Remodeling with secondhand building materials has many fans. Some are owners of historic houses who improve their homes by adding period elements. Others follow green building practices and appreciate conserving resources and keeping materials out of landfills. And still others are looking for quirky elements that will break their homes out of cookie-cutter molds.

Recycled Building Materials are Getting Easier to Find

According to the Building Materials Reuse Association, recycling is becoming more common in the construction industry. That means reclaimed building elements like doors, windows, plumbing fixtures, and wood flooring are increasingly easy to find.

Habitat for Humanity’s nationwide chain of ReStores sells recycled items, and many cities have architectural salvage yards. Online, neighbors advertise unwanted items on community bulletin boards, such as Craigslist, and national directories of recycled materials, such as EcoBusinessLinks, can be great sources for hard-to-find elements. And the price is right: reused pieces can be 50% to 75% cheaper than their new counterparts.  

Searching for Salvaged Materials

Sounds terrific, right? But it’s not that simple. Using recycled building elements is like shopping at a thrift store: You can’t be certain you’ll find exactly what you’re looking for. Anyone interested in a good deal to spruce up their home—an ornate wood mantelpiece or a set of Victorian doors, for example—has to be willing to compromise on some of the details and commit some time to the endeavor.

If you live in or near a city and have access to a salvage yard, you’re in luck. Many receive multiple new shipments daily, and some, such as Seattle’s Second Use, post their offerings online.

But in most cases, there’s no substitute for regularly showing up in person to check out what’s available. If you’ve got something particular in mind, plan on spending a few afternoons at the salvage yard trying to track down what you’re looking for. The same is true if you’re exploring online: locating the right piece may take longer than you’d expected.

Before beginning your search, make sure you’ve got measurements in hand. It’s useful if you can allow for some wiggle room: unlike big home improvement stores, the items on sale are usually one-of-a-kind pieces. So while a recent truckload might have dropped off a beautiful old mantelpiece, the size might not be an exact fit; know in advance if you can manage with a slightly larger or smaller size.

Dealing with Lead Paint

Some old items need to be treated with serious care. Ruthie Mundell of Community Forklift, a salvage yard in Edmonston, Md., says that the staff tries to flag items that appear to be lead paint hazards—that is, anything painted prior to 1978, when the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) banned lead in paints.

Nevertheless, buyers of old painted items need to be aware of the potential hazards. Older paint doesn’t mean the pieces are unusable, but the paint must be thoroughly removed or sealed—never scraped or sanded. The CPSC offers guidelines for treating lead paint in the household.

Finding Savings

Some salvaged pieces are better deals than others. The best is often flooring: careful shoppers can find used floor boards from quality old wood that’s difficult to come by these days. Sat Jiwan Ikle-Khalsa, a green living consultant in Takoma Park, Md., scoured a local salvage yard and found maple, white oak, and rare heart pine flooring at a low price for his renovated 1940s-era home. He estimates he saved more than $2,000 over the cost of new flooring.

Other useful finds are doors, particularly those already on a frame, and plumbing elements. Antique light fixtures can be a great bargain, but check whether they’ve been recently rewired before you buy; otherwise, you may have to do it yourself, or pay an electrician for the service.

Windows are common, but many older widows are single-pane and not energy efficient. These are better used for interior walls to add light and air flow between rooms. Stained glass panels are relatively common at salvage yards and cost from $50 to $500.

Sample Price Comparisons for Various Salvaged Materials

Salvaged oak flooring: $1 to $3 per sq. ft.
New oak flooring: $4 to $10 per sq. ft.
Average savings for 12x16-foot room: $960

Salvaged interior solid panel door (basic): $20 to $50
New interior panel door: $100 to $200
Average savings: $115

Secondhand pedestal sink: $20 to $250
New pedestal sink: $100 to $800
Average savings: $315

Recycled crown molding: $.30 to $1 per lineal ft.
New crown molding: $.90 to $3 per lineal ft.
Average savings for 12x16-foot room: $72.80

Don’t forget to add in transportation costs. Not all salvage yards deliver, and those that do aren’t necessarily cheap: the cost of getting materials across town could be $100 or more. It might make more sense to borrow or rent a truck on your own.

The Value of Salvage Building Components

Salvaged elements may not add to a home’s appraised value, according to Chicago appraiser Tim McCarthy, president of T.J. McCarthy and Associates. An appraiser probably won’t include a home’s reclaimed heart pine beams in the kitchen or the bathroom’s antique plumbing fixtures when calculating the house’s value.

But that doesn’t mean the seller can’t use those amenities as selling points and boost the asking price accordingly. “It’s very market-specific,” McCarthy says. In higher-end neighborhoods, homebuyers may be willing to pay more for authentic elements that give a house personality.

McCarthy recommends talking with a local realtor before making changes; they’ll have a good sense of the housing market’s current demands and should be able to tell you whether a vintage element will boost your home’s market value.

Working with Salvage

To effectively integrate salvaged items, Arne Mortensen, owner of Mortensen Design/Build in Seattle, recommends choosing a contractor who has a particular interest and experience in working with recycled building materials. Salvage yard staffs may be able to recommend someone; other sources for ‘green’ contractors include online sites like Angie’s List.

Nonetheless, the time-consuming legwork of finding good pieces generally falls to the homeowner. To make the process easier, spend time thinking about and researching online what you want before you begin to shop. And be prepared to be persistent; happy hunting takes patience.