It all began innocently enough: Linda Brown and Barnett Smith met, fell in love, got married, and bought a house.
Then they had to figure out a way to furnish the place while operating on a restricted budget.
Mrs. Smith had previously dabbled in the art of picking up odds-and-ends of furniture from thrift stores and flea markets for her apartment, but now she had a four-bedroom, split-level house in Randallstown to decorate.
"After we got married in 1998, we really got into this," she said.
It was time to get down to serious work -- one room at a time.
Fortunately, she had a husband who was up to the challenge, one who also happened to be savvy about going-out-of-business sales.
And the hunt began.
"We shop and see things that other people don't see," Mr. Smith said. "You have to be able to see the diamond in the rough."
That point of view is key to the couple's success in furnishing their home with quality furniture at bargain prices. Making a home comfortable is every owner's challenge -- but the Smiths have made it into an art.
For the dining room, their rough diamonds include four matching cherry-oak chairs, which the Salvation Army was willing to unload for a total of $15.
Then they found a bargain basement dining room table for $100. After that, the two located their 100-carat gem: an oak breakfront for $15.
"We had to strip and refinish the chairs," said Mrs. Smith, who works for a health care insurer. "Yet, even with factoring in the cost of the materials, the padding and the fabric to recover the chairs, the total cost for the dining room was probably about $150."
For those who, like the Smiths, know where to look, secondhand furniture finds are out there aplenty.
The Smiths are especially fond of a 7-acre, outdoor market near Charles Town, W. Va. "You can find anything there," said Mr. Smith, a military retiree. "Everything from refrigerators to buttons and bows."
But they also frequent the Salvation Army on Patapsco Avenue in Baltimore as well as an indoor flea market a few blocks away. Or they head to a few other places they know at Fort Meade and in Frederick.
Not surprisingly, much of their work has been made easier by the booming economy: Goodwill Industries and the Salvation Army are reporting record donations of clothing and furniture.
Clearly, what began as a way to keep costs down now had turned into a hobby, if not a philosophy.
"Your home is an extension of yourself," Mr. Smith said. "What we are saying is `I love you' with the furniture."
When word of the couple's coups got out to relatives, the Smiths started keeping an eye out for what others in the family were looking for.
New kitchen floor
"We managed to furnish my sister's living and dining rooms for $300," Mrs. Smith said. "And you wouldn't have a clue that anything was used. The white wraparound sofa was in great shape and we also picked up a couple of brass coffee tables for $20."
Her sister's outlay of $300 also financed a new kitchen floor, courtesy of a going-out-of-business sale at Hechingers.
Luckily for her, Mr. Smith, who said his father was talented at doing things with his hands, had taught himself how to lay floors -- a skill he learned when he redid his own kitchen floor. At a cost of less than $100.
With the successful completion of the dining room, the Smiths went to work on the living room. Although they already had a sofa, the couple went searching for a few chairs.
They ended up with an overstuffed chair and matching ottoman for $45. The fabric wasn't worn, but needed to be cleaned. "We used a foam upholstery cleaner, which you then vacuum off, and they came out beautifully," Mr. Smith said.
They also found a couple of crystal lamps, and a second green upholstered chair, as well as ball-and-claw cherry wood sofa table ($38).
At this point, the Smiths started work on the bedrooms. The first -- known in the household as the Purple Room -- was entirely furnished with used pieces.
The frame for the double bed cost $50. And a new mattress an additional $90. Of course, since the mattress had originally been priced at $900, they weren't complaining.
"They were brand-new mattresses that the manufacturer donated to the Goodwill," said Mr. Smith. At the foot of the bed is a purple settee.
The art on the walls of the Purple Room came from West Virginia and Patapsco Avenue flea markets, while a $3 lamp got new life after the shade was spray-painted. An ornate old kerosene heater serves as an end table.
Next door is another Smith work in progress: the Green Room. Another going-out-of-business sale yielded a daybed, followed by two chests of drawers purchased for a pittance and awaiting an as-of-yet undecided transformation.
Two matching chairs -- green, naturally -- have been brightened with upholstery cleaner and the cushion stuffing replaced with new foam. All of that cost about $75.