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Mar 032014

The garage and the basement are full. You can’t stand that old entertainment center. You really want a new sofa but don’t want to pay new-furniture prices.

In decades past, you might have put up a notice on the bulletin board at your local coffee shop or checked the newspaper classifieds. But these days, the top destination for buying and selling households goods (and some other things) is Craigslist, a global online classified website started in San Francisco in 1995.

In addition to buying and selling furniture and households items, denizens of Craigslist buy and sell cars and houses, find new homes for pets, rent apartments, advertise events and services and participate in discussions. You can even look for jobs or dates. More than 60 million Americans use Craigslist every month, according to the service, and most listings are free.

One of the most popular functions on Craigslist is buying and selling household furniture. It’s an economical way to furnish a first apartment or simply change the look and feel of your home. 

I’ve bought and sold numerous pieces of furniture on Craigslist over the last five years as I’ve downsized, lived in two cities simultaneously and just wanted a new look. Most of the people I’ve met have been nice people, and the biggest problem I’ve had (perhaps because I lived in Miami) is people who don’t show up on time. I have never felt menaced, but if you have any concerns about safety visiting strangers’ homes, bring a friend and have someone with you at your house when you show furniture and other items.

Like everything, getting the best results with household goods on Craigslist depends on how you operate.

If you’re selling, it’s important to take good photos, describe the items well and make it easy for people to find you, by including by an email address (Craigslist will mask it for you) and a phone number. If you’re buying, you need to move quickly to get the best items, and you’ll usually have to arrange to transport the furniture you’re interested in purchasing.

Craigslist is a local business, and it’s a cash business. That means if you get an email response to your ad asking you to ship an item, promising a cashier’s check, suggesting a wire transfer or otherwise proposing anything but an in-person meeting, it’s likely a scam. Hit the “delete” button and move on. Craigslist has an entire page about common scams that users should read.

The other big issue that comes up is safety. While Craigslist estimates its users post more than 80 million ads worldwide every month, counting reposts and renewals, and thousands of people have participated in hundreds of thousands of safe transactions, there have been crimes associated with Craigslist, including murders and robberies.

Because these transactions, in many cases, involve going to strangers’ homes or letting strangers into your home, it’s important for you to be careful and aware.

“If you’re going to let people into your home, try to have more than one person there,” says Michael Kaiser, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, which advocates and educates consumers about Internet safety. “Be clear that you’re not going to be home alone.”

More caution is necessary when you’re selling small, valuable items, he warns. If you’re buying or selling jewelry or expensive gadgets like smartphones or tablets, you might want to meet people in a coffee shop, bank or other public place. But if you’re buying or selling furniture, you usually don’t have a choice. You’re going to end up visiting people’s homes or have them visit yours.

In some cases, you can move the furniture you’re selling into a garage or back porch, so it’s not necessary to let people into your house. This might make the meeting more comfortable for both you and the prospective buyer.

While there are people who try to do an entire transaction by text message, sometimes talking by phone is a good way to measure someone’s sincerity as well as find out whether the item is what you want. You can also withhold personal information, such as your exact address, until you are confident the person wants to complete a deal. I always ask people to call before I give them my address, rather than deal solely by email or text. That’s not a guarantee the caller is not a criminal, but it often gives you a better idea of what kind of person you’re dealing with.

“People should trust their instincts,” Kaiser says. “If somebody seems not for real … trust your instincts and don’t follow through.”

Ryan Finlay, who chronicles his adventures making a living buying and selling on Craigslist at, says trust is key to success. He recommends being honest and forthright.

“Trust is important because people want to purchase things from a person or business that they trust. They don’t know if you are hiding information about the item they are interested in. They are asking themselves why this person is selling this item. Has it been mistreated? Has a cat urinated on it? Is it broken? People are asking these questions and more,” he writes on his website. “People are also trying to decide if they will be safe carrying out a transaction with you. They need to trust that you aren’t going to harm them.”

I usually respond to Craigslist buyers and sellers with my full name and my professional signature. That way, they know whom they’re dealing with. I have more confidence in buyers and sellers who do the same.

Here are additional tips for sellers of household furniture:

  •  Take good pictures of the items you’re selling, and make sure they show the actual condition and color.
  •  Post multiple photos with your listing, including ones showing rips or stains.
  •  Describe the items completely, including any flaws.
  •  Make it clear how you want to be contacted, whether by phone, email or text. Most successful sellers advise publishing a phone number as well as responding quickly to email inquiries.
  •  Don’t hold items for people who haven’t paid for them. They may never come back.
  •  If you’re selling something mechanical, have a way for the buyer to test that it works.

Here are additional tips for buyers:

  •  Bring cash if you want an item and know how you’re going to transport it home. (You can also find people advertising delivery services on Craigslist.)
  •  Show up when you say you will.
  •  Look items over carefully before you buy. In most cases, there are no returns.

A version of this story first appeared at U.S. News & World Report.

Teresa Mears

Teresa Mears is a website publisher, writer, blogger and editor who was raised to be frugal. In her 35 years as a journalist, she has written for papers ranging in size from the weekly Portland (Tenn.) Leader to The Los Angeles Times. She was an editor for the Miami Herald for more than 17 years, overseeing coverage of home, real estate, family and other subjects. She has also been a contributor to The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News and other publications. When she’s not writing about Florida deals, she writes and edits for MSN Money and does the Listed blog for MSN Real Estate. Teresa owns and operates Miami On The CheapFlorida On The CheapFort Lauderdale On The CheapPalm Beach On The CheapOrlando On The Cheap, Florida Keys On the Cheap and Jacksonville On The Cheap, as well as Baltimore on the Cheap and Washington, D.C., on the Cheap.

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