“For 20 years, I’ve run my house without buying anything new,” says Cat Fletcher, director and co-founder of Freegle, a UK network of reuse groups where unwanted items are donated for free. “You can honestly furnish your home completely on Freegle – I’ve done that myself.”
Over 670,000 tonnes of furniture are disposed of annually in the UK, much of which has the potential to be reused or recycled, according to a recent government report. Only 17 per cent of sofas, for example, are reused in the UK, while almost half of furniture collected for Household Waste Recycling Centres was assessed as being fit for further use.
According to Cat, who founded Freegle in 2009, reuse is the answer. Not only is there a moral obligation, she argues, but, in light of the cost of living crisis and widespread furniture delays, it could be one of the best ways to furnish your home affordably.
“[Reuse is] a joyous, wonderful thing. It can help people who are struggling financially; it’s good for the environment. Ten or 15 years ago, it was a little bit edgy, but it’s becoming mainstream now,” says Cat, who says that getting furniture for free – or giving it away – has never been easier.
It’s not just old sofas and soiled mattresses, either: we spoke to three people who have furnished their properties entirely – or almost – with free and reused items. Here’s how to do it.
The premise behind reuse sites such as Freegle and Freecycle is simple: users list items that they no longer want, and others can arrange collection or shipping. For the most part, it operates on a local level and all items listed are free.
Freecycle is the best-known reuse website, with over 10 million users in 110 countries. In the past year alone, it says that it has saved a mountain of furniture 15 times the size of Mount Everest from landfill.
Freegle has more than 500 groups in the UK with 3.6 million members. In London alone, Cat says that there are almost 600,000 people using the site.
Free sharing app Olio, meanwhile, is best known for food, but there is also free furniture to be found on there.
What can you find on reuse sites?
According to Cat, 90 per cent of donations on Freegle in London are furniture. “Sofas come up an awful lot, as do beds. Some people are funny about beds and mattresses, but if they’ve ever stayed in a hotel, then they’ve slept on a second-hand mattress.
“There are all kinds of general furniture: desks, chairs, tables, garden furniture, bookshelves, TV stands, fridges, washing machines.”
Bear in mind that some furniture may have its fire label removed. It’s up to individuals to take responsibility for the goods they’re receiving, so if you pick up a piece without a fire label, it’s a good idea to get it checked out.
Ellen Robertson, an actor and writer who lives in Hackney Wick, says she and her four housemates have, for the most part, furnished their rental property for free, thanks to Freecycle. “I’ve always been a bargain hunter,” says Ellen. “I try not to buy anything new.”
Ellen’s bed comes from Freecycle, and the housemates’ combined furniture haul includes a table, cabinet, deck chairs, gym bench, picnic bench and, most importantly, a Chesterfield sofa. Just remember to take the measurements – both of the item and of the space available, including things such as door frames – to make sure they’ll fit.
It’s not just furniture. There are whole kitchens, toilets, baths and crockery, for example, all listed for free. Cat’s best finds include her sofas, a six-burner stove, commercial fridge with sliding doors and an eight-foot-high caterpillar from a library, which now lives in her garden.
Cat welcomes the donation of surplus DIY materials – the half-full cans of paint, paving slabs and leftover tiles that can linger after a project. “We encourage people to look at everything as a resource, rather than as waste. It’s something that somebody can use somewhere.”
How to source what you want
Cat recommends joining around five or six local groups to expand your pool of potential donations. In London, she says the long-term Camden and Islington groups are especially active, with a “hardcore bunch” of users. The Croydon, Enfield and Wandsworth groups are also among the largest.
According to Cat, October and November are the best times of the year for trawling reuse sites, which are “flooded with sofas and dining-room tables” as households upgrade their furniture for Christmas.
January, on the other hand, is a good time to pick up unwanted Christmas gifts. Otherwise, think seasonally, says Cat. Spring or early summer, for example, is a good time to look for garden furniture.
If there’s an item that you’ve particularly got your eye on – a new dining table, say – you can set alerts on both Freegle and Freecycle. These will notify you every time a new item matching that description is listed.
Other places to look for free furniture
Facebook’s groups and Facebook Marketplace are a treasure trove for free and secondhand items.
Try joining local groups, as well as specific housing groups, suggests Ellen. “Sometimes people on there will be moving out of rented accommodation and have stuff that they can’t take with them – you can get stuff either for free on there, or for a good deal.”
Vicky and Chris Saynor run Bethnal & Bec, a luxury retreat in Hertfordshire that they opened together in 2016. After furnishing their first two accommodations with 50 per cent free or repurposed furniture, they opened a third, The Foaling Box, in 2021, with 98 per cent free or secondhand furnishings, from the cutlery to the bathroom tiles.
Facebook Marketplace proved indispensable, particularly for items such as taps, doors and wallpaper, which are often over-ordered during renovations. “There’s nothing wrong with them. Most of the stuff we got was technically new – people buy things the wrong size and they can’t be bothered to send it back,” says Vicky.
“I bought two beautiful rugs: one was free, because the woman had ordered the wrong size, the other one was £20, still in its packaging. There are loads of rugs on Freecycle and Facebook Marketplace. The one that I got for free is from Made.com – you can still buy it on the website for £350.”
Overall, Vicky and Chris estimate that they have saved upwards of £20,000 by furnishing their property like this, with £10,000 on the kitchen alone.
“When we first moved into this house, I just kept seeing wood in skips,” says Ellen. “One day, four of us went skip-diving for wood, and then I sawed them and made some shelves for our living room.”
This was easier than expected, since there was already an alcove with brackets installed, and the wood just needed to be cut to size, says Ellen.
Reclaimed wood also provided a set of shelves for Ellen’s bedroom, while two recycled wood pallets, combined with a mattress from Freecycle, were also fashioned into garden furniture.
Remember to ask permission before lifting material out of a skip, though – regardless of the condition it’s in. As Cat points out: “Taking stuff out of skips is actually illegal, unless you ask the person who’s responsible for the skip.”
On the street
“Everybody’s got a story of finding something brilliant on the street,” says Cat.
For Ellen, this was the mirror in her bedroom. For Vicky, this was a cast-iron bath, which, with its feet spray-painted, is now in The Foaling Box. She and Chris spotted it by the side of the road while driving, knocked on the owner’s door and asked if they could have it.
“The people were absolutely astonished that we wanted it,” says Vicky. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
It’s worth keeping an eye out for gems that people are giving away – but again, ask permission if items are not explicitly labelled as free to take.
For those looking to get rid of items, though, Cat recommends using reuse websites instead of leaving things on the street, which, if unclaimed, constitutes fly-tipping.
Cat explains: “Local councils have a statutory legal duty to remove anything from the public realm that’s not meant to be there. A lot of things that are put on the street with the best of intentions get scooped up by those council vehicles and they do not get recycled or reused. They go straight to the bottom of the waste hierarchy, to incineration or landfill, because the council don’t have the capacity to sort through it all.”
Sometimes, businesses have damaged goods that they’re not able to sell. With some digging, these can sometimes be acquired for free.
For the bathroom of The Foaling Box, Vicky phoned up tile shops and asked whether they had dead stock that they no longer needed. “One guy had a skip outside his shop full of tiles that had been over-ordered. They were literally off to landfill,” says Vicky. “They were entirely free.”
Vicky and Chris also got a free kitchen from their local Howdens that, due to superficial damage, was destined for waste. “It’s damage that you can’t see. Sometimes it’s just the inside of the carcass…we were going to respray it anyway.”
In fact, it was their second free kitchen: the one in The Foaling Box was recycled by a kitchen-fitter friend, who they’d asked to keep an eye out for any unwanted kitchens that he was removing.
“It was a pine shaker-style kitchen with these weird ornate bits on it that I really didn’t like,” says Vicky.
However, once the decorative features had been removed and the doors had been resprayed a different colour, she felt differently.
Calling businesses for their dead stock may not come naturally to some, but Vicky says: “I think there’s a lot of opportunity for people to say to those companies: ‘I’ll take it off your hands for a discounted price.’ The worst they can say is no.”
Where to get recycled electrical appliances
Vicky and Chris’s electrical appliances are all secondhand, including a Miele hob for £20 and a Smeg fridge for £110 from Facebook Marketplace which retailed at £1,500.
It can be worth asking an electrician to look at items to make sure they’re safe, or to conduct minor repairs. The hob, for example, did not have a plug, but it was easy for an electrician to fix.
Several electronics brands and suppliers also have seconds websites, where returned or refurbished items are sold for a discounted price. Ao.com, for example, has an outlet store called Elek Direct, Sony has an online store for refurbished items and Panasonic has an eBay shop.
Obviously, furnishing a home with free items requires more effort and forethought than purchasing new.
“Sometimes you have to be a little bit patient,” says Cat. It might take time for the specific item you’re searching for to crop up, and you might not be the first one to it when it does. To be a successful free furniture finder, you need to lean into that part of the process.
“You just have to have the right attitude about it. It’s not instant gratification, but it’s quite a nice process. There are unintended positive consequences. You get to meet other local people that live nearby to you.”
For Vicky and Chris, furnishing The Foaling Box took six months, starting in May 2021 and finishing in October. Vicky says: “You have to have a long timeline – I think that’s the key thing about designing like this.”
Have an open mind
Vicky had a clear idea of how she wanted The Foaling Box to look when she started: a “Soho House, urban-chic look”. Achieving that, however, required a degree of compromise, from the bedside tables to the tiling.
If you’re able to be flexible about what you want, you’re likely to be more successful.
Equally, items don’t necessarily need to be put to their intended use. Cat, for example, has turned ten old toilets into planters for strawberries in her garden, and has transformed old baths into chairs and a pond.
“There are lots of different ways of repurposing stuff,” says Cat. “Even if you can’t think of what to do with something, you have to believe that there’ll be somebody else that will be able to reuse that.”
As Vicky’s bathroom tiles and kitchen show, free furnishings won’t always be advertised – but can sometimes be accessed with a little persuasion. Vicky recommends negotiating: tell them what the item is being used for and where it will go.
Negotiate on price, too. Supermarkets sometimes reduce the price of plants once they start looking worse for wear. “I go up to customer service and say: ‘I’ll take this off your hands so it doesn’t get thrown away’,” says Vicky. It doesn’t always work – but The Foaling Box plants have all been acquired this way, or have been self-propagated.
The same goes for Facebook Marketplace. Vicky has successfully bartered down the price of items – sometimes due to damage, and sometimes because the owner has no other real use for them.
Storage of unwanted items costs money, and councils charge fees for the removal of bulky items, so there is often wiggle room on price. Again, says Vicky, the worst they can say is no.
List your own items
As well as getting items for free, Cat encourages people to donate their own – no matter how niche or undesirable they might seem. “Don’t assume that someone won’t want what you’ve got. There’s somebody for everything – it’s just a matter of listing it and throwing it out to the universe.”
List the item accurately in the description, including images and measurements. Be honest about its condition.
If you know that you need to get rid of furniture for a house move, for example, don’t leave it to the last minute, says Cat. Not everyone has a car, and it’s usually unlikely that someone can come and collect something in under 24 hours.
“I did furnish my whole house for free,” says Cat. “I want to get the message out that you don’t need to be stressed that you don’t have the money to buy a new toaster – you can definitely find one on Freegle. You can get that bunk bed, or upgrade from a cot to a toddler bed. It’s all possible.”