5 Tips for Avoiding Bed Bugs With Secondhand Furniture

By: Sara Elliott

Upholstered chair
Do your homework before you bring used furniture inside your home.

Remember the good old days when you could visit a few neighborhood garage sales on Saturday morning and score a treasure or two without damaging your budget? Today, the bargains are still out there, but who knows what you might bring home hidden inside that gently used bedside table. From movie theaters to upscale hotels, bed bugs are everywhere. If you believe the news reports -- and you probably should -- we're living through a bed bug invasion.

Today's super bed bugs are blood suckers extraordinaire, too. They're resistant to many of the eradication methods exterminators rely on, which means their numbers are continuing to grow. So, what's a garage sale shopper to do? Give up bargain hunting completely? Unthinkable!


Let's look at five things you can do to leave bed bugs in the dust but still score safe furniture bargains.

5: Use Common Sense

Bed bugs can hide in narrow cracks and seams. They're tough to spot and even tougher to get rid of once you bring them home. It's hard enough to check for bed bugs in items that seem relatively clean and safe, so avoid scavenging furniture finds from iffy sources like Dumpsters and alleys. This may sound like a no brainer, but every week you'll hear some home improvement maven on television bragging about a spectacular home décor item she found abandoned somewhere. For the time being, if an object looks destined for the city dump -- leave it alone.


4: Avoid Buying Upholstered Furniture

Buy the hard stuff used, but buy your cushions new.
Buy the hard stuff used, but buy your cushions new.

We know this is bad news, but upholstered furniture can be a paradise for bed bugs. Once inside, they can be impossible to detect. If the person donating or selling the furniture cleaned or vacuumed it without realizing bed bugs were present, the superficial signs and clues of bed bug activity may be absent, too.

Steam cleaning won't eradicate bed bugs from upholstered furniture. The extreme heat necessary to kill the bugs and their eggs doesn't penetrate into the padding of upholstered pieces deeply enough to do the job. There are over-the-counter pesticides that claim to kill bed bugs, but even they may not be up to the task of adequately permeating upholstered furniture. Even if you do try chemical warfare, you'll be left with the problem of dead bugs inside the furniture and a lingering chemical residue you won't be able to wash out completely. The choices here aren't encouraging.


If you think you were born under a lucky star and still want to risk buying secondhand upholstered items, check them thoroughly for signs of bed bugs (more on that in the next couple of pages), and look for items people don't sleep on or near. Bed bugs typically stay close to locations where people sleep. They're more likely to hang out near a bed or couch used for sleeping or napping than they are to inhabit an upholstered dining chair or bar stool. There are no guarantees, though, so this is one big instance where the buyer (you) should definitely beware.

3: Don't Believe Everything You Hear

Most secondhand furniture sellers are completely honest, but that doesn't mean you should believe everything they tell you -- especially when they claim their goods are bed bug free. It's very hard to be sure used furniture items are free of bed bugs. That's the reality. Even concerted, honest efforts to make sure furnishings are safe can fail because consumers and resellers underestimate how stealthy, adaptable and indestructible these pests really are. Here are a few examples:

  • Heat will kill bed bugs -- It has to be a continuous temperature of at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit for a period of three hours or more. This can be a tall order. Small items can be sanitized on hot days inside a sealed, dark plastic bag. (Be sure to test the interior temperature with an instant read thermometer.)
  • Cold will kill bed bugs -- As an eradication option, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends exposing bed bugs to cold temperatures of 20 degrees Fahrenheit or less for at least a week. Yikes.
  • You can't starve them out -- The average adult bed bug can survive more than a year (and maybe as long as 18 months) without feeding. It's possible for a piece of furniture to sit in a storage facility, garage or warehouse for many months and still harbor healthy, hungry bed bugs waiting for their next meal.
  • Bed bugs are masters at concealment -- An adult bed bug is less than a quarter of an inch long, and immature specimens (nymphs) are even smaller. They and their eggs can fit into very tiny cracks and joints in furnishings where they are almost undetectable.


2: Buy Hard, Uncomplicated Items

Just because there's no fabric, doesn't mean it's bug-proof.
Just because there's no fabric, doesn't mean it's bug-proof.

If you're willing to play the odds when buying used furnishings, choose hard surfaces like solid wood and plastic to soft or porous surfaces like leather, fabric, pressed wood or cardboard. Bed bugs have been known to hide in books and inside the pleats and seams on lampshades. They've also been found hiding inside lamps, fans and electronics like clocks. Hard, cleanable surfaces with few (if any) crevices or seams are the least risky bets. Think bookshelves, nightstands, tables and dressers. Inspect all potential purchases thoroughly, and clean them before introducing them to your interior spaces. We have some inspection suggestions on the next page.


1: Inspect the Items You Buy

Bed bugs are hard to identify, but they aren't invisible. They leave signs you can sometimes detect if you're careful and observant. If you find an item from a reputable seller you think is worth serious consideration, grab a magnifying glass and flashlight and look for these telltale signs of bed bug activity:

  • Bed bugs deposit small black spots after feeding. You can sometimes see groups of pinpoint spots on hard and soft surfaces. Fabrics may also show reddish streaks or smears.
  • Since bed bugs spend a lot of time hiding, check the backs and undersides of tables, shelves, headboards and other furnishings for live bugs or molted skins (discarded bed bug exoskeletons).
  • Bed bugs often hide inside furniture joints, seams, creases, crevices, cracks and voids. You can sometimes also find them or their eggs in screw holes, nail holes and small louvered vents. Shine a flashlight into narrow openings and inspect them with a magnifying glass. You may even catch a bed bug scurrying away from the light.
  • If you're interested in a painted furniture piece, check for bed bugs hiding under any loose paint. Yes, they can hide behind peeling, soft or uneven painted surfaces as well as behind wallpaper.
  • Bed bugs sometimes gather behind the paper backing on framed prints, too.

These are just a few places bed bugs hide. There are many, many more. Bed bugs can shelter inside hollow towel racks and curtain rods as well as in small appliances. They can burrow into plush toys. They can conceal themselves in clothing, bedding, curtains, rugs, shoes, handbags and just about anything else you can imagine.


After you invest in a secondhand piece of furniture, consider heat treating it in a dark plastic bag to be sure it doesn't harbor bed bugs or their eggs. (Remember, your target is at least 110 degrees Fahrenheit for three hours or more.) If that's not feasible given the size of the object, place it in quarantine in an empty bathtub. Bed bugs can't escape up the slippery sides of tubs, so they'll be contained and easier to detect. Barring all other options, keep new acquisitions away from sleeping areas and inspect them periodically for bed bug activity like spots, exoskeletons and eggs.

Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Bed Bugs Resource Center. "Prevention of Bed Bugs." (7/24/12). http://www.bedbugsminnesota.com/Prevention_of_Bed_Bugs.html
  • Connecticut Pest Elimination. "Basics, Inspections 101, Common Sense Self Protection, Management Recommendations, Policy Recommendations." (7/24/12). http://www.ct.gov/caes/lib/caes/documents/bed_bugs/inspection_self_protection_and_managment_advice_lipsett.pdf
  • Dateline NBC. "What you need to know about bed bugs." (7/24/12). http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11915026/ns/dateline_nbc-dont_let_the_bed_bugs_bite/t/what-you-need-know-about-bed-bugs/#.UBQiV7Se4qo
  • Environmental Protection Agency. "The Bed Bug Information Clearinghouse." 5/16/12. (7/24/12). http://www.epa.gov/opp00001/bedbugs/bedbug-clearinghouse.html
  • Environmental Protection Agency." Top Ten Bed Bugs Tips." (7/24/12). http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/bed-bugs-faq-fs.html
  • Parent Hacks. "Avoiding bed bugs in used clothing." 10/15/10. (7/24/12). http://www.parenthacks.com/2010/10/avoiding-bed-bugs-in-used-clothing.html
  • Sammy Davis Vintage. "How to Avoid Bed Bugs When Shopping for Clothing & Furniture at Thrift Stores." 9/24/10. (7/24/12). http://sammydvintage.com/thrifting/bed-bugs-in-thrift-store-clothes/
  • The Bedbug Registry. "The Bedbug Registry." (7/24/12). http://bedbugregistry.com/