Yesterday The Consumerist pointed to a couple of Curbly posts about how to buy stuff on Craigslist [one, two]. These articles have some good tips, but I think there’s more to say.


My Craigslist experience

Cragislist is one of the seven wonders of the internet. You can use it to find a job, buy a car, get a date for Saturday night, and sell that old couch. The site is free to use for almost everything. It’s community-policed, which means spam is taken down as users flag it. Kris and I made extensive use of Craigslist when we bought our new house. Over the past three years we’ve purchased:

  • 67″ x 36″ antique mirror with beveled edge: $45
  • Another mirror, battered but okay: $20 and a long wait in traffic
  • Solid cherry Dania shaker desk: $175 and buyer’s remorse
  • A housekeeper to perform a final, thorough cleaning when we moved out of our previous house: $75
  • A futon bed/couch in excellent condition: $100
  • “Cool, stout wooden chair” for my smoking porch: $25
  • A 30 x 60 folding table: $30
  • Two shelving units stolen from Borders by disgruntled employees: $20
  • Free-standing metal cabinet that matches those in our kitchen, delivered: $75
  • Newer double bed with metal frame: $50
  • Doctor’s balance scale: $30
  • Box of 40+ wine glasses: $20
  • An old rototiller: $50 (which I sold two years later for $30)

We’ve also swapped some stuff, too.

  • A dozen raspberry starts and a cubic yard (or more) of fresh manure, all delivered: six rose bushes from our garden
  • A 6mp digital camera: my Nintendo Gamecube
  • A personal computer: my Magic Online account
  • I traded a Wii game I didn’t like for one that I did

Every year I list our neighborhood garage sale on Craigslist. When our business needed to hire a truck driver, I listed the job on Craigslist. I use it to keep tabs on community activities and events.

Here’s an example of an actual Craigslist transaction: For two months, Kris watched for a mattress and bed frame. Beds came and went, but never exactly what she wanted. One afternoon her ideal bed finally appeared. She contacted the seller immediately and arranged for us to pick up the bed, which we did that night. I borrowed the van from work, we grabbed some cash from the ATM, and we drove to the seller’s house. We inspected the bed, and it met with our approval. The seller was friendly — he helped us load the bed into the van. We chatted a little. And then we were on our way. During this transaction, we did several things to make things smoother.


General tips for using Craigslist

  • Spend some time learning the site. Familiarize yourself with the interface (it’s fairly straight-forward). Pick a category to watch for a week so that you can get a feel for how things work.
  • It’s cool that you can subscribe to your favorite categories. This can get overwhelming, though. Do you really want to sift through a thousand lame free items every day? Of course not. But you might be keen on learning about every free piano that comes along, for example. Or maybe you want to see every job posting searching for a writer. You can subscribe to a feed of any Craigslist search. This is amazingly powerful. (It’s also a dangerous time-sink.)
  • Always be polite. People are grateful to deal with kind, helpful strangers. When a woman came to take 500 square feet of free sod we’d dug from our lawn, I spent an hour in the rain helping to load her trailer. Though the sod had been listed as free, she sent me $50 in restaurant gift certificates to thank me for helping her.
  • Don’t feel pressured. If you drive out to the seller’s location and find that the item is not as described, or that you’ve changed your mind, don’t feel obligated to buy. If a buyer arrives and tries to change the terms of the deal, call it off.


Tips for buying on Craigslist

  • The most important thing to remember when looking for things on Craigslist is that you must be both patient and impulsive. This may seem like a paradox, but it’s true. First, you must know what it is you want. And then you must be patient, waiting for that thing to be listed. When you finally see the item available, send e-mail immediately or you may lose your chance. (An e-mail expressing interest is not a commitment to buy, but it puts you at the head of the line in most sellers’ minds.)
  • Be ready to purchase the item when you meet the seller. If you drive to look at a desk, be ready to pay for it and to haul it away. Sellers generally want to get rid of their stuff now. We’ve been able to buy stuff even when we weren’t the first to arrive with cash, but were the first to arrive with cash and a van.
  • Some people sell unwanted gift cards, generally for about 80-90% of their face value. For example, if you know that you’re making a trip to the hardware store for a home improvement project, check Craigslist first to see if there aren’t any gift cards that you might be able to use. Important: verify the balance on the gift card before purchasing it. Many cards contain printed instructions on how to verify the balance, but you might want to meet the seller at the store.
  • Negotiate. Offer the seller less than the asking price, especially if the listing is old. (This won’t work for a brand-new listing.)
  • Use cash and exact change when possible. Some sellers will take a check or give you change, but don’t count on it. Arrange the form of payment before you meet the seller.


Tips for selling on Craigslist

  • Offer detailed descriptions. Provide essential information. Give the size, the color, the style, or any other relevant information a buyer might need to make a decision.
  • Be honest. You’re not going to fool anyone. If you say something is “like new” and a potential buyer shows up to discover it’s well-worn, you’re not going to make the sale and you’re going to have a cranky customer on your hands. Tell the truth.
  • You don’t need to post a photograph, but you’re going be more successful with certain items if you do. I spent two months searching for the perfect desk on Craigslist. There was a strange disconnect between the text people used to describe their desks and the actual desk as shown in a picture. I wasn’t about to bite on a post that didn’t include an image. But if you’re posting an ad for a used Nintendo Wii game, a photo isn’t required.
  • Ask a reasonable price. If you’re not sure what’s reasonable, watch Craigslist for a week or two to see what similar items fetch. If you price your item too low you’ll sell it but you will have left money on the table. If you price your item too high you’ll never get a response.
  • You will get many responses, but few will follow through. That’s just how Craigslist works. Don’t let it bother you. Be grateful for the few that do follow through.
  • Don’t let buyers talk you into alternate forms of payment. If you’re asking $250, don’t accept a trade for something you don’t need. I’ve made this mistake twice, and one time it really bit me. (I traded for a computer that didn’t work — long, stupid story.)
  • Take down your ad once you’ve sold the item.
  • From my experience, collectibles do poorly on Craigslist. It’s the wrong audience. I watch for comic books because I’m a collector. People have unrealistic expectations of what comics are worth and what the demand for them is. I would never try to sell comics on Craigslist. That’s what eBay is for.


Other Craigslist resources

Here are additional resources to help you get the most out of Craigslist:

Craigslist is a cheap and fun way to get stuff you need, or to get rid of stuff you no longer want. But be careful. Don’t spend more than you should — it’s easy to get carried away!