By Amy Bradley-Hole Travel columnist
updated 2/21/2008 1:56:00 PM ET 2008-02-21T18:56:00

When I was in my mid-20s, I was living in London, making almost no money and staying in a dumpy, damp and cramped flat directly above the train tracks. As poor as I was, and as rough as my living conditions were, I had original artwork hanging on my wall, I had a flashy stereo and I slept on luxurious Frette linens every night. I wasn't living beyond my means, and no, I wasn't robbing banks, either. I just knew how to score some cheap goods when the local hotels were redecorating their rooms.

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You don't have to go begging at the back doors of hotels to get great furniture and accessories at rock-bottom prices. You see, when hotels renovate, they usually sell their out-of-date and worn furnishings to large liquidators. These companies resell the goods at huge warehouses located across the country.

I know, I know. I can see you turning up your nose. After all, this is used furniture. Plus, most hotel furniture is pretty plain or pretty ugly, right? Not so fast. These days, hotels redecorate often — sometimes as often as every three years. They have to keep up with the latest trends in order to keep up with the competition. For example, many hotels are now switching over to flat-screen TVs, so they're getting rid of huge lots of those bulky TVs — along with the massive armoires that held them.

This constant turnover means that the furniture is actually still relatively new when it gets retired, and it's not necessarily worn threadbare. Remember, this stuff was cleaned almost every day, and repaired immediately if it got broken. It's in better shape than most family furniture. Plus, these liquidators clear out items from all types of properties, including five-star hotels. Some of these furnishings are very high-end and retail for astronomical prices — those fancy sheets I slept on would have set me back more than $500. But the surplus stores often sell them for about 25 percent of that retail cost.

Interested? Here are some tips for smart surplus shopping:

  • This stuff is used — sometimes really used — so check carefully for dents, scratches and stains. Surplus furnishings are always sold "as is" and are rarely returnable.
  • Check items carefully for signs of infestation. You certainly don't want to bring home more than you bargained for. But rest assured that most items will be pest-free. Surplus stores don't want bugs or rodents in their warehouses any more than you want them in your house.
  • Look for the unexpected. It's not all furniture and mirrors. Many hotel suites or extended-stay rooms feature appliances like microwaves, refrigerators and even stovetops — items that are perfect for dorm rooms or small apartments. And you can often completely furnish a small office with desks, office chairs and conference tables sold off from hotel rooms and business centers.
  • Speaking of the unexpected, some surplus stores offer fixtures like toilets, sink faucets, shower heads — even air conditioning units. If you're remodeling or building a home, it's worth a look.
  • Look for the deep discounts. Irons, luggage racks, alarm clocks, blankets and even fine china are often priced so low that your jaw will drop. I'm talking prices lower than found at a yard sale! At those prices, it makes sense to stock up on a few extras that might come in handy as spares or when you have company.
  • Think creatively. Sure, those hotel drapes are ugly. But they often come lined with heavy-duty blackout fabrics that can be quite expensive at a retail outlet. Have a good seamstress rip out the blackout material and use it to line your own drapes. Refinish that boring table, reframe the mirrors — your imagination is the limit when it comes to finding new uses for old items.
  • You can buy this stuff in bulk, also. So if you're planning on opening a bed and breakfast, or if you want to quickly furnish an apartment or vacation home, check it out. Residential care facilities and lower-end hotels often buy from hotel surplus stores so that they can outfit their properties with nicer furnishings than they could buy new. For this reason, surplus outlets will often offer bulk discounts or special prices on "whole-room" purchases, so be sure to ask if you think your purchase might qualify.
  • If you want luxury, ask for it. Five-star properties usually remodel more often than more run-of-the-mill hotels, so they often get rid of goods that are in great shape. Most store employees are knowledgeable about which items came from which "projects," so they can lead you straight to the Ritz-Carlton artwork or the signature pieces from a cool boutique hotel. This is a big help when the goods are grouped by category, not by hotel (and they often are).
  • Don't do much shopping online. The stock at these stores is ever-changing. If you see a picture of a credenza on a store's Web site, it may be just an example of "typical" stock. Plus, most surplus stores will not ship items — you have to come get them.
  • Most stores don't deliver locally, either. Plan on bringing a truck, or ask the store to recommend reputable delivery services.
  • Inventory is not predictable. You may show up at the surplus store at a time when only the local one-star pay-by-the-hour joint has done any recent work. So if you are making a special trip to one of these stores, call ahead to make sure the available inventory matches your needs.
  • You can sometimes get surplus furnishings directly from a hotel. Hotels proudly announce their renovations, so if you know your favorite property is about to get a makeover, call. The manager may allow you to purchase items directly, before they go to a liquidator. Even if he can't, he can usually tell you which surplus store is going to sell the castoffs.

Here are a few of the major hotel surplus stores in the United States:

Don't be finicky about used furniture. After all, used furniture, fine bedding and artwork from a luxury property are properly better than the furnishings most of us will ever be able to afford. Hotel surplus shopping can be exciting and lucrative. Give it a try!

Amy Bradley-Hole has worked in the hotel industry for many years in many different positions and at all types of properties — from small luxury boutique hotels to large resorts, both in the United States and abroad. E-mail her or read more of her articleson Tripso.com.

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