowes taking a while to arrive, when I went by the post office to pick up one of those change of address packets (the card to provide to the post office for mail forwarding and moving notice cards to send to magazines and friends and stuff), it also included a number of coupons aimed at people who are moving, including the Home Depot 10% discount. Used that to save $100 off my new washer & dryer, whoo hoo!

  21. DH and I bought a foreclosure in 2006 that needed… well, honestly, to be knocked down and rebuilt but that didn’t happen. So, being the cheapy, cheapster I am, I set out to completely re-do it all on next to nothing.

    Here are some tips:
    1) Check out your Habitat for Humanity and see if they have a storefront. There is one in the Nashville, TN area, two actually. One for things like doors, windows, cabinets, etc. and another one a block or so away that has light fixtures, furniture, blinds, art, etc. HUGE discounts because these items are all donated. A lot of furniture stores in the area will donate for tax purposes and you can get scratch and dent stuff for a STEAL while your money goes to a great cause.
    2) I’ve also found a couple “salvage” places that are hole in the wall kind of places but their prices on things are awesome. I got a 5×8 area rug for $30 that Target sells for $89.
    3) Consignment sales are great for a lot of items also.
    4) Lowe’s and Home Depot put clearance items in various spots around the store so make sure you wander a bit while you’re there. I found a bathroom cabinet/mirror combo that was prices for $29 with the original price of $179!
    Good luck! We’re almost completely finished with the renovation … just have to paint one more room and finish the 2nd bathroom overhaul.

  22. Don’t know if anyone already said this, but I’ve been shocked at how many stores will bargain/haggle with you . . . stores you’d NEVER imagine. “I love this couch, but all you have is a floor sample left. Take off 40% and I’ll buy it.” or “This has a scratch on it, but I really like it. What can you do for me?” Most managers can make a deal with you (if they want to).

  23. The problem with “Oops” or “Mis-tints” is that, though you are getting it at a SUPER low price, the quality of the paint can be tremendously diminished because of the concentration of tint that must be put in it. Home Depot,at least, made us majorly re-tint the paint that came in because we had too many customers buying a color they liked, claiming to hate it, returning it, and then buying it back at the “Oops” price. The quality is not always hurt, but it really can be, so buyer beware!! Lighter colors will usually be better than darker ones, because there’s almost always less tint (though sometimes they’ll just add a bunch of white tint, so it’s not a guarantee).

  24. I have a caution on Big Lots for patio furniture.

    We bought a table & 4 chair set for about $90 there last year. Aesthetically pleasing, the perfect size for our deck…but…the fabric on 3 of the 4 chairs has already split.

    We’re not exactly petite flowers, but neither are we clinically obese. And now we have 3 unusable deck chairs, which makes eating outside and otherwise enjoying our deck nearly impossible. Yeah, I might be able to replace the fabric, but that’s a lot of work for year-old chairs.

  25. Keep in mind that Lowe’s and Home Depot each accept the other’s coupons. woo hoo!

  26. Two words – consignment stores. My sister just happened by a newly opened one by us and got an almost new complete living room set, in the colors she’s been looking for ‘forever!’ for $190.00. She’s over the moon.

    We also have Habitat for Humanity stores by us. Contractor’s give their furniture from model homes to them and I’ve gotten great deals there. (construction supplies as well as furniture – it’s one of my favorite Saturday stops)

  27. We moved into our house 5 years ago and we are still working on it. But now, it is OUR house!! It is the way we want it to be and that is such a great feeling.
    I love Sherwin-Williams paint. It goes on very well and covers everything. It doesn’t have that paint odor either. They have great deals, especially on big holiday weekends. And they can match any color.
    Don’t know what area of the country you live in, but we have “Savers” near us (which is a chain consignment shop), but I find great deals are to be had at the smaller consignment shops as well. Just take your time and it will all fall into place.
    And in the beginning, if all your furniture doesn’t match, use the same color pillows or accents that match and it will look great.
    It takes time, but enjoy the process. Congratulations!

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