Don’t Bring Bed Bugs Home in Garage Sale Bargains

Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin RoseAhh! Summer and neighborhood garage sales go together like … bed bugs and mattresses!?!? Sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but if you're a fan of garage sales, thrift stores, or even upscale antique shops, be warned that you could end up bringing home an unexpected “bonus” along with your bargains.

Yes, we’re talking bed bugs. Although bites from these unpleasant insects are not deadly, they are certainly a major nuisance for many of their victims – resulting in swelling, welts, and itchiness. Scratch the itch and you might well end up with a dangerous secondary infection. So keeping those little pests far away from your home sweet home is a priority. Follow these preventive tips when you are out secondhand shopping.

  1. Learn what types of furniture and other household items bed bugs love to live on. They prefer fabric surfaces, especially ones where humans have slept. You’re probably already wary of secondhand mattresses and box springs, and rightly so. It’s safest to avoid buying them, because these pieces are very difficult to treat if they're hosting bed bugs. Only full penetration of deep heat, prolonged cold, or expert application of pesticide will eliminate these repulsive creatures -- definitely not something you want to try at home. And any infestation will almost certainly spread to the rest of your house.

  2. Watch out for pre-owned pillows, comforters, sheets, and other bedding as well, although they are treatable. If you absolutely can’t pass up on purchasing these sleep accessories at a garage sale, enclose them in tightly sealed plastic bags until you can transport them safely to your laundry room. Then launder everything in hot water and dry on the highest setting available.

  3. Beware of upholstered sofas and armchairs, even if they look fresh and clean. The owner may have vacuumed or shampooed the item to spruce it up before offering it for sale, but that is useless to get rid of all the bed bugs which may be hiding inside. The same goes for any treatments you might try once you get the piece home. Steam cleaning or spraying with pesticide may seem like a good idea, but neither method penetrates deeply enough to de-infest completely.

  4. Steer clear of thrifted baby and toddler products with cloth padding too. Bed bugs have, on occasion, been found in strollers, car seats, and carriers. Go ahead and buy used crib sheets, clothing, and, yes, that cute and cuddly little teddy bear, though; just treat them similarly to bedding (see above) before bringing them near your precious little one. Feel free to indulge in smooth-surfaced, crevice-free toys of wood or plastic, such as a classic ring stacker.

  5. Examine carefully "finds” like non-upholstered furniture, headboards, picture frames, shelving, and the like. Carry a magnifying glass and flashlight along with you to yard sales and check top and bottom, inside and out. You’re looking for adult bugs (which are medium brown and about the size and shape of an apple seed), young nymphs (smaller, translucent, and light to medium brown), eggs (resembling a 1-millimeter grain of rice), castoff skins, or minuscule black droppings. These are all signs of infestation.

  6. Be suspicious even of furnishings and other household possessions which have been in storage for an extended period of time, as it’s possible they might still harbor the pesky critters. Dedicated garage sale shoppers will be disappointed to find that, unfortunately, bed bugs can’t easily be starved out. Although it’s true that they do feed on human blood (yuck!), they are capable of surviving without their favorite treat for as long as one year.

Laura Firszt writes for

Updated June 7, 2018.

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