Salvage: Your Home Improvement Secret Weapon

This is a guest post from Jessica Ward.

Many of our readers have used Freecycle, Craigslist, and thrift shops for day-to-day needs, but have you ever employed these techniques on a DIY home-improvement project?

This summer, I replaced two floors in my house with Brazilian cherry laminate flooring, as well as moldings in both rooms, by employing some DIY skills, rented tools, a library book and some serious Freecycling. I completed the project for just $186.

I can take added satisfaction in knowing that the project was completed in an environmentally-friendly way, with very little of my flooring material going into the waste stream. Even my old dining room carpet was Freecycled to a man who was planning to re-upholster some pet furniture.

There are a variety of ways to find salvaged, surplus and recycled building materials. You just have to know where to look.

Building thrift shops

In many areas, not-for-profit recycled building supply thrift shops are readily available. Independent shops as well as branded shops like the Habitat for Humanity Thrift Shops serve areas throughout the United States. Builders and individuals can receive tax breaks or green building certification “points” for the donation of materials from renovations or new construction.

For example, individuals who purchase a new home often choose to upgrade their builder-stock appliances immediately. Those homeowners donate the new “stock” appliances, typically getting a hefty tax deduction and free haul-away.

Key technique: Watch these shops during large renovation projects of local apartment buildings, historical buildings, and demolition of multi-family housing projects. If you need a specific item, check back often.

Best buys: Appliances, antique fixtures, and “builder standard” items such as bright white outlet covers and builder bathroom vanities, cupboards and mirrors.


Find your local Craigslist board and watch the “For Sale” listings, especially the “Free” subtopic. Craigslist is great for homeowners who can’t easily dispose of an item, so watch for bulky items here. You’ll do best here if you have a large vehicle and can quickly pick up the item in question.

Key technique: For best results, create an RSS feed for the search terms you want, so you don’t have to check back every day.

Best finds: Surplus flooring or tile for your small-space project (overages from someone else’s large-space project), plants and garden items, cabinets, windows, doors, and plumbing fixtures.


Freecycle is a network of people sharing items they no longer need. I’ve found many treasures (including my new floor) this way. This is also a great way to dispose of items you are removing. To get started, find your local group at and join the email list. You can post items you are offering and items you want, but you must be offering and accepting the items for free. Most people offer items that are bulky or hard to dispose of or move, but have too much value to simply trash.

Key technique: Subscribe to the “daily digest” or prepare to be inundated with e-mail. Check the messages often and reply promptly with your contact information and the earliest time that you can pick up the item. Follow the message posting requirements carefully as most boards have very strict rules.

Best finds: Furniture, plants, garden tools, flooring remnants, paint.


You may not have all of the tools you need to complete the task at hand. While a DIY project is great excuse to buy new tools, the purchase may not be warranted.

Items to own: Hammer, wrenches, screwdrivers, cordless drill. You may want to invest in a miter saw if you have a very large project involving trim work or crown molding, or if you do a lot of DIY projects. Buy tools used at Craigslist, pawn shops or yard sales.

Items to rent: Rent project-specific tools such as a table saw, skill saw, laminate cutter, tile cutter and air compressor. These tools can be easily rented by the day or half-day from any home-improvement shop at a very reasonable rate. As an added bonus, most rental agencies give you a handy safety orientation if you’re unfamiliar with the tools.


Do you have the ambition, but lack the know-how? There are a variety of places to learn how to do whatever home improvement task you have in mind. Visit your home improvement store, ideally during the week rather than busy weekends and ask advice or take a class. Ikea stores offer free classes on how to install laminate flooring. Peruse the internet for instructional videos, from the pros at HGTV and even YouTube. Local libraries will also have a host of DIY manuals available for your use.

Reader Reports

Have you found a great place for used building materials? What were your favorite finds? Bonus points if you’ve done home repairs or renovations with salvaged materials!

3 Responses to “Salvage: Your Home Improvement Secret Weapon”

  1. Anonymous

    I’m a big fan of Portland’s Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore and another place called the Rebuilding Center. I got 80 ft of subway tile for my bathroom remodel for $30! That would have been over $800 at Home Depot.

  2. Anonymous

    As a volunteer at one of Louisville’s 3 Habitat for Humanity ReStores for the past 6 years, I highly recommend it for things useful in fixing up older homes, especially for hard-to-find period hardware. Our ReStores see their best sales in doors, cabinets, furniture, and appliances, but different stores can have different focuses so check yours out. Our carpet donations typically sell out the day they arrive, and many are from trade shows held nearby and the carpet has been gently used for no more than a week. I bought and restored an old mahogany buffet, which now serves as a double vanity, for about $250, or one-third what was being asked for at local shops. Check your phone book or Google for your nearest location. Happy hunting!

Leave a Reply