The retired couple selling us their weekend house wanted to leave all their furniture and furnishings behind, down to the towels and silverware and the shoe polish in the closet. They were moving to a senior community, and neither their grown kids nor other relatives wanted any of the stuff in the family’s longtime second home.
My wife and I were delighted. We were young and it was our first second-home purchase. (Actually, our first home purchase of any kind; we rented in the city and were buying a little place in the country.)
We didn’t have much to bring with us. The purchase was a stretch financially, and we didn’t have anything extra – either money or stuff – to put in our new weekend place. We were happy to take whatever we could get from the sellers, even things that we knew we would gradually jettison: threadbare sheets, stained curtains, unraveling rugs, warped pans, chipped drinking glasses, rusty tools and so on.
The next time we bought a second home, years after we sold that first weekend place, the sellers again wanted to hand over the keys and walk away with nothing. But we didn’t want everything that time. We were downsizing from a big house where we had raised our kids, and we had a lot of stuff.
From those two very different circumstances, and from looking at what many other people have done, we’ve learned a lot about furnishing and fitting out a second home. Many second-home sellers want to dump everything, and many buyers need some things. But not everything.
It’s important to make it clear to both sides in advance – what is staying, and what is going.
When we were making the deal for our current weekend place, we went through and ticked off the items we wanted the sellers to leave. We wanted them to take everything else. When it looked like quibbles over the stuff might slow down the sale, our real estate agent stepped in.
“Give me your list of what you want to keep,” she told us. “My gift to you to celebrate buying the house will be to get all the other stuff moved out.”
That was fine with us, though my wife and I – and our two grown kids – had varying opinions on just what we wanted to keep. Or not.
We agreed that if one of us really wanted something, we’d keep it at least for a while. We’d try it out.
We did that with a lot of stuff. We knew we were going to need a new couch, but we agreed to keep the old one for a while and see how we used it. We figured that would help us decide what kind of new couch to get – what kind of fabric, how big, what color, etc.
The only things I insisted on keeping were two matching bulbous table lamps adorned with colorful English fox hunting scenes. Garish, I was told. Kitsch. Totally unsuitable for a lake house. I had to agree on all counts, but those lamps were so wonderfully weird that I wanted to keep them at least for a while. So my family agreed: the fox hunting lamps could stay – but only until we got a new couch and end tables.
Once you know what is staying, you can decide what you’re bringing in – and start looking for it.
How do you want the place to look and feel? What should it say about you when you’re away from the everyday life of your primary residence? Should it always look ready for a design magazine shoot? Or will it look “lived in,” as friends say about our lake house?
In your main residence, whether renting or buying, young or old, no matter your financial standing, you probably want the best you can afford, with a mix of form and function – furniture, fittings, fixtures, appliances, accents, everything.
Sometimes, but not always, a second home has more emphasis on casual comfort. It is supposed to be an escape home, after all.
The couch and table and chairs need to be easy to sit on – and get out of. If you entertain, the table needs to be big enough for a crowd, whether for dinner parties or games nights or beer pong. The TV and music system have to work well; they need to look and sound good. The rugs and drapes and countertops must be rugged enough or pretty enough.
Some second-home buyers set strict budgets for furnishing their new escapes. It’s an admirable idea, but we didn’t think that would work for us; instead, we agreed to simply try to spend as little as possible in the first year. We went through our stuff from the big house we were leaving to pick out what we needed or wanted at the lake house. We told friends what we were looking for, and some of them donated stuff from their basements or attics,
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” one told me.
Another consideration: we thought we might renovate the weekend house at some point, and we didn’t want to spend on furnishings that might not fit later.
As we settled in, we looked for things we needed but didn’t want to spend a lot of money on. We perused Craigslist and freecycling social-media sites. We prowled rummage sales, yard sales, estate sales and auctions for second-hand items we could use, but I never did come across the foldup poker table of my dreams.
We considered a theme, which makes sense for a beach house (light blue accents, seashell collections, lighthouse paintings and driftwood sculptures) or a ski chalet. When friends were decorating a ski house in the Adirondacks, we donated antique polished-wood cross-country skis to their fireplace wall.
Our house, with its rustic wood interior and a lake and woods outside, didn’t need a lot of dressing up. Our non-theme evolved as a relaxed mix of different styles. Maybe recycled chic. Or hand-me-down comfort. Our only rule was that we didn’t want the place to look like off-campus housing. No board-and-bricks bookshelves, even temporarily.
Fitting out a second home can make some new owners anxious about getting it all “right” as soon as possible. In contrast, we enjoyed gradually making the lake house our own. That included a record player with boxes of our favorite vinyl. And lots of books in old but real wooden book shelves. We overstacked the coffee table with volumes on local hiking and colonial history. We set up our respective work areas, and made them flexible enough that the laptops and file folders could be quickly and easily put away.
In the first year or so, we often bought something new for our apartment in the city, then sent the old easy chair or mattress or teapot to the lake to replace the even older version left behind by the previous owners. Again and again, we got two upgrades for the price of one.
We packed a couple of closet shelves with Scrabble, Monopoly and other board games. The previous owners didn’t entertain much, so, soon after we moved in we got a dozen white plastic patio chairs at a yard sale. We asked round for a hammock, and somebody gave us one.
Art and artisanal works can be a good reason to bend the rules on keeping costs down in pursuit of practicality. One neighbor commissioned a stained glass window showing a scene from our lake.
It turned out that waiting to replace things gradually worked for us. We were able to better spend our money where it mattered – on usefulness and comfort. We avoided making furnishing or decorating decisions we might have regretted after we finally renovated a couple years after moving in.
In any house, the furnishing is an ongoing process. It never ends. But at our second home, we rarely replace anything simply because we’ve grown tired of it. It has to be worn out or broken. But over the more than a decade we’ve been in that house, we’ve replaced almost everything.
For about a year, we put up with the old, worn couch that we inherited. By then, we knew we needed something longer and deeper, in a dark color with a fabric that would withstand spills and cleaning. We replaced the cheap unmatched end tables, too.
Remarkably, we have not replaced the garish, kitschy, totally unsuitable lamps with the English fox hunting decor. Somehow they grew on us, and now the living room wouldn’t look right without them.