Emily Henderson

Secrets to shopping for vintage on Craigslist

How to find the best finds, score the best score, and not get screwed whilst shopping on Craigslist.

I asked readers on my Facebook page yesterday what questions they’d like me to answer and Catherine Ahern asked about how to shop on Craigslist. So here you go, Catherine. I hope this helps.

1. Make sure you are using the “pic view” search mode, like this:

Instead of shopping in the “list view” like this, with no pics:

The advantages of this are HUGE. First off, it’s way less sorting through garbage. You float your mouse over the pics and they get even larger so you aren’t clicking, opening, being grossed out, and closing over and over again. You see the piece and price before you even click. Secondly, you see things you never would have clicked on because they describe them as “vintage” when really they mean “used from 1996.”

You can also search by “Map”

This way if you want to make sure that you aren’t having to pick up a piece from 25 miles away, which in Los Angeles is roughly a three-hour drive.

2. Dumb down your searches. In order to find the steals, you have to think like someone who doesn’t know what they have. They might just put “old couch” for a Milo Baughman sofa. Or “antique chest of drawers,” when really it’s a mid-century Paul McCobb dresser. Yes, this means you have to weed through sooooo many pieces of garbage, but finding the steals take time so grab yourself some box wine, put on a ‘This American Life” marathon and start searching.

3. Be specific. On the contrary, most people call things “vintage” now even if they aren’t, so often being super specific helps, too. Often someone will use a different word than you, like “Herman Miller bookcase” when I was searching “vintage shelving unit.”  So after you search everything generic, then make sure you search your favorite designers/brands as well because they might have mislabeled them or used a synonym that you didn’t think of.

3. Use the broad “for sale,” “antique,” and “furniture” categories. Again, people categorize things strangely so make sure to search in all of those. Sellers might put a beautiful antique dining table that they inherited and they hate under “furniture” instead of “antique” category. 

4. Select “Furniture by owner” if you are looking for the real deals. You have three options: “furniture,” “furniture by dealer,” and “furniture by owner.” I use all because I often want to look at dealer’s furniture because they have the best stuff, but it’s definitely already more expensive because its been edited/curated and marked up.  If you want to get rid of all them (which also gets rid of all the mattress companies and delivery companies, thank god), then plug in “by owner” and it will just be homeowners selling their wares.

5. When responding to people, don’t play hardball until you are forced to. NOBODY wants to sell to a cool piece of furniture to an asshole, I promise. Say how much you really like it and how happy it will make little Johnny, etc. If it’s something great and is a good price, there is a good chance that you aren’t the first person responding to the ad, so if you are kinda a dick then they aren’t going to show it to you and they CERTAINLY aren’t going to give you a better deal. This seems like common sense but I assure you, as someone who has sold a lot on CL, common sense truly isn’t common, and I avoid anyone who tries to be Mr. Hardball immediately. Shut up, it’s a great side table for $50, buy it or don’t.

6. Negotiate before you show up.  It’s super rude to agree to a price and then show up and offer less. If it says final offer or no negotiating and bring cash that means those things. I’ve had buyers show up to buy something that I said was $80 FIRM, with $60 cash offer. But, if you’re unsure and need to see it, say “I really need to see it first,” and then if it’s not worth the full price to you, then sure, make an offer. But don’t say, “Great, I’ll bring $100, then bring $70.” It’s lying and rude.

7. When the post is a week old, make a lower offer. “Firm” or not, you shouldn’t pay full price if it’s been up for seven days. They are clearly overpricing it or probably anxious to unload it, and will most likely take less. This isn’t necessarily the case for furniture dealers. They might have a firm price that they stick to for months, and that’s OK.

8. Don’t overpay. Easier said than done, I know. Things better be in really good condition or be really effing unique to be really expensive on Craigslist. If you are wondering whether something is worth it, ask yourself:

A. Do you have to put money into it? If so, how much? And obviously calculate that into the cost.

B. Is it a designer brand? Skip the Ikea, Crate and Barrel, and West Elm’s of the world UNLESSS they are like 1/3 the original price or unless they are practically new. I get super irritated with people trying to sell second hand big box store items for like 20 percent off the retail price, even though it’s three years old. Just try to save and buy the real thing that isn’t ten seasons old and already kinda dated.

For instance, this “bar height vintage table” for $150 that they got at Cost Plus is a total rip off. If it was $40 and you needed it, sure, or if it was in perfect condition, sure, but you can find really great vintage tables on CL for $150 – 200. Don’t buy it just because “used” feels cheaper.

9. If you are a lady or a lady-like man, don’t go by yourself to look at furniture, especially at night. That is more of a safety tip, rather than a secret. If you have to, which I do all the time on Saturday mornings, I always CC Brian on the email and say, “Great. I’ve CC’d my husband. He might meet us,” and then I immediately text the address to him just in case. I mean, this is stupid logic because some serial rapist isn’t probably going to be selling a set of Bertoia chairs, and if he is faking it then I doubt CC’ing Brian will scare him off, but maybe he’ll cancel the sale.

Regardless, it can be dangerous for anyone so just go with someone or have them deliver to you sight unseen, which I’ve done a few times and only regretted it once when the measurements were off. (I gave them a tip and paid for delivery, but didn’t accept it.)  You do run a risk, but it’s a pretty great option if you are lazy and/or too hooked to Craigslist to leave your house.

10. Go mobile.  The best pieces get posted fast and get purchased quickly. Put the CL app on your phone if you are looking for something specific and check it all day. As far as best times? I actually don’t know this one. I mainly check in the middle of the night or Saturday mornings whilst drinking coffee and cuddling the Bear, and it always seems to be the same.  A lot of people post during the week to sell on the weekend and a lot of people post on Saturday mornings hoping to unload it by Sunday. Office furniture gets posted and sells during office hours mainly.


11.  Subscribe to the RSS feed.  Thank you Cher and Jamie for pointing out the RSS feed option that I didn’t know about and don’t use, but will start soon. Basically, they say you can save your favorite searches and have them come into your Google reader feed. Then it will tell you when something in your favorite search term comes up. Genius.

If you are thinking, “Ah man, those are my secrets!” I will tell you this: The people that didn’t already know this aren’t the people your business should be threatened with every day. Sure, they might score one thing here and there, but our current competitors are still our competitors, these tips just help the frequent vintage shopper find that dresser they’ve been looking for.

Also, no amateur Craigslist shopper is going to become a pro by reading this, you have to have a serious passion for CL shopping and serious knowledge of design to be a threat to the pros. I’ll sit online for hours and hours and hours sorting through garbage to maybe find that gem, while a newbie will find what they need, buy it and move on. I’ll drop designer name, era, style, etc. just in case someone categorized something strangely.

You can’t touch me.

Plus, there is enough Craigslist vintage for all, I promise. It’s a daily untapped world of garbage and gems, if you have the patience. With some secrets, you could find a gem, or else just waste a lot of Saturday mornings with the Bear while Brian watches some sort of sport with men in helmets and tights.

We both have our obsessions, I suppose.

Any Craigslist tips/secrets I’m missing?

I will do a “reader question” every week. These will be advice or shopping, not so much about styling (because with those I need lots of pictures or videos, which of course we are working on and have some scheduled, don’t worry!)

So ask away, friends …

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