Courtney’s Lists: Buying on Craigslist

With the ever growing popularity of Craigslist as an online classifieds resource, it is becoming more and more important to be savvy when navigating the waters of this website.  After all, Craigslist is both famous and infamous (the latter due to a few very unfortunate news stories that have surfaced in the last few years).  Infamy aside, it still remains one of the best resources out there to find an apartment, buy a couch, sell a dresser, find a job, and… the list goes on.

I don’t necessarily consider myself a Craigslist expert, however I have had a lot of successful experiences via this website: I’ve gotten numerous gigs and jobs (one of which I had for 3 years, right up until I moved to NYC); I have found three great and well-priced apartments; I have acquired more furniture and accessories than I can even count (after some haggling, of course); and I’ve sold countless items for three times as much as I would have gotten for them at a garage sale (if not more).  Needless to say, I am one of Craigslist’s biggest cheerleaders, and I’ve learned through trial and error how to tell the difference between what is legit and what is sketchy-sketch and how to get the best price.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll address selling items, finding an apartment, and  getting jobs — but today is all about buying.  And in true me form, it’s list time!

Tips for Buying Items on Craigslist:

1.  First of all, if you go to, you will see that you have choices when it comes to what city’s Craigslist you want to browse.  Not all cities/towns/villages have their own Craigslist;  they are grouped into the larger metropolitan areas.  For example, if you live in the village of Paw Paw, Michigan (that’s a real place folks), you’ll notice you don’t have your very own Craigslist, but Kalamazoo, Michigan, the closest city, does have its own, so this is the one you’d want to check out (if you were a Paw Paw resident, that is… and there are only 3,363, so chances are I’m not talking to you).

2.  When it comes to finding the item you’re looking for, it’s important to consider what day of the week you’d think people would post who were actually selling the item.  My bet — and it’s never really let me down– is to search on weekends and evenings, i.e., when the majority of the workforce is home (and able to do things like list Craigslist items).  That isn’t to say that nothing can be found during the day — Monday through Friday — it’s just that you’re likely to have less options, therefore less chances to compare and pit sellers’ prices against each other (yeah, you should totally do that — more on that later).

3.  However, if you’re looking for a more obscure item, perhaps something you wouldn’t see just any ol’ day of the week, then this doesn’t matter as much.  Also with these more obscure items, it’s important to go back a few days, even a week or two.  The more obscure an item, usually the smaller the number of potential buyers, so something rather rare that was posted a few weeks ago — say, this eagle themed fabric below — may still available for sale.

4.  And since we’re already talking about it, something else important to consider is an item’s posted date.  When a seller posts a particular item, it is their job to remove the posting once it has sold, but sometimes sellers forget (I’ve done it before only to have someone call me a month later for a long- ago-sold item… Oops!).  Therefore, Craigslist is often littered with sold-and-still-posted items.  (Of course, if something is still available, but was posted ages ago, this gives you more leverage to negotiate for a better price once contact with the seller is established.)

5.  So you’ve nailed down which Craigslist directory you’re using, whether it be NYC’s,  Atlanta’s, Kalamazoo’s… Wherever you live.  Now you have to search that item.  This seems easy enough.  “I’m searching for the Ikea Billy bookcase in white.”. Logic would say “Type in ‘white Ikea Billy bookcase,'” right?  Maybe.  Probably not.  While searching for something like this in Google would yield comprehensive results, Craigslist’s search engine isn’t as powerful and might not prove as helpful.  In fact, something that specific may yield no results.  However, if you approach it more generally you might actualy have a chance at finding exactly what you’re looking for — after sifting through the less relevant items of course.

Remember, your ability to find exactly what you’re looking for is as only as powerful as the the ability of the sellers to appropriately market their item, and more often than you’d expect, sellers just don’t know what they have.  This is where your innate search engine creativity comes in.  (C’mon, you know you’ve got some…)

Story time:  After I got my wedding dress, I decided I wanted a little extra something-something to make the skirt part of my dress even fuller.  The technical term for what I was looking for was a crinoline or an A-line slip.  However, after searching for “crinoline” and “slip,” I found nothing and just figured that at that particular time, no one in Atlanta was selling a crinoline.  Then I typed in the word bridal, and suddenly I had some options.  The one I ended up buying was called a “wedding dress under skirt” (what?!).  Had I not branched out my search a bit, I would have never found this item; I would have had to settle and pay $59, versus the $20 I paid for it via Craigslist.  Holla.

6.  Going the general-and-not-so-darn-specific route, make sure to use as many synonyms as you can think of.  To get the white Ikea Billy bookcase that I alluded to from this previous post, I used many search terms, including, but not limited to:

  • Bookshelf
  • Bookcase
  • Bookshelves
  • Bookcases
  • White bookshelf
  • White bookcase
  • White Billy
  • Billy bookcase
  • Billy bookshelf
  • Ikea
  • Ikea Billy
  • Ikea bookcase
  • Ikea shelf
  • White Ikea Billy bookshelf

The last one was actually the first set of search terms I used, and the only results it yielded were about $5 less than the original price… and that’s not what Craigslist is for. :)  Yeah, typing in allllll of those search terms took a teensy bit more time, but I actually found what I was looking for at a great price and in perfect condition.

7.  Establishing contact: If something is too good to be true, it probably is.

  • When perusing ads, beware of the word vintage:  Sometimes it means “antique and charming.”  More often than not, it just means old (and worse, sometimes it means “scratched up, decrepit, and not structurally sound”).
  • If there are no pictures, again: beware.  Sometimes people are in a hurry to list their items and don’t bother (or don’t have photo uploading skills). However, lack of pictures could mean there’s damage to the item that they don’t want to disclose for fear they might not be able to sell it.  If you’re truly interested in an item, ask for pictures and ask about any damage before seriously considering an item.
  • Beware if an ad has lots of typos. If it seems like they are writing as if English is not their first language, or they incorporate awkward usage, it may be a scam.
  • For a fool-proof transaction, don’t agree to do PayPal or Western Union, or anything but payment in person. It’s way too easy for someone to steal your identity and/or fradulently use your credit card. Some may recommend otherwise, but I just don’t see the wisdom in it.  Meet the seller in person, see the item in person, and pay for the item in person.
  • Danger Will Robinson:  If someone says something is “guaranteed by Craigslist,” you know that they are lying, since Craigslist does not involve itself in any transactions.  
  • Whether or not to negotiate:  If you truly believe you’ve found a quality item from a quality seller, you may choose to try to negotiate for an even better price.  Sometimes sellers will list items as “$150 OBO.”  OBO = Or best offer.  Then, it’s your job to come up with the “best offer.”  If a price says “firm,” you may still attempt to negotiate, but you run the risk of insulting the seller and losing the item to another buyer who will actually pay what the seller thinks the item is worth.  You have to decide what you think the item is really worth compared to how popular you might think the item will be.
  • The second you get a bad feeling about something or any uncertainty about what kind of person you’re dealing with, abort mission.  Sever contact or tell them you’ve changed your mind.  There are too many crazies out there, and you don’t need to get mixed up with any, especially over the purchase of something like a dining room table.  If they insist on certain things, especially conditions that seem unreasonable, be cautious.  You are dealing with strangers after all, so only deal with sellers that you’re comfortable with.

8.  Scheduling the meet-up:  So, you’ve found the item, contacted the seller, and settled on a price; the next step is to actually make the transaction.  As I said before, I do not endorse anything but meeting in person, so none of this “I’ll mail it to you, just give me your credit card numbers/your PayPal account ID/your soul” stuff.  Sometimes people insist you come to their home.  If this can be avoided, I suggest you do so.  Offering to meet them in neutral ground where other people are around (witnesses) is a much safer course of action than going into the home of a stranger (I recommend the parking lot of a drug store, because these parking lots are usually small, close to the road, and there are lots of customers entering and exiting, since no one usually spends more than 15 minutes inside a drug store).

Sometimes because of the nature of the item, this is impossible — particularly with large, heavy furniture.  In this case — and only after you’ve vetted them thoroughly — try to find someone to go with you.  Mentioning this tidbit of info to the seller is also smart:  “My friend and I will come pick it up at 2:00.”  This is another way to weed out the crazies.  Story time (again):  Once I was going to meet with a seller on Craigslist, but then I mentioned “my husband and I” would be picking up the item together.  Suddenly, I went from the “only buyer” with a meeting time, to “Oh, it’s not for sale anymore.”  Yeah, I’m sure.

9.  The Meet-up:  Even though you’ve scheduled a meet-up, you don’t have to buy the item, if it’s not what you expected in person.  It’s okay to say “Thank you for your time, but I don’t think I’ll be buying this after all.”  And even though you may have already settled on a price, you may still negotiate in the meet-up.  Or not.  It’s up to you and what you’re comfortable with.  As a buyer, if I like the item in person, I usually just pay (with exact change) and that’s it.  However, as a seller, I’ve had numerous buyers arrive to buy an item that was selling for, say… $25 and say something like “I’ll give you $20 cash for it!”  or “I forgot to run to an ATM and I’ve just got a twenty, is that OK?”  If you choose to apply this same technique, then yes, you may get a better price, but be cautious that you may run the risk of insulting the seller — and they may even choose to not sell the item to you.

That’s my buying spiel!  Check back tomorrow for tips on selling on Craigslist.

(It will be life changing.)