Editor’s note: This is Part 1 of a two-part series.

Suppose there was a place you could buy high-quality building products at fire-sale prices, and do it in the greenest possible manner to boot? Well, there is such a place — it’s your local architectural salvage yard. If you can live with a few little nicks and scratches, you may be amazed at the bargains you come across.

What? Build your esteemed project with someone else’s castoffs? Well, yes. And there are three good reasons to do so.

First, the quality of older building materials is often superior to what you’ll find at modern home improvement stores.

Second, salvaged items typically sell at discounts of 50 to 90 percent off new prices (some items are in fact brand-new products misordered by contractors, rejected by customers, or discontinued by their manufacturers — occasionally, they’re still in their original shipping containers).

Lastly, salvaged items are infinitely greener than new, so-called "green" products, because they already exist and consume no additional resources.

But be forewarned: Buying from an architectural salvage yard isn’t for everyone. Unlike shopping at your local building emporium, you can’t just grab all the generic, "Made in China" goodies you need and be on your way. You need patience. It can takes months, in fact, to find just the right items for your project.

You also have to remain flexible and willing to change your mind. For example, you may be looking for a pair of double entrance doors, but come across an absolutely beautiful single door with sidelights that works just as well, perhaps better. Far from being a drawback, having to keep your design options open will often elicit more interesting, less off-the-shelf solutions.

Now, some salvaged items that can be especially good values:

  • Front entrances are one of the most commonly replaced items in home improvement, so salvage yards are usually well stocked with them. Often, these are very fine old doors that have been changed out merely to keep up with some new design fad. If you’re willing to live with the patina that accompanies a previous life, you can get a high-quality front entrance for dimes on the dollar. Your best bet is to look for units complete with the original jamb and hinges, since fitting a new door into an existing opening can be very labor-intensive.
  • Interior doors can also be a good buy, as long as you know exactly what to look for. Again, if you’re building from scratch (rather than just replacing an existing door), it’s better to buy the doors complete with jambs and hinges — "prehung," in building parlance. Make sure each door has the proper "hand" — the direction it swings — because it’s not cost-effective to rehinge a door later. Avoid doors that are glopped with multiple layers of old paint, which is usually more trouble to remove than the door is worth.
  • If you’re restoring an older home, the salvage yard is also a good source of hard-to-find vintage hardware items such as lock sets, brass switch cover plates, ornamental heat registers, and the like. They may require some tender loving care to be put back in use, but their quality is generally superior to that of new reproductions — often including the stuff available from those ostensible "restoration" catalog houses.

Next time, some more salvage yard bargains, along with a few items to approach with caution.

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