Don't buy trouble along with bargains

Thrifty shoppers have questions. Answer Angel has ... you guessed it.

Dear Answer Angel: I know this is going to sound strange, but here goes. I keep reading all the time about bedbugs, how nasty they are and how you can carry them home from almost any place in your clothes. I love to shop in thrift stores and secondhand shops, but truthfully I'm a little nervous now. What kind of precautions should I take to clean, fumigate or otherwise make sure the clothes, furniture (or anything else) I buy don't include any extra critters? Or should I just stop shopping at these places?

— Scratching Just Thinking About It

Dear Scratching: Your question isn't strange at all. I've wondered the same thing. Michael Potter, an entomology professor at the University of Kentucky, tells me he is asked this all the time. "The chance of picking up bedbugs at an antiques store or a flea market is exceedingly remote," he says. "It is possible. Anything is possible." If you're worried about items from a yard sale, thrift store or vintage shop, put them in the dryer at low to medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes. "The heat will kill all life stages of a bedbug," he says.

For larger items such as stuffed furniture, "it becomes a judgment call. If you want to buy a cool couch at a thrift store … learn how to do a thorough visual inspection of the seams and look for little black speckles (droppings)." But, he warns, it's hard even for professionals to see them.

Even if the store says it sanitizes its wares, beware. "Unless they're putting them in a heat chamber and cooking the item, the treatment sprays they squirt are a bit of a Band-Aid," Potter says.

And picking up a mattress, box spring, couch or recliner off the curb is risky, he says. Don't do it.

Dear Answer Angel: I bought a really great leather jacket at a thrift store, but it reeks of cigarette smoke. I thought hanging it outside for a few days would eliminate the smell, but it hasn't. How do I get rid of the smoke smell?

— Joanie M.

Dear Joanie: Obviously, the easiest solution is to leave it to a professional. But if you got a great deal at the thrift shop, I'm betting you don't want to pay more for the cleaning than you did for the coat. For DIY info, I turned to Lonnie McDonald, a cleaning pro and smoke odor expert certified by the Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration.

He advises that you clean the leather with a water-based aniline leather cleaner. (An online search turns up numerous options.) However, your real problem could be the fabric lining. For that, he suggests a mild upholstery cleaner (test it on an inconspicuous spot). And if the thing still smells, the institute's Web site,, will help you locate an experienced pro in your area to do the job. But it'll cost you, probably $65 or more. Bottom line: Sniff hard before you make a "bargain" purchase.

Dear Answer Angel: I bought some Vanity Fair underwear I loved at a VF Outlet location when I was on vacation. Now that I am home, I want to find more of it, and there are no outlets near me. I've looked in retail stores that carry Vanity Fair and on the Internet. But, no luck. Is the stuff sold at outlets ever available at regular priced retail stores?

— Out of Luck?

Dear Out of Luck: Make that not Out of Luck. After you told me the style number you were looking for, I learned you can order your undies by calling the Vanity Fair customer service line, 800-366-8339. But you might have to pay a higher price than the low outlet deal you got.

Outlet styles sometimes are available at retail stores. But not always. And some styles — like the one you're interested in — are specially made just for the outlets. For those, you'll have to visit the outlet store or call to order. Other outlet items are discontinued or past season styles, and they'll be hard, if not impossible, to find later.

Dear Answer Angel: This is a request. Would you please start a campaign about women's short-sleeved shirts? Few of us, even those of us who work out a lot, have Michelle Obama arms and look good in shirts with chopped-off sleeves. I'd appreciate your publicizing this fashion flaw so that designers may realize that they would sell a lot more shirts if the short sleeves were longer.

— M.J.

Dear M.J.: Sign me up as a charter member of your grass-roots campaign! I'm with you, sister. While we're at it, let's lobby for universal sizing so we're not a size 12 in one brand and a 16 in another. And how about dresses that actually flatter and cover your backside. And labels that don't itch or flip out at the back of the neck for everyone to see?

Got other fashion gripes? E-mail me, and I'll put together a whole list!

Shop, drop, get help: Yearning for a friend (only better) to tell you what to choose, where to look, how to get good value? Relax, now you've got an angel on your shoulder. Send questions to

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