Traditionally, your best bets for finding outdoor furniture at flea markets will be with vintage pieces.
Experts advise flea market shoppers to arrive early when it first opens, or toward the end. Early birds will get first pick at the good stuff. At the end of the day, however, it's easier to negotiate with the dealer, who may still be anxious to sell more stuff or who doesn't want to load the outdoor furniture back into the truck or van and haul it home.
Craigslist is more what EBay was like in its early days, before everyone caught on. Try a local search under terms like "outdoor furniture", "patio furniture" or "wrought iron patio" if you're seeking something specific. Several other online retailers/resellers have appeared on the scene in recent years.
The thrill of it all -- you never know what to expect when you walk into a consignment store, antique shop or a place that sells architectural salvage. Pricing is often at the discretion of the owner or employees. Sometimes they don't know what's valuable or collectible, maintaining the belief that new is better than old. This is when you can swoop in and score a highly collectible midcentury Santorini or Woodard wrought-iron chair or dining set.
Habitat for Humanity has opened numerous ReStores throughout the United States and Canada, where they sell reusable and surplus building materials, household fixtures, furnishings and appliances to the public. Since the financial crisis, consignment stores have increased their business.
Yard sales are often held on Saturday mornings. If the sale is advertised or signs are posted the night before, diehards often show up early, sometimes before the sellers have awakened or hauled their stuff outside. As with flea markets, collectibles that are good deals will be the first to go, so if you're want that wicker porch rocker mentioned in the ad, you'd better be there first thing.
If you're more of a casual cruiser, the kind who slowly drives by a yard sale to survey the merchandise without parking your car, you can cover lots of ground on a Saturday morning. While estate sales are more firm on their prices, you can always negotiate. Be reasonable, though. If they wanted to give it away, they'd donate their stuff to a charity.
5. Sales at Retail Stores That Carry Outdoor Furniture as Seasonal Items
Check for sales -- both online and at nearby retail stores -- that carry outdoor furnishings as a seasonal item: Target, Walmart, Kmart, Sears, Pier 1 Imports, IKEA, Restoration Hardware, CB2 and Cost Plus come to mind. Outdoor patio furniture is usually in stores and available online in March, and retailers start reductions on garden furnishings right after the Fourth of July, to make room for back-to-school supplies.
Discounts on patio furniture -- or any seasonal items, for that matter -- usually start at 25%, then jump to 50% off. At this point in price reductions most of the furniture is purchased. If you want to hold out for 75% off, you can wait two or three more weeks, although the selection will be limited.
6. Buy Off Season, Like Off-Off Season
No, it's not a typo. Buying off-off season is like purchasing a bikini in below-freezing temperatures. I once wandered into the Christmas tree-packed garden center at Target, and toward the back sat several stacked boxes of ready-to-assemble patio furniture, marked 75-80% off (I can't recall exactly, but it was a substantial markdown). I ending up buying a nice Sean Conway metal settee and two matching outdoor chairs with cushions, all for around $100.
Another suggestion: after the winter holidays, check out the boxes of lights that are marked down. The ones that don't resemble icicles or candy canes might light-up your yard next summer, strung in a tree or a gazebo. Better yet, look for energy-efficient LED lights and save even more money.
7. Do the DIY Thing: Make Your Own Outdoor Furniture
During the post-World War II housing boom, families enthusiastically embraced the backyard patio-with-barbecue lifestyle. They had skills, and weren't afraid to tackle lumber, a hammer, wrench, and other tools in the garage. How-to books from Lane Publishing/Sunset Books and Better Homes & Gardens featured all kinds of outdoor projects, including how to make outdoor furniture.
Both publishers and others have produced books on this subject for decades. If you want to build something contemporary, buy a recently published book on the subject. If you're interested in matching the patio furniture style to the era or architectural design of your house, look for an older book on making furniture. Sources include online and library bookstores.
8. Love the One You're With: Reassess What You Already Have
Is a makeover possible? If it's not beyond repair and hired help is capable of repairing or refurbishing a certain piece of patio furniture, then so can you. With a screwdriver, tighten or replace screws. Strip, sand and refinish wood and wrought iron pieces of outdoor patio furniture. Paint it or make or sew new patio cushions and outdoor pillows. Replace a damaged tabletop with one you can mosaic.
Books, magazines and online sites (like About.com) are excellent sources of inspiration.
9. Recycling & Repurposing: Thinking Outside the Box
Recycle, reuse, repurpose. They each take time and creativity. You have to approach repurposing with a wide-open mind. I have a tea crate inherited from my grandmother that makes a charming outdoor table. I didn’t know what else to do with it, and it didn’t go with my midcentury modern furniture indoors, so it’s under the gazebo in an eclectic grouping on my deck. We also have a baker’s rack that my husband used for I don’t know what, which goes against the wall of our house on our deck and holds pottery, a few tools, etc.
You have to use discretion here. A stained 1980s mauve velvet sofa with sagging cushions is not going to look good on your front porch or back patio, despite the fact that we’ve all seen old couches on porches before.
10. Friends or Family Moving or Downsizing?
Do you have a friend moving into a smaller house with a smaller yard? What are your friend's plans for the five-piece patio set you've always admired? Ask, politely. Suggest that if he is thinking of selling it, to please give you first dibs on the set.
Since the downturn in the economy, many people have had to move or downsize. Relatives or friends may be moving into a smaller place temporarily and don't want the expense of renting a storage unit. Volunteer to store some pieces of furniture for them, including outdoor furnishings. If you do end up "babysitting" the patio furniture, make sure you take extra-special care of it, remembering to keep the furniture covered or stored during the off-season and away from extremes in temperature.