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Expert Advice: 10 Tips for the Discerning Craigslist Bargain Hunter


Expert Advice: 10 Tips for the Discerning Craigslist Bargain Hunter

February 28, 2020

Whatever you’re currently looking for—a bureau, an extra place setting of your grandmother’s china, the elusive perfect coffee table—changes are good you can find it on Craigslist. It may not be exactly what you envisioned, but you’ll pay far less than retail. You may only have to travel around the block to retrieve it. And you’ll keep a perfectly good something in use rather than headed to landfill.

Like all treasure hunts, Craigslist shopping comes with challenges: you have to be willing to search and schlep, and to meet up with a stranger. Caveat emptor, yes, but for many, it’s the answer: take a look at The House That Craigslist Built, Philadelphia Story, and Buzzfeed Founder Peggy Wang’s Renovated Rowhouse.

JP Frenza and his wife, Kristen Kiger, became CL devotees when they decided to save the 1939 Red Rose, a shuttered motel and tavern down the road from their weekend place in the Catskills town of Roscoe, NY, on the Beaverkill River. While keeping their day jobs—JP works in tech, Kristen is a graphic designer—they bought the local gathering spot as a passion project, and partnered with Melissa Garrison Kawecki, who manages daily operations and serves as in-house stylist.

To get the place back up and running, they needed club chairs, butter knives, and bathroom sinks, among many other things—just about all of which they found at bargain prices Craigslist. Three years of tactical buying later, JP offered to share what they’ve learned along the way.

Photography courtesy of the Red Rose Motel.

red rose motel catskills ny
Above: The Red Rose living room is furnished with one of several Chesterfield sofas, club chairs, and old trunks acquired on Craigslist.  N.B.: Though JP’s search skewed vintage, Craigslist has everything and the same tips apply—so minimalists and modernists should read on.

1. Crack the search term code.

Once you know what you’re after, it’s crucial to figure out what to call it—and how others might label it. We discovered this when our initial search for a Chesterfield sofa turned up cigarette tins and overcoats. On Craigslist, you often get radically different results based on the words you use. By typing “leather couch,” “leather sofa,” brand names like “George Smith,” and the popular “sofa with nail heads” we found what we were looking for.

mounted antlers red rose motel catskills ny
Above: A painted table for two at the Red Rose tavern. The collection of mounted antlers were gathered over time on Craigslist.

2. Set your radius.

You can find most household basics for sale on Craigslist close to home. But for more unusual or important pieces, we learned to broaden our reach. We also discovered that the more well-off the community, the better the stuff—and the prices, because these sellers tend to just be looking to unload. So in addition to searching in the Catskills and Upstate New York, we looked in parts of New Jersey and Connecticut—Darien, for instance, was worth a few hour’s drive (broken up by a good lunch and often a hike on the way home). And for farmhouse antiques, we went on Craigslist in Rochester, NY, and then road tripped.

Expert Advice 10 Tips for the Discerning Craigslist Bargain Hunter portrait 7
Above: The motel’s Art Deco fridge, 1960s stove, and new kitchen cabinets were all Craigslist purchases.

3. Create a search schedule.

If you only go on Craigslist from time to time, you miss things. We’ve found it’s more efficient to check systematically: we do our searches on Monday mornings, Tuesday nights, Wednesday mornings, and so on. We haven’t discerned a key time of day to check, but have noticed that Thursdays tend to get the most new listings, especially from people hoping to get rid of things by Sunday. So be prepared to pounce. And if you urgently need something, check on Thursdays at the beginning and end of the day.

vintage trunks red rose motel catskills
Above: JP’s vintage trunk haul: they came out of a woman’s attic in Yonkers, NY, and were being sold for $20 each. The wrinkle: “it was one of the hottest days of the summer and we had to carry them out ourselves.” Like many of his buys, these also required considerable cleanup.

4. Check out moving sales.

Craigslist is a great source for estate and moving sale listings and you can target them by town. Under Garage Sale, sellers also list apartment and house clear-outs with photos of the items that have to go. A guy who was leaving the country gave us a roll of kilims for free because he didn’t want his landlord to have them.

5. Stay selective.

We keep a running list of things we need, and at times, in our eagerness to cross off items, we’ve ended up paying more than we should have—only to later find an even better version of the same thing for less. If you can, it pays to be patient.

Expert Advice 10 Tips for the Discerning Craigslist Bargain Hunter portrait 7
Above: The trunks serve as bedside tables (and extra bedding storage) at the Red Rose.

6. Be polite and present a plan.

I can’t tell you the number of times the seller told us we were the only ones who made the transaction easy. We begin by writing a note: “Is the item still available? If so, we’re interested and could come pick it up at your convenience.” People on Craigslist are typically getting rid of things on a deadline, so we always mention we have a truck and can pay in cash. We bought a 12-foot antique pine table for $200 this way.

guest room red rose motel catskills ny
Above: Old wooden folding chairs and paint-by-number paintings are Craigslist staples.

7. Haggle.

Craigslist sellers often have to deal with no-show buyers. After assuring that you mean business and will pay in cash, you can do some bargaining: “I can come whenever is good for you; will you take $200 for the chairs listed at $250?” Sellers typically counter with $225. Don’t insult: some people know what they have and what it’s worth, others don’t know but are wary. So when the item in question is something I really want, I pay the listed price—in general that’s considerably less than the prices at popular flea markets like Brimfield.

8. Play it safe.

It’s scary dealing with strangers, especially when it comes to going into apartments and houses. Let sellers know they’re dealing with a human being: I always mention that my wife and I can pick up—that puts people at ease, and when a family shows up, so much the better. I give sellers my phone number and an hour before I’m picking up, I have them text me the address. And when possible, we suggest a neutral location to meet: we’ve done many transactions in grocery store parking lots.

bathroom with vintage sink red rose motel catskills ny
Above: The motel’s six enameled cast-iron guest room sinks came out of a New Jersey kids’ camp that was being torn down. They were $20 each on Craigslist and in surprisingly good shape, though the bases required scrubbing and painting.

9. Don’t forget to mine “free.”

At the top of the Craigslist page, click the For Sale drop-down and scroll past “Antiques” and “Electronics” to “Free Stuff.” Here, you’ll find everything from surplus building materials to baby clothes. We’ve found some really good stuff for the taking: a woman across the river from us was renovating and told us we could have her Pottery Barn leather sofa “if you can get it out of here by tomorrow morning.” It was perfect for one of our rooms.

red rose motel catskills ny 1
Above: A Craigslist drop-leaf trolley with a fresh look thanks to a few coats of white paint. Like the look of the Red Rose? It has seven guest rooms that rent for $150 a night on Airbnb, plus a restaurant and bar, and is approximately two hours by car from NYC.

10. Keep searching.

Yes, our project is complete, but like so many who get hooked on Craigslist, our hunt continues. Members of this club seem to always have a holy grail that keeps us going. Ours is a classic Swedish-style sauna—one we can take apart, move, and set up at the motel. Potential sellers note: we do our own hauling and are willing to travel.

Reuse is better for the planet than buying new. Here are four more buying guides:

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Frequently asked questions

What is Craigslist?

Craigslist is an online platform where people can buy and sell a wide variety of items, including household goods, furniture, and appliances.

Is it safe to buy household goods on Craigslist?

While there are potential risks associated with buying items from strangers online, there are steps you can take to minimize these risks. Make sure to meet in a public place and verify that the item is as described before handing over any money.

What are some tips for finding good deals on Craigslist?

Some tips for finding good deals on Craigslist include setting up notifications to alert you when new items are posted, searching for misspelled item names, and negotiating prices with sellers.

How can I tell if an item is in good condition?

Ask the seller questions about the condition of the item and request detailed photos if possible. You can also inspect the item in person before purchasing it.

What should I do if I encounter a scam on Craigslist?

If you encounter a scam on Craigslist, report it to the site and the relevant authorities. You should also stop all communication with the scammer and avoid sending any money or personal information.

What if I'm not satisfied with the item I purchased on Craigslist?

If you're not satisfied with the item you purchased on Craigslist, you can try negotiating with the seller for a refund or return. You can also leave feedback on the seller's profile to warn other buyers.

Can I use Craigslist to find professional services?

Yes, Craigslist offers a category for professional services, where you can find listings for things like home repair, cleaning services, and design consultations.

How can I make sure my personal information is protected when using Craigslist?

To protect your personal information when using Craigslist, avoid giving out sensitive information like your home address or social security number. Use a disposable email address for Craigslist transactions and be wary of scams and phishing attempts.

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