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DON'T OVERLOOK GARAGE SALES AS SOURCES OF GOOD FURNITURE

Flip through the pages of "House Beautiful" or "Architectural Digest." The beautiful people can buy Chippendale dining tables, Louis XIV dressers, Tiffany lamps or modern designer furniture.

But most of us can't afford to buy lamps and sofas that cost more than the house we put them in.Some choose to go into debt buying new furniture from department stores. Others of us spend weekends nosing around in people's back yards and garages. We aren't thieves. We are garage sale addicts.

While a room filled with modern department store furniture might look as good as the showroom display, the same room containing a library table from the 1870s or an art deco pole lamp from the '30s or even a sturdy chair from the '60s has real character.

Some people call this junk. They will slap a price tag on grandma's solid oak dresser in order to buy some monstrosity made from pressboard that's covered in simulated woodgrain contact paper.

Of course, finding great furniture buys at garage sales is not always easy. Prize purchases sometimes wear camouflage.

A few years ago, when my wife insisted we buy an ugly orange wardrobe for $25, I turned up my nose. As she stripped nasty globs of paint off the doors, the wardrobe transformed into a beautiful piece of furniture, inlaid with intricately cut burl veneers.

Why did people take gorgeous grained oak, maple and cherry furniture and cover it with ugly paint? The idea was to make something old look new. In the '50s and '60s helpful home decorators suggested it.

It was a lucky suggestion for those of us who are willing to take time to get the gunk off.

Refinishing takes a gallon of stripper, a putty knife, a lot of rags, some sandpaper and a well-ventilated area. Scraping old paint off is nasty business, but the costliest part will be a gallon of stripper, which can run anywhere from $7 to $25. A can of stain or finishing oil can cost between $5 and $20.

The biggest setback to refinishing is time and mess. Stripping can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days, depending on how stubborn the paint is.

Keep in mind that there is not always a beautiful piece of wood hiding beneath every ugly paint job. If it looks like the piece was painted at the factory, there was probably a good reason for it - ugly wood.

A good garage sale find doesn't have to be an antique.

In fact, when you're buying it, never call it an antique. It's "used." Only when it's sitting prominently in your home does it become an antique.

While art deco from the '30s and '40s was all the rage a few years ago, baby boomers are now restoring the furniture they grew up with. Chrome, Formica and even high quality plastics aren't tacky anymore. A chrome dinette set from 1962 is a real find.

When the price of one era begins escalating, collectors and home decorators usually move to the next era. Suddenly, homes that look like something out of "Leave It To Beaver" are back in style.

Items from any age are good purchases as long as they are of good quality. Furniture built before 1970 tended to be made from hard wood, thick metal and heavy fabric - reasons why it still looks good after 25 years.