How do I avoid bed bugs when buying used furniture?

by nobugsonme on November 21, 2015 · 4 comments

in bed bug detection, bed bugs, used furniture

An anonymous reader, let’s call her “Fiona,” asks via our contact form,

“I’m trying to find reliable information about buying secondhand teak furniture [online] and how concerned I should be about bedbugs, which precautions should I take (if any), etc. I’m specifically thinking of a teak coffee table (not too many places to hide, etc., but I know very little about bed bugs). Anyway, I’m not sure if you’re willing to do this, but I would love to hear your opinion on this. And if there are any steps you’d take in treating the furniture or whether it sounds like I should avoid buying it entirely.

“Many thanks for your time with this…”

Not being an expert myself, I asked some of the experts known to our Bedbugger forum users for their advice.

I consulted with some of our experts and got the following helpful responses:

David Cain, of Bed Bugs Ltd. suggests that,

It is actually safer to check and buy a secondhand piece of furniture than it is to assume that the new store-bought stuff is ‘going to be bedbug free because it’s new’– we all know a few stories of how that false sense of security has panned out for a few.

Therefore once the table has been picked it needs to be checked before the transaction is complete.  The easiest way to do this is as follows:

  • Start off in a well-lit environment and supplement that light with a bright flashlight, the LED types with the “bluer” light are best, the “yellow/orange” bulbs should be avoided.
  • Make sure you have access to example images to compare and contrast, use a magnifying loupe if needed or better still a microscope attachment for your phone.
  • Inspect all the cracks and crevices looking for:
    • Live samples
    • Cast skins
    • Faecal traces
  • If you find anything, take pictures, document and if needed confirm suspect marks with Bed Bug Blue* as it’s more accurate than visual confirmation alone.
  • Teak stain will be more translucent than faecal and is less likely to have a physically detectable relief when a finger is run over it.
  • Once you are happy it’s checked and clear then it’s time to start transporting to your own property. If the item is delivered to the home, check it before bringing it inside.

In most parts of the world it is illegal to sell/transact an infested item, and as such “it’s got bed bugs; here is the proof” is an acceptable reason to break the contract for the sale.

Now here is the flip side of this.  Aside from beds any item that does actually have bedbugs which is brought into the home will not usually remain as the nexus of the infestation for more than a few feeding cycles.  Therefore there is a viable logic that says: Inspecting items that come into your home is not as critical as having your home correctly set up to detect and eradicate.

After all this is a simple extension to the reality of a [detection] system protected hotel, the introduction method is less critical than the detection onsite.

Another expert, Paul Bello of PJB Pest Management Consulting offers the following advice for Fiona and others contemplating a used furniture purchase:

  • Do not bring any furniture items into your home or vehicle without conducting a thorough inspection thereof first.
  • Depending upon the individual item, the quantity of potential hiding places may vary from a relative few to many. Of course, the more there are the more time and possibly more difficult it would be to inspect. However, you still must be thorough.
  • In the event that you suspect the presence of bed bugs and/or eggs the following methodologies may be utilized to remediate/eliminate the bed bug threat:
    • Do not bring any suspect items into your home or vehicle, ever!!!
    • Conduct a thorough inspection of any such items.
    • If bed bugs and/or eggs are found, treat to kill bed bugs using steam, heat, vacuum, contact insecticides, combination method and/or prolonged isolation/storage of the item as needed.

Paul suggests the following treatment options:

  • Heat – heat may be used to treat the item in a variety of ways. Heat may be applied in a heat chamber** or by heat generating device.
  • Steam – steam kills bed bugs and eggs on contact. Steam*** may be applied using a suitable steam generating device.
  • Vacuum – bed bugs may be removed via vacuuming however, it may be possible for some bed bugs and eggs to elude removal by vacuum if hidden in inaccessible locations.
  • Contact insecticides – insecticides may be applied to potential bed bug hiding places such that any bed bugs and/or eggs which may be hidden in such areas are killed.
  • Pest strips**** – pest strips may be used to treat the furniture item in a sealed treatment space where the vapors from the strip will be contained therein to kill the bed bugs.
  • Combination – use of a combination of the above methods.
  • Isolation – the furniture item may be wrapped and/or sealed and stored for a prolonged period of time such that any bed bugs present will die of starvation.
  • Hire a Professional – hire a professional to treat your furniture item prior to taking possession of it.

Paul notes that “Whichever methodology you decide is best for you, you will be best served to be thorough and conservative in your approach such that you avoid ‘purchasing’ a bed bug problem due to used furniture.”

So the big takeaway here is: inspect secondhand furniture before it comes into the home, and treat if needed. And don’t assume new items are never a problem– inspect those too if possible.

Many thanks to David and Paul for their helpful responses and to Fiona for asking this question!

Some products and product types referenced above:

*David references Bed Bug Blue, a test for bed bug feces.  You can read more about Bed Bug Blue, and presumptive blood tests which may also be helpful, in our useful tools page.

**Paul references heat chambers.  Some PCOs have such chambers. You can read about various consumer-oriented products which heat items to kill bed bugs in the useful tools page– one of which, the Zappbugg Room, is actually large enough to contain larger pieces of used furniture such as a table.

***Paul references steam; you can read our FAQ about killing bed bugs with steam or view dry vapor steamers in our useful tools page.

****Paul references pest strips, available in the US under the brand name Nuvan (outside NY and CT) or Hot Shot (in NY and CT and elsewhere). You can read about DDVP pest strips in our useful tools page.

Disclosure: Bedbugger runs affiliate ads for the products above (among others) and if you shop through the links in Useful Tools or the banner ads, it helps support the continued running of this site at no additional cost to you.  More details in our disclosure policy.

1 taot November 24, 2015 at 12:08 am

Thanks for the information!

2 Chris W. December 2, 2015 at 2:36 pm

I have purchased a lot of used furniture to refinish it, whenever possible, I avoid buying furniture that is upholstered. I usually buy wooden furniture that has removable cushions and then I replace the cushions and refinish the wood. That has always kept the furniture I have bought nice and pest free. I definitely think common sense is the most important thing when buying used furniture. If it looks like it may have bed bugs, don’t put it in your home or car! Use a trailer and a garage until you can treat it properly!

3 Nycitypestcontrol April 9, 2016 at 12:58 am

Make sure you don’t buy used upholstered furniture even if they are in a good condition. If bed bugs are inside them, it will be impossible to detect. If the person selling the furniture has vacuumed the furniture without knowing that it was infested, it will be all the more difficult to find any bed bug activity.

4 Beau M. April 19, 2016 at 12:48 am

I agree with the comments above. Only once have I had a problem with bed bugs, luckily it was just one male that made its way into my home. From then on before bringing luggage, and hand-me-down items in my home I thoroughly inspect and treat them before bringing them inside my house. If there is any sign of pest activity I throw it away.

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