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How to shop a flea market like a pro

Rejoice, vintage fiends—flea market season is here. We’ve got expert tips on buying, haggling and resisting.

For most people, Memorial Day weekend serves as the kick-off to summer. But for the bargain-hunters and vintage-fiends among us, it marks a different occasion: the beginning of flea market season. Whether you’re hitting the seasonal open-air markets or just making your usual thrift-shop rounds, we checked in with the experts for some savvy shopping tips.

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Shop open-minded
There's a time and a place for a shopping list, sure. But if you're working on curating a great, unique space? Skip it and see what the flea market gods are offering up that day. "I never go looking—I just go out and see what presents itself," says Tereasa Surratt, who penned a how-to book, "Found, Free and Flea," after transforming a run-down Wisconsin lake resort into the super-chic Camp Wandawega. "You don't want to become a hoarder, but if I find a really good piece, I'll buy it and get rid of something else. It's in my DNA—I grew up in a hand-me-down family, and I love thrifting something that no one else will have."

Be realistic
Sometimes, it's more than worth it to buy a piece that needs some love. But before you do, make sure you know how much work, time and money is involved in its rehab. "Most of the time, you can't just throw on a quick coat of paint and expect it to be a new piece," says Sue Whitney, whose fourth book, "Junk Beautiful: Furniture Re [Freshed] with Junkmarket Style"hits shelves this summer and features a ton of beginner-friendly weekend projects. "You have to know your skill set and how much time you're willing to invest learning."

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Set high quality standards
Before you get excited about that bargain-priced midcentury-modern desk, take a look at its nut and bolts—not all vintage is created equal. "Just because something's cheap doesn't mean it's going to save you money," says Whitney. "It has to be a sturdy, good quality piece, especially if you plan to refinish it. If not, you're more or less throwing money away."

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Know when to haggle
Opinions vary about haggling — some pro-thrifters find it distasteful, some live for it. While Surratt always pays the sticker price at thrift stores, she recommends trying your luck on the flea market circuit. "At flea markets, you shouldn't feel awkward about haggling—they’re expecting it, and their prices reflect that," she says. "You can really find deals about two hours before close—nobody wants to pack stuff up, and they'll likely accept less money than take things home."

 
 
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