How to Buy Things on Craigslist

by Susan Johnston ; Updated October 17, 2017

If you’re furnishing a first apartment or simply need a few items to fill in the gaps, the popular website craigslist.org can be a treasure trove of cheap, gently used furniture, electronics, and more. This is especially true if you live in a large metropolitan area with rapid turnover as people clean out for a move or students pack up for summer vacation.

I recently sold a slew of furniture and household items on craigslist, so I experienced a whole range of buyer/seller interactions from buyers who made the deal run quickly and smoothly to those who made me want to tear my hair out in frustration. Here’s a look at strategies for snagging a deal on craigslist.

Show your seriousness. When sellers are eager to clean out and have multiple buyers interested, they’ll likely sell to the person who can pick up the item first. When you respond to a craigslist posting, don’t just ask if the item is still available; specify when you are able to pick up the item and include a cell phone number so the seller can call or text you right away to work out the details. This is often faster than going back and forth over email and could mean the difference between you getting the item you want and another buyer swooping in. Also, once you’ve settled on a pickup time and place, be respectful of the seller’s time and show up when you say you will. If you make the seller wait around an extra two hours without any explanation, they may get frustrated and offer the item to someone else.

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Arrange for pickup. Unless the seller specifically offers to deliver the item (maybe because they want it out of their house or they’re uncomfortable inviting strangers into their home), assume that you are responsible for picking up the item and carting it away. Don’t expect the seller to carry a bulky couch or bedroom dresser down three flights of stairs (yes, people have really done this). If you can’t enlist the help of a burly friend with a truck or van, try hiring help on a website like TaskRabbit. Do the math to make sure that the item is still worth it once you factor in the cost of delivery, but remember that you’d probably have to pay for delivery (and sales tax) if you were purchasing brand-new furniture as well.

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Inspect the item carefully. Consider anything you buy on craigslist to be nonrefundable and non-returnable. If you’re buying electronics like a TV or blender, plug it in and try it out. Also make sure you bring home any peripherals like power cords or remotes. If you’re buying furniture, open and close any drawers to make sure they work, check the sturdiness of the legs, and (with upholstered furniture) look for signs of bed bugs. Most items you buy used will have a little wear and tear, so make sure you can live with the item in its current condition. You can always refinish wooden furniture if you’re handy or simply throw a tablecloth on top to hide scratches or other imperfections.

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Bring exact change in cash. Most craigslist sellers will not accept credit cards or personal checks because it’s too risky for them. Cash is the easiest way to pay for things on craigslist, so visit the ATM before you pick up an item and get the right amount of cash for the price you’ve agreed upon. Don’t expect the seller to make change.

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Don’t be afraid to haggle. If it’s a one-of-a-kind piece you desperately want, offer to pay the full asking price if you think it’s fair. But if you’re not afraid of losing out to another buyer (IKEA furniture is a dime a dozen on craigslist), then you can offer the seller a little less than their asking price and see what they say, especially if you’re buying multiple items. A few times I’ve arrived to pick up an item and discovered that it was a little more worn than I was expecting. I would then say to the seller, “gee, the doors are a little scratched up, so would you take $35 instead of $40?” Often, they’ll agree, since you’re already there and ready to pick up.

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Follow safety precautions. Craigslist offers these tips on avoiding scams. If you’re buying a smaller item like a smartphone or a lamp, it might be safer to complete the sale in a public place rather than someone’s house. But with larger items, you might have to pick up at someone’s home, in which case it’s a good idea to bring along a friend for safety reasons.

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Photo credit: Getty ThinkStock

About the Author

Susan Johnston has contributed to print and online publications including AOL Jobs, The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor, Learnvest.com, Parade Magazine, and SELF. She's also a regular contributor to the money section of USNews.com.