Top 5 Tips for buying vintage items online
It's easy to make mistakes, or to be duped when buying vintage items online - here are my Top 5 Tips to save you from getting caught out.
If like me you love vintage stuff for your decor, then by now you have probably realised that online sellers offer a treasure trove of glorious vintage stuff to discover.
The internet with selling sites like eBay, Gumtree and Etsy as well as private websites, have bought a much wider variety of vintage items to your door than you would have ever discovered in a lifetime doing things the traditional way, visiting flea markets, garage sales and antique or second hand stores.
But this plethora of vintage items has also at times brought with it a new way of shopping that has it's pitfalls for the unwary. Buying site unseen from photos and descriptions relies heavily on the seller knowing their stuff, accurately describing it, and being honest.
Most sellers I believe are not intentionally trying to mislead you, but often do so out of ignorance or careless use of adjectives, lackadaisical measurements (yes I just casually threw in that vintage adjective for your reading pleasure! Lackadaisical - lacking enthusiasm and determination; carelessly lazy), or maybe just bad photography.
I have made mistakes buying vintage stuff online more than once, but have learnt from these experiences and I will share these with you, so maybe you can avoid some of the pitfalls!
So fellow hunters of vintage treasures here are my Top 5 Tips to hopefully keep you safe from disaster when buying vintage online:
1. Check Measurements
It's so easy in your excitement at finding the perfect vintage piece for that spot on your sideboard or in your entry foyer that you forget to ask it's measurements. Furniture is more an obvious one for knowing the size of something, however still check with the seller if the size of furniture pieces is important.
I was buying some bedside tables and I asked the seller the height of them, they advised 80cm high. I thought that sounded high but was what I wanted, so asked them to check again and they confirmed the size. On collection of the furniture I was not paying attention and on arriving home I started to think something wasn't right, they looked shorter than expected and sure enough they were only 65cm high!
I emailed the seller with a photo of them with a tape measure showing the actual height and expressing my disappointment as they had twice confirmed the height was 80cm! Luckily the seller was a decent person and advised he hadn't measured them personally as he was selling them for his dad who had provided the measurements, he apologised and offered me a partial refund, I ended up getting about 50% of the cost back and I was happy with the outcome. The side tables are being used in a different room for now and may get a height makeover at some stage in the future.
So the lesson here is if something doesn't look the size you expect, double check and measure again on collection!
Another time I was looking for some white porcelain rabbits for an Easter display I wanted to make for my sideboard, I saw some grouped together in a photo that looked just right, but not knowing the sizes of the other items they were with I made the mistake of assuming they were the size I was imagining of around 15cm or 6 inches high. I didn't ask the size and when I went to collect them they turned out to be only 5cm or 2 inches high! Disappointing! But not the sellers fault in this case so I paid for them and accepted the lesson learnt.
But in the end even though they didn't work out for my Easter display plans, they worked really well for the Spring display I ended up using them in. Read that post on how I made the centrepiece here.
2. Clarify descriptions with good communication
One thing I notice a lot online is people who describe something as antique - when it is obviously not at least 100 years old which is what antique has traditionally meant, or it's a reproduction made to look old, so is 'antique in style' which is how they should describe it - so don't be fooled by a description, ask the seller how old it is and if it's a reproduction. The age of vintage items has great bearing on their value, the older it is quite often means the rarer it is, so it can be worth more.
Also be careful of descriptions using terms that are subjective - like when a seller describes something as large, or in good condition - compared to what standard? This goes back to point one, ask for measurements, ask if the drawers run smoothly or if locks still have keys. Ask if it has any damage, stains, dents, cracks etc if the seller doesn't offer this information.
Don't be afraid to ask for more information and more photos of any mentioned damage - good sellers will not hesitate to provide it.
I bought a bird cage from Gumtree one time that was actually on a weird 1960's wire stand with a weirder large round glass globe light sat inside the cage as per sellers advert below. I asked the seller if he would sell it without the stand and light as I just wanted the cage. The seller agreed, but suddenly went cold and said it was all too much trouble when I mentioned I was happy with the price as long as it had no damage to the cage from the light being in there.
I asked the seller not to withdraw from the sale as I wanted the cage. He then came clean and advised there was a small piece of wood cut away in the cage to let the electrical cord of the globe lamp exit. He sent me photos and I was still happy to buy it at a slightly reduced price as the damage was minimal and I could fix it. He agreed, and all went well after that. So a lesson here if you buy and sell, never assume what people are thinking - I only got my cage which I love because when the seller assumed wrongly that some small amount of damage was a deal breaker I didn't let the deal fall apart, but asked the seller not to let me down and why he had changed his mind. Honest communication - it's the most important thing when buying online.
3. Check photos are accurate
Sometimes sellers are lazy or just don't have good photography skills so will use images of the item they are selling that they find online.
This can be simply a picture of the same item but in better condition than theirs, a different wood tone etc, so if it seems wrong in any way - ask them to clarify.
Sometimes if a seller has a lot of one item to sell they will have an image indicative of the items you will receive and many often say this, but sometimes they don't, so if you like the items pictured, make sure to ask if they will be the exact ones you will will receive. I bought some old wooden pegs online, but the ones I received didn't match the image and where much more uniform without any wires as shown below. I contacted the seller who graciously sent me some more with variation at no charge. So this goes back to Tip 2 - communication - it most often works in your favour!
The photo could also be of a completely different item as I discovered recently when asking for more details on a clock I was interested in. The seller had taken a photo off the internet of an antique clock with the web site address of the antique dealer selling it still showing in the photo! That clock in the photo was vaguely similar to the modern reproduction she was selling which she didn't want to take out of the box to photograph! I advised her this was false advertising, and that she should amend her listing with a photo of the real item before someone less forgiving than me reports her to the online platform.
Another example I have seen of late are bedding sets advertised as new and never used, but out of the packaging and looking like they had been washed - unused isn't crinkled and in need of an iron - I wasn't going near those! In this case it's the photo that is accurate and gives you clues as to the condition of the item.
4. Buy from reputable sources
This may seem obvious but how to know who is reputable? Luckily sites like Ebay have a customer feedback process so check out the sellers positive feedback ranking. Other sites will tell you how long the seller has been a member, if they were getting complaints often about a seller they would not have a long history with that selling platform.
If you aren't sure about a seller sometimes it's worth buying something very small and inexpensive from them to see if it arrives on time and is as described.
I have done this with Etsy sellers and have found some really excellent sellers of vintage items that I return to now and again. One such time was when I purchased those old wooden pegs mentioned previously to make some artwork for my laundry room. The purchase was small but when the package arrived it was beautifully wrapped in simple brown paper, a hessian string bow and a lovely little tin medallion attached with the sellers initials on! I was blown away with the care the seller had shown and almost didn't want to unwrap it. I sent her a thank you feedback message letting her know how much I appreciated her care and attention.
I find vintage items can crop up anywhere - especially on Etsy which is very much focused on vintage and hand made products. But I regularly find vintage items on Ebay (especially good for porcelain plates for wall decor of late), but sellers usually know their stuff. On Gumtree or local Facebook selling groups you will find vintage items quite cheap as the sellers are usually people just cleaning out what they see as junk, or at least not professionally involved with old wares so don't often know the value.
I also buy from a few online stores - I have found French Knot here in Australia to be a source of both vintage and vintage replica items at good prices and with fast postage.
5. Don't be desperate, but don't dilly dally either!
When you are desperate to buy something you can be blinded to it's faults which in hindsight can be quite obvious. You will also usually pay more and if negotiating you are coming from a point of weakness which is not the optimal place to be.
Try to objectively assess the item before jumping in. If it's a Facebook group post or Gumtree where you get to negotiate, then try to ask questions about the item without sounding too keen and don't make an insulting super low offer for the item either, as this can turn some sellers off selling to you altogether. If you aren't sure about an item, then keep up the communication with the seller until you are sure. But if you change your mind, then let them know. Don't leave them hanging wondering if you still want it - courtesy online is often lacking, but I try to keep standards up and it's often much appreciated by those you are communicating with.
On the flip side of the coin, if you do see something you know is hard to find, or really so well priced that you can't go wrong, then don't delay in contacting the seller or hitting that buy now button on Ebay. If it's an auction listing you can afford to take your time, but don't put it on your watch list within your account, as this is a heads up to others also wanting it to be more vigilant. You have to get stealthy! Just save the page to your favourites and note it on you calendar to check back on the day the auction closes, then make your highest bid at the last moment, especially if others are bidding on it.
That's it - my Top 5 Tips for buying vintage items online - happy hunting!
Let me know if this has been helpful to you by commenting below.