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.

THIS JUST IN:

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 …

  1. Joan

    That was a smart shopping!

  2. Haha, thanks Emily! That kinda made my morning. :)

  3. Reader question: What sources are best to read/watch to learn about style history and become an informed designer or stylist?

  4. Eagle Eye

    I did not know about pic mode, omg, you have just revolutionized the way I shop on CL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    okay, now for the rest of the post!

  5. Cher

    Yeah, you are missing CL RSS feed. At least I didn't see it anywhere here. Type in your specific search. If you want up to date search results as they are posted, sign up for the RSS feed of that specific search. Results will pop up in your reader as they are posted. As someone who spends all day with google reader open, this has been hugely helpful.

  6. I second Cher's comment – using RSS is truly amazing! I would also say, if there is a piece that really interests you, email right away and tell them you can come TONIGHT, with CASH. And then do it. Most craigslist-ers will give priority to whoever shows up first with cash, so be that person!

  7. I second the RSS feed! I am in my google reader all day long, so I have subscribed to my favorite searches and the results pop up alongside all my favorite blogs in my google reader. It's GREAT.

  8. Sandy

    Is there a specific version of Craigslist you are using, or is there a paid version you prefer?

  9. Mariah

    Hey there! So I like in a tiny (maybe 500 sq ft) one bedroom with my man and the dog. And I'm wondering how many trays I'm allowed to have in the (13×17') living room. I counted and I have room for 6, and each would be in their own unique place like the bar, the coffee table, the dining table, the entry table, etc. Also if I'm allowed to have all six, how do I style each one so it's uniquely it's own little display? I mean bar vs. coffee table is pretty easy, but coffee table vs desk not so much.
    Thanks so much, I will use this info to convince my man that 6-7 trays in a room is (hopefully) not too many & I'm not crazy for it!

  10. Kate

    Okay, I seriously feel like an idiot. I search Craigslist all the time and did not know about the pic mode. I was just mentioning to my husband the other night how someone needs to come up wtih a way to search Craigslist by looking at pictures, looks like someone already did!

    One of my search hints is to search by the material you're interested in, like brass or marble. I have some pretty good success at finding diamonds in the rough by using this technique. Thanks for the tips Emily!

  11. Kelly

    Another tip, even if you think its hopeless search for it.

    You know your beloved gold trunk you just gave ever so graciously away? I had been coveting it for a while and wanted one of my own. I search and scoured the internet not even trying CL because honestly no one should be selling something so amazing. But finally I figured what the heck and did it. "Gold brass trunk" and low and behold, and amazing antique, cedar lined trunk for $200, a full sized one too! Some family was moving to Ireland and couldn't take this heirloom with them (used to be the guy's grandmas). SCORE.

    *note this is also why I didn't enter the mantel contest, I figured I needed to share the gold trunk love with others.

  12. Stephanie

    "Grab yourself some box wine, put on a 'This American Life' marathon and start searching." Emily Henderson, get out of my head.

  13. Lindsay

    Craigseasy! Install the "easy" button and after you search, it lines up all the pictures LARGE so none of that hovering stuff … just a bunch scrolling of pictures. Once you see what you like, you click the picture. Way faster than the pic mode.

  14. When I'm buying I always make myself sound the most easy to work with. Most people just want to get rid of their furniture because they are cleaning something out. So I say something like "I love your sofa, it is perfect. I can pick it up today or whenever is most convenient." They always choose me over the guy who is asking 20 questions or asking them to hold it until Sunday morning etc…

  15. Stacie Martin

    Two things that always help me:

    Try spelling things wrong. It goes against my grammar Nazi brain but I live in Memphis, TN, where the average adult is only semi-literate, so always try "matress" instead of "mattress", "chase lounge" instead of "chaise lounge," etc. People just don't know furniture words. I once found an "Armwa." (That's "armoire" in Tennesseean.)

    Also, don't use your "best" email address. If you hit a Spam item, you'll get load of crap email forever, believe me. I have an older one I use for subscribing to things, joining clubs, and shopping online. :)

  16. Amen to all of this. I was recently looking for some Billy bookcases and did a search on CL. I found a set that was new and looked to be in great condition but they were MORE than they sell for at Ikea. Apparently this guy really values his time and figured he should be compensated for the assembly time!!! Needless to say, I do not have new Billy bookcases.

  17. Danielle

    Awesome! Thanks so much for sharing! I've sold stuff on CL, but have never had luck finding anything to buy. Patience is sadly not my strong suit…

  18. cstanley

    I was just reading your Craig's list advice and I am planning on selling an amazing Haywood Wakefield dining set from the 1960's/70's. Round Formica topped table with a metal pedestal base and four mid-century looking chairs. The chairs have some damage to the "pleather" covers. My question to you is, should I reupholster the chairs to sell the set or leave them be? I've done this kind of work before and am confident in my abilities but wondering if "original" condition would sell faster/better.

  19. Lindsey

    CHESTER DRAWERS. Trust me. Most of American is unaware that it is "Chest of Drawers".
    Thanks for the tip on the Pic Mode!! This makes me want to Craigslist now!

  20. jordi

    WHO-AW!
    Tanx so much for the tips, i can tell you're a pro. I didnt know we could do searches with pictures, that's just awesome and less time wasting.
    Anyway i''m so saving this page into ''favorites'' and keep it for my future craiglist ventures! Do you guys have Kijiji in USA? Similar site to CL. If so, is it as good as CL to find some burried ''tresors''?
    Cheers!

  21. You know what, Em? A lot of these guidelines apply for Craigslist personals too, haha. (Although I know that whole market has kind of dried up. But back in the day, that's where I met my now husband!) You gotta sort through a LOT of garbage to find the few serious gems, and you should always have a modicum of safety common sense when you meet up with anyone about anything online. Great post; you've inspired me to find a cool filing cabinet on CL!

  22. "Craigeasy" is a great little button you can put in your tool bar to see pictures of listings. Kind of like photo view, only the pictures are already big, so you don't have to hover over the thumbnails. It also shows more than one image from the ad. The only drawback is that you have to re-click on the bookmarklet on each new page, but seriously, if that's too much of a problem for someone they should not be shopping on the C list!

    Thanks for your tips!

  23. Jessi

    Great tips! Too bad all of the rednecks in my town think the garbage they have is gold. Seriously, for a good laugh, search the tyler/east texas board and see what people charge. ridiculous! haha

  24. Angela N

    As an avid buyer and seller these are all great tips! I recently scored a vintage Knoll Pollock exec chair in great but dirty condition for $20! All I did was steam clean it. Got to love the steals that can be found.

  25. My only tip is kinda a funny one, try spelling a word wrong. Sometimes there are post where someone has written coach in place of couch that just sit for a while. Also, my brother looks at posts without images and then asked the seller to text him a picture of any items he is interested in.

  26. One of my favorite ways to browse CL is by searching for "pair". Seriously find the best stuff that way. Great old lamps, vintage chairs, etc. I also try searching for common misspellings of words ("secretery desk" instead of "secretary desk").

  27. Lindsey

    Oh Emily the craigslist queen. I envy the items you find on craigslist and always wish I could find gems like you. I've been on the search for an armoire for about a year now since seeing one on one of your episodes of secrets. The one you found on craislist was somewhat of an art deco look, only 200 and I just fell in love with it. So there I went to craislist for the hunt. Endless searching and searching and finally late one night my finace found one I loved and put a call in. The lister said to call before 4 due to the rain and we called late about around 5. No phone call and we sat there thinking it was sold. And then finally an hour later there was our call. It wasn't sold and there we went heading down to San Diego about an hour and half away in the rain to pick this beaut up! Nothing like picking up a huge armiore in the rain at night. Needless to say I'm pretty dang happy I finally found myself an Emily find! :) Fingers crossed to hoping to find some other gems to fill my empty house.

  28. Kris F.

    It's amazing to me how many people DO NOT know how to spell "dining room" . Check it out — half of them spell it with two "n"s. Also "rod iron" instead of "wrought iron"!!

  29. Anna B

    I want to echo those who have suggested spelling things incorrectly: I have found all kinds of hidden gems this way. We got a gorgeous 1960's pristine condition (sat in someone's formal living room covered in plastic for years) green velvet couch for $250 here in Los Angeles. Because it was listed as a "coach." Not a "couch." It had been sitting there posted for two weeks, and not one person had contacted the guy. Try things like "chare" for "chair," "dinning table" for "dining table," "soaf" for "sofa," etc. This works for other kinds of used wares, as well. I've found excellent deals on antique books by spelling an author's name incorrectly ("MacDonlad" for "MacDonald," as an example).

  30. Tiffany

    Great post! Super helpful. And I second that "easy" button that some of the other commenters are talking about! So handy!!!!

  31. Such great info. And I love that you tell us how not to be an asshole.

    My question. Your "how to put together a color palette" post was awesome. Any chance you could do a breakdown like that for mixing patterns? What's your thought process when you're doing a room or even a collection of pillows on a sofa or bed? That would be awesome.

  32. Oh how I love Craig and his list!

    I posted some Secrets of Craigslist Shopping – I hope it's okay if I share the link! http://www.viewalongtheway.com/2012/02/my-best-online-shopping-tips-part-1-craigslist/

    You hit on all my favorite tips, but I'd add: have listings sent to your email inbox if you don't use an RSS reader (although really. Get on RSS.) And learn how to use the craigslist search to include and exclude certain terms. For example, you can use "-" to exclude something, like search for "pendant -jewelry" to get pendant lights instead of pendant necklaces. I shared a few more search terms like that on my post.

    Thanks for these sweet tips! Now if you could only find a way to share those amazing vintage finds that are all over the place in CA but nowhere to be found in ATL…

  33. HI, Emily

    Thank you for a great post and tips on shopping at craigslist! I always find it hard to shop there, there are so many things to weed through.
    I guess the key is to patience!!

  34. Can you do a post on rug selection? Not necessarily a cute rug roundup (b/c I know you've done those before) but, like, how big of a run do you need to buy for different spaces, what makes a rug durable, etc.? I have a living room rug I got for free that's HUGE and is starting to get nasty. I want to replace it, but I don't want to buy another 9×11 rug because that sh*t be expeeeensive, so I'm wondering how small I can go without it looking insane.

  35. Liz

    I definitely agree with the be nice comment. I was once told that I specifically got the item because I was nice. There was a no-show and the seller thought "Damn! Who else emailed? Oh I remember Liz she was nice." It pays to be nice.

  36. For one of your weekly reader questions, could you discuss paint colors, color schemes and/or ideas for a north-facing bedroom that wants to feel soothing? Everything I've read says a bold wall color but I'm not really a bold-wall-color-in-the-bedroom gal. Pleaseandthankyouwithacherryontop. Andanalcoholicbeverageofyourchoiceontheside.

  37. Virginia Mom

    Very amusing and some great tips. The best posts are those by single guys out in towns with names like "Farmville." I enjoy it when they offer suggestions for improving the functionality of an antique, like a Louis XIV sideboard, as in "could be made into a bar by adding a kegerator". My fave score was a "large 1960s dresser – sturdy — would be great for kids' room". A little paint, some silver Rub n Buff and it became the most gorgeous entertainment console evah.

  38. Wow what a nice post, thanks for your valuable time for the blog, keep the hard working going for us.

  39. Ana

    Good, common sense advice.
    Now I feel inspired for some treasure-hunting :) !

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  41. Kristin

    Excellent tips! I recently purchased 2 Vincent Cafiero for Knoll high-back executive office chairs off of Craigslist for $80 (together). They need to be reupholstered but I am in love with the shape. A retired business man had storage units full of his companies old Knoll credenzas, and other lounge and office chairs. It was amazing! I can't seem to find online any tell-tale signs that it's an original and not a reproduction/knock off, but regardless I'm happy with the deal. Could you write a post about how to tell the difference between name brand vs. knock offs in mid-century style? Thanks!

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  44. Sally

    re: 8 – When I lived by myself for the first time, I needed a ton of basics. I lived in the DC-area where there are tons of people who move to town, buy an apartment full of IKEA, then move 1 or 2 years later. I took my IKEA shopping list and searched Craigslist. I ended up with half a dozen pieces I was planning to buy new at 25% of the new price, in fantastic condition (I only responded to ads with photos of the actual piece), and without driving to the suburbs (I only looked at listing really close to me). Most of that stuff I’ve replaced now, but I still have IVAR!

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  47. Gina

    Okay, here’s a question I’ve had for a long time. What does it mean when a furniture piece is “attributed” to a designer? For instance, I scored a funky brass Z console table and when I looked it up, all searches said that it was “attributed to Karl Springer.” It’s not a knock-off of a Karl Springer design, but the price on these things are pretty outrageous on Etsy and 1stDibs (well, what isn’t outrageous on 1stDibs?). How does this “attributed to” phrase affect pricing? And who gave it that description in the first place?

    And on the subject of knock-offs, I managed to find a Dorothy Draper-esque España Chest. It’s a dead ringer for the real thing except that it doesn’t have a beveled front edge and the back is not finished, and of course, it doesn’t have the mark inside the drawer. But when I started researching on 1stDibs I found the exact same dresser being sold as a Dorothy Draper España Chest when, clearly, it was not the real deal. In fact, there were three of them for sale just like mine for anywhere from $2200 – $2800. I was sad to see that many dealers would either be that unknowledgeable, or else stoop so low as to pass it off as the real deal. What’s worse is that on every product page there is a 1stDibs logo and a tagline that reads “With 1stdibs, you can always collect with confidence.” Yeah right. Do you have any thoughts on this phenomenon? And have you ever had a dealer try to sell you a bridge like that?

    Sorry for the long comment, but thank you for any advice you can give!

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