I Bought a $170 Vacuum From a Thrift Store for Just $20 — And You (Probably) Can Too

published Feb 13, 2020
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Credit: Ashley Poskin/Apartment Therapy

On a scale from Leslie Knope to Rosie the Robot, I’m a solid Pippi Longstocking when it comes to housekeeping. I don’t really love cleaning (unless it’s for research) but I also don’t hate it, and I always do what I can to make it fun. I’ve been known to put my vacuum in the dishwasher, I wash our rugs at the carwash or in a sheet of fresh snow, I clean my oven with a power drill — I’ll do just about anything as long as it makes cleaning fun and weird, or easy on the budget.

So when I spotted a $170 Shark Navigator vacuum at the thrift store for just under $20, I saw it as less of a gamble, and more of an opportunity to educate myself and share what to look for when buying a second-hand appliance in working condition. 

I already had a Shark and a Roomba at home, but my Shark had been compromised (my husband “accidentally” vacuumed up butter… ehh) and no amount of cleaning or time got rid of the weird smell it had acquired. I felt really guilty about buying yet another vacuum, so I was grateful (and hopeful) when I came across the thrift store vacuum.

I stood there in the store, staring at the vacuum for a solid few minutes, considering all the dust mites and dead skin and other gross things it had sucked up in its previous residence, sussing out whether or not I was capable of bringing all that into my home. I checked it out as thoroughly as I could, looking for a few specific indicators that would tell me if it worked well, and if it had a rough past life.

Credit: Ashley Poskin/Apartment Therapy

What to do When Considering a Used Vacuum Cleaner

1. Give it a sniff.

This rule is #1 for any and all second hand purchases. If you can’t get past the sniff test, just put it back on the shelf and keep looking. 

2. Inspect the body.

Set it on a shelf or table at eye level and give it a good look. Does it look banged up? Check for dents — especially near the filtration system. Check the clips to make sure everything fastens as it should and is tight-fitting. Most importantly, check the hose. Stretch it out and make sure there aren’t any cracks.

3. Inspect the canister.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing if it’s filled with dust, this gives you an opportunity to eyeball it for animal hair or any other telling debris (I wouldn’t recommend buying a vacuum that had previously been used in a home with pets). If possible, take the canister to a trash can and dump it before taking it home with you. 

4. Check the filters.

You’ll actually want to replace the filters with new ones should you decide to buy the vacuum, but it’s a good idea to first check them to see that they’re not completely disgusting. Filters can (and should be) washed and maintained regularly, so if they look worse for wear, chances are the vacuum wasn’t taken good care of. If they’re in good shape, this is a good sign and means they’ve been cared for properly, or even better, hardly used!

Credit: Joe Lingeman

5. Check the roller bar.

Turn the vacuum over and inspect the roller. Again, a well cared for vacuum won’t have a bunch of hair or debris stuck around the roller. If it does, this isn’t a dealbreaker, the hair can be removed easily. Use your palm to give the bar a few spins to make sure it moves with ease.

Read more: How to Remove Hair from Your Vacuum Roller Brush

6. Check the cord.

Unwind the cord completely and check for frays or slits; you don’t want to bring a fire hazard into your home! 

7. Plug it in.

This might seem like a no-brainer, but some second hand stores don’t actually bother to test out electronics to see if they work before putting them on the shelves. So find an outlet and plug that baby in.

8. Test it out.

Once you have power, flip all the switches to make sure they work. Test the various speeds and surface options, as well as the hose attachment. Listening to the different sounds the vacuum makes as you switch from one method to the other is also a good indicator of how well it works. If you hear any rattles or unpleasant sounds, it’s not a good sign. You should also be able to pick up on any unpleasant smells coming from the motor you might not have detected in the first step.

Credit: Ashley Poskin/Apartment Therapy

Lucky for me, the vacuum passed my tests and for a mere $20 I was the proud new owner of a $170 machine. Once at home I removed and cleaned the filters, sprayed it down with vinegar and water, popped it in the dishwasher and had it looking brand new in just a few minutes. 

As for my old, stinky machine: I kept the special attachments so I could continue to use them with my new machine, then dropped it off at a local repair shop who was interested in using it for parts. They also recycle old machines, so I felt good knowing whatever they couldn’t use would still be saved from a landfill.

If you’re considering a new vacuum and no longer need your older, still-working model, try calling a charity organization, refugee resettlement center, or halfway house to see if there’s a need. If you end up dropping it off at a thrift store, you might want to tape a note on the canister highlighting the fact that it works well, to help persuade indecisive shoppers.

This post originally ran on Apartment Therapy. See it there: I Bought a $170 Vacuum From a Thrift Store for $20—And You (Probably) Can Too