How to Buy with Confidence on Craig's List

Earlier this week I posted (Almost) Everything I've Ever Bought or Sold on Craig's List. In today's post I'm sharing some tips that I hope will give you the confidence to try buying a used item on Craig's List. I've heard people say buying on Craig's List seems creepy. Maybe you heard a sketchy story on the local news involving Craig's List once. Having purchased tons of items on Craig's List, I can tell you that almost everyone selling something that you would want to purchase on Craig's List is just an ordinary person like you. Take a few precautions, and you should never find yourself in an iffy situation.

Note that Craig's List is used for other things besides buying and selling (personals, services like tutoring and child care, job postings, rental housing). This post is about buying an item that is in the "For Sale" section. Go to the Craig's List site page, click on your nearest metropolitan area, then click on the heading "for sale" and you're ready to go. 

A few tips for buying safely and successfully on Craig's List

Deal locally with people you can meet in person, and you will avoid 99% of all scams according to Craig's List. As a general rule, you should hand over the payment only when the object in play is in your sights, ready to be loaded into your car. This is not eBay.

Search for lots of different phrases. Many sellers are not very savvy about listing their item, and a lot of people post a photo with just one sentence using their Smartphone. For example, when looking for a TV stand, I searched for television stand, TV stand, entertainment center TV, and so on. You can narrow your search by choosing a specific category (drop-down menu next to search box), but some folks don't select a category and dump everything in general, or an item might straddle several categories (for example, a child's bicycle might wind up in "bicycles" or "baby and kid stuff" or "toys and games"), so sometimes it's better to do a general search.  You can also set parameters for the price of the item on the search page.

Consider shopping only within a certain radius of your home. You can choose to only search specific neighborhoods within your general area on Craig's List (just as you can choose to search only within certain categories, such as "Appliances"). It can be very annoying to drive 30 minutes only to discover the item isn't really what you wanted. If I'm not sure about a purchase that will involve driving more than 15 minutes, I grill the buyer on the phone and sometimes ask for additional photos. Buyers are usually fine with this as they really don't want to waste your time or their own with an appointment that results in no sale. In general, I am pretty darn sure I want to purchase an item drive somewhere to look at it.

Bookmark or create a feed for your search pages to facilitate searches. Once you've chosen the appropriate category, search query, price range, and desired neighborhoods, consider creating a bookmark or a feed for your search. To create a bookmark, you simply bookmark the page of your search. To set up a feed: after you've done your search with all the appropriate parameters, scroll to the very very very bottom and in the bottom right hand corner you'll see "RSS" in an orange box; click on that and paste the URL into your reader. Feeds are useful when for the same item you want to use several different search queries, or have separate searches for a few neighborhoods versus the entire metropolitan area, or for different price ranges. Create a feed for each search and then group them all in a folder together in your reader if you think you'll be browsing regularly for an item or items for a while. Now that Craig's List has the very useful grid view (with large photo preview), I most often begin a search with my bookmark of the "for sale" page with my three nearest neighborhoods selected. Then I just type in search queries for whatever items I'm shopping for.

Set up a free Google Voice account to use for texting with prospective sellers. I have a Go Phone and I pay per text so this is a must for me (with Google Voice I can type texts on my laptop). Even if you use a Smartphone, you might prefer to keep your regular phone number private by using Google Voice, which will forward to any number you want. I'm also happy to use email when I'm buying (you mostly deal with spam when you are the seller), but many sellers prefer texting because they are avoiding spammers.

Ask to meet at a public location whenever feasible. If you are purchasing a difficult-to-move item (such as furniture) or the seller prefers to meet at their house, ask that the item be moved outside or to the garage if possible. If you are a woman dealing with a male seller, ask who else will be home and if you can wait until a woman is there. Or take someone with you. Or send your husband/ brother/ male friend. For more tips about staying safe, check out Craig's List own page on Personal Safety.

Bring cash. No legitimate seller wants anything else, and it's a bummer to have to drive to an ATM in order to close the deal. I do sometimes negotiate a "down payment" when I find an item I want but can't take it immediately. So for a $500 item, I might give them $100 or $200 and then pay the rest when I pick it up. If you do this, you might consider writing a note and having the seller sign it, or just send a text/ email immediately to the seller so you both have a record and there is no confusion later. This way I don't have to show up with tons of cash in case I don't actually buy the item.

If you are buying a large item, check measurements and ask the seller if he or she can help you load it in your car. Most will, but some people are unable to and you need to know whether you need to bring help with you. Some folks will even deliver for a small additional cost. Also, be sure the object will both fit in your home and the space in your car. I once sent my husband to pick up an item of furniture only for him to discover it didn't fit in our van. That was sad.

Before buying, do a little homework. How much is the item new? Some dreamers price items on Craig's List for nearly new or even more than new prices. I once purchased something on Craig's List and later realized I could have purchased it nearly as cheaply new online. I should have known the best new price and used that to bargain with the seller.

Always bargain when buying. Unless you know the item is way under-priced, in which case I would not push your luck. I often ask buyers in my emails, texts, and on the phone if they are willing to bargain or not. Some have the time and inclination to wait for their desired price or have already priced to sell (these sellers often include "price firm" in their postings), but many folks will flat out tell you they are willing to come down on the price, especially if you can pick up the item immediately. And almost every seller will give you a deal if you purchase multiple items from them.

Ask if they have anything else you might be interested in purchasing. People are often selling a bunch of items at once. If you are purchasing baby gear, clothing, toys, books, kitchen gear and so on, it's probably worth asking what else they are trying to get rid of. If you are shopping for baby gear, I'd say it is very common for people to just give you some additional items if you want them. I've done this myself. Parents are usually very eager to get rid of baby/kid gear once they have moved on to the next age-stage.

Garage sales are better for window shopping while Craig's List is better when you are looking for a specific item. You will generally pay more for stuff on Craig's List than at a garage sale.

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What are your tips for buying successfully on Craig's List?


  1. Good list. We buy off of CL a lot but try to limit it to a three town radius - plus I make my husband go pick everything up. I need to check out the Google Voice thing.

    1. We are craigslist twins! 3 towns- check. Send husband - check. If only I could garden like the Green Bean.


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