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Your lifestyle, your quirk
Just because your budget doesn’t match your taste in home décor doesn’t mean your apartment has to be barren or ugly. The First Lady recently announced that when she met Barack Obama, his most prized possession was a coffee table found in a dumpster. The future president garbage picked!
I know you’ve thought about rescuing that chair from the curb and giving it a fresh paint job. Think about it: you are saving that piece from a garbage dump and giving it new life. You’re reducing the amount of garbage in the landfill and reusing a perfectly good piece of furniture. For these positive reasons, let’s not call it garbage picking. Instead, we’ll call it salvaging (sounds less embarrassing already, no?).
So how do you do it? You can go out “shopping” for curbside items at strategic times: the night before garbage day, at the end of the school year when college students move out of dorms, the afternoon after community yard sales, or after Christmas (when gifts replace old items). See a furniture truck making a delivery? The old furniture has to go somewhere, no? Swing by later that day. If you have way too much free time, you can keep vigil outside a house for sale, waiting for them to move and leave behind all kinds of goodies…but that’s a little creepy.
One of the best ways is just to keep your eyes open during your regular routine. The only two times I’ve salvaged furniture, I spotted the pieces while on an evening walk with my sister and on my way to the grocery store. On the walk, I found a side table with one small scratch on the curb beside garbage cans; on the grocery run, I found an older wooden chair on the curb with a “free” sign.
Look at the available items critically. Is it really for the taking? Look for clues that the item is up for grabs like a sign that says “free” or that it is beside garbage or in a dumpster. Is it damaged? If so, is it within your abilities and budget to fix it? It probably is with all of the instruction on the Internet, but the piece will be worthless if it sits unfinished. If the item has a lot of fabric or stuffing, think twice. Soft surfaces on couches, mattresses, pillows, and stuffed chairs can harbor bed bugs; the cost of removing the pests from your home will be far higher than the price of buying that piece of furniture.
Logistically, you have a couple of options for picking it up. If you’re close to your home and the item is small, consider casually walking over, picking up the item, and quickly walking home. If you’re afraid the neighbors will see, they’re probably more likely to remember your car and the house it’s parked in front of than your face in a baseball cap and sunglasses, so this is a pretty sneaky option. For bigger items, prepare your vehicle. Put blankets down on a truck bed to avoid scratches, make sure that you have bungee cords to secure a trunk lid that can’t close. The more you can prepare your vehicle in advance, the less fumbling you’ll do at the curb (so you can make your getaway faster.) If it won’t fit on your mode of transportation (it’s hard to salvage furniture on a bike), consider walking over with a dolly/hand-truck under cover of darkness. Bring a friend, if possible, for lifting and moral support. If you’re really worried about the neighbors seeing, you can wait until dark, but remember that someone more brazen could snatch the item before you (it’s first come, first serve in salvaging). If rain is in the forecast, you’ll probably want to pick the item up before the clouds start leaking.
Once you’ve got the item home, clean it up. Give it a good washing with a cleanser that is appropriate for the material (or just warm water if you don’t know what to use). Now the refurbishing options are all yours. If there are scratches, you can fill them in with a marker in a matching color. You can sand wood down to paint it, use a high-quality primer on laminate, or find special paint for metal. If you were brave enough to pick up something with fabric, you can find online tutorials for reupholstering (though that often takes some special tools).
Next time you see a cute piece on the side of the road, be bold and shameless and just pick it up. Many people put large items out on the curb in hopes that others will take them; it means that the old owners won’t have to dispose of it. You’d be doing them a favor by giving their piece a new home. So go for it! If people are concerned about you dumpster diving, they’re probably just jealous that they don’t have the guts to do it, too.