Choosing to downsize your life can be an exhilarating process. Whether you are just cleaning out a space in your home, or have done some financial calculus and are getting rid of absolutely everything so you can go travel the world without being tied down to some expensive storage place that has doubled in price since the last time you traveled the world just five years ago and you think you could just buy new furniture for less money and less hassle whenever you get around to coming home while enjoying more freedom in the meantime, then Craigslist may be a good option for you.
Having sold a few items on Craigslist prior to previous moves, I knew basically how the process worked. I’m not going to detail every step of the process, but here are my tips to maximizing your return.
1. Start early. This was one of the smartest things I did. By starting early, not only do you decrease the stress you are going to start feeling when things don’t sell quickly (and not all of them will) but also people can smell desperation and will use your time constraints against you to negotiate on price. So we started months ahead to take that bargaining chip off the table. When people made low-ball offers, I’d thank them for their interest, say I wasn’t yet willing to discount that low, but encouraged them to check back in a month or so and if the item was still available then I might be willing to talk to them again. The real hard core buyers would actually wait, but some people would break, too nervous that someone else would come in and get the item first. Those were the people I wanted to buy my stuff anyway.
2. Make a list of what you are going to sell. This seems obvious and straightforward, but if you are going to sell a lot of stuff you can quickly get overwhelmed and miss things. We walked through the house grabbing everything we could think of, and still every time we opened a new drawer we would find another 15 things we needed to get rid of. We sold a pile of camping gear in a lot, and later in another drawer we found a camping knife and a hand held black light (good for hunting scorpions) that we weren’t able to sell by themselves but probably could have gotten a few extra bucks for as part of that collection. Plan ahead as best you can.
3. Measure everything. Seriously. People want to know. If you don’t do it now, you are going to get email after email asking you to do it later, so get it out of the way. Height, width, depth. (Even after you list it, you will still get emails asking for it, but that’s another story.)
4. Take good pictures! This is probably the most important thing you can do. Don’t take a pic of your item buried under your stuff, or covered in dust, or barely visible through the darkness in the pic you took at 2am. If you want to make the most money, you need to invest a little effort into presentation. Dirt and clutter are your enemy. If the pic makes it clear that you don’t value the item, then no one else is going to value it either, much less offer top dollar for it. Take your item, clean it off, and pretend you are taking a picture of it for a catalog. We cleaned out a corner with a nicely painted wall behind it, placed the item there and then did a little set decoration. Selling a dresser? Put a simple lamp or small plant on it. Selling a bookshelf? Put a few (not too many) books and maybe a vase or a photo frame or something on one or two of the shelves just to help show scale. You don’t want too much stuff hiding the details of your item, but just a little to spiff things up and help give a comparative visual of how big your item is. Besides the functionality, you want the person to think “Oh look how nice that would look in my home!”
For smaller items, I would usually try and photograph them on a clean table top, but again would try and have a plant or something in the background instead of a stark white wall. Scroll through pics on craigslist, and you will understand what I’m saying. The difference between the good pics and the bad pics are obvious.
DON’T include a pic of your item you lifted from amazon or google. If I am interested in your item, I do not care what it looked like fresh from the factory, I want to know what it looks like right now. When people only have store pics, I just assume they are hiding something. You do not want to give your prospective buyers any ammunition to negotiate by being coy about the actual current condition of your item. Further, take multiple pics from various angles when appropriate. Your goal is to make your buyers feel like they know what they are getting into before they contact you. If there are drawers, take a pic with them open. If it is a chair, take a picture of the back. The more comfortable a person is with the status of your item, the more likely they are to contact you and not just move on to the next listing.
5. Write up your item with an appropriate amount of detail. Many people just write a sentence or two and hope for the best. But think about what you would be looking for if you were going to buy these items. When I’m looking on craigslist, I am looking for details. Does it work, is anything broken, where did you get it originally, how old is it, are there any unusual details that make your item special or memorable. Especially for furniture or anything made of fabric people will want to know if you smoke or have pets. Answer their questions before they ask them. You want to make it as easy as possible for your audience to get invested in the item and contact you rather than to keep browsing for something else.
6. Mention any flaws upfront. This may seem counter-intuitive, but I find it to be very effective. When you “forget” to mention a scratch on the table top, when they arrive they are either going to be disappointed, possibly lose interest, or at least they are going to use it as an excuse to negotiate down on price. On the other hand, when you include it in the listing, they are prepared for it and you have a stronger position to stay firm on your price. Also, and this is the counter-intuitive part, but if people know you are being honest about the condition of the item, they are more likely to think you are a trustworthy person and in my experience, are more comfortable buying from you. Some of my damaged items have sold faster than things that were in mint condition! I never made a big deal about the flaws, but I always made sure to mention it.
7. Be personable! Many people seem to be trying to sound “professional” or something, but end up sounding like a dull machine. It can be tricky in just a few sentences, but do your best to let your personality show. Buying something from an unknown stranger is more scary than buying something from someone who seems like a real person. I linked all of my items together and let people know I was moving to Bali (a mild stretch of the truth). Most of the people who showed up asked me about it. It was an interesting little fact that engaged my prospective buyers. Was that the reason they decided to buy something from me? Probably not by itself, but it sure didn’t hurt. Another amazing tidbit: the more people talked to me about Bali, the less they talked to me about lowering my price.
8. Price things a little high, but don’t be ridiculous. Do a few minutes of research to see what others are selling similar items for in your area. I was lucky, and the DC market is pretty strong, but not everywhere is. Be realistic about what people might be prepared to pay for your item. You may want to price a little bit high to give yourself a little room to negotiate, but if you price too high your listing will just get ignored. This can be tricky, but it comes back around to my first suggestion – start early. If you have the time, price high and slowly lower the price over time if you don’t get any nibbles. If you don’t have the time (or the patience) price lower to sell faster. It just depends on what is more important to you, maximizing your money or the speed in which you want that item out of your house. As a buyer I tend to ignore listings that are obviously overpriced, others might be more aggressive about negotiating with you. It just depends. Remember, you don’t need 100 or even 10 people to be comfortable with your price, you just need one.
9. Be ready for the scams. For anyone remotely internet savvy they are generally easy to spot. “I’m out of the country but I will send a check and have my friend come pick it up”. (All of my posts ended with the words “Cash only, thanks”, which any normal person will understand and be ready for.) The emails you get from people are routed through the craigslist site, but once someone said “This email has been compromised, so email me direct at a different address”. I declined to respond. If it sounds fishy, it either A) is fishy or B) is someone who is so hopelessly confused that they will suck up more of your time then they are worth.
– There seems to be no way to avoid the window shoppers. The ones that send you emails asking “Is this item still available” five minutes after you post it, and then when you tell them yes, they never respond again. They will get your hopes up and then just waste your time, but it is part of the price you pay. Roll your eyes and move on.
– Try not to get frustrated with people who ask questions that you answer in the original post. I was amazed at how many people would ask for dimensions when it was clearly listed in the post. Or when they would ask “are you selling anything else” when there is a clear link to “other items by this seller”, or “where are you in town?” when I’d taken the time to add a google maps link to my exact location (minus street address). These special folks take some extra time which is annoying, but even the less-tech savvy can still buy things, they just take a little hand holding, so always keep your cool and be polite.
– Decide early how you are going to deal with the people who ask “can you hold this item for me until the weekend?” because you are going to get that. A lot. But you will learn quickly that when the weekend arrives half of those people will write back and say “Sorry but I found something else”, or might just disappear altogether. Unless the person had written me a very detailed message that made me feel comfortable that they were truly serious about coming, I generally stuck to the principle of “first come, first serve”.
– Buying things from a stranger can be a little uncomfortable, and generally this works to the sellers advantage. Once you get the person into your home, their objective is to hand you the cash, get the item and quickly escape the uncomfortable situation. The result is that most people do not negotiate. Like, at all. Sometimes I knew I had priced too high and was totally prepared to lower the price, but the buyer chickened out and just didn’t ask. Win for me! Even more amazing is that people will not spend as much time as they probably should checking out your item. We sold some wooden chairs, and one had a crack in the base. We’d never had any trouble with it, but I made sure to mention it in the ad. When the person arrived, I actually reminded them about it, and she looked at it and said “oh, that is fine.” I knew it was, but I expected she would at least want to sit in the chair to make sure. But she didn’t. I also sold an old, crappy guitar. The neck had warped a bit, and one of the strings would buzz a little bit. Not terribly, but it was a flaw. The dude that came to buy the guitar looked at it, but did not even strum the guitar once to see what it sounded like. He just wanted out of my house. I was surprised, but hey, I was happy with his money in my hand. I was so used to people just paying and running that when one woman asked to plug in a $5 fan to make sure it worked I was shocked!
– I found that sometimes, a good story was just as important as the money. I sold a cedar chest that had belonged to my grandmother, and the woman who picked it up asked all about it and then told me how she was going to use it to store her daughters princess dresses with the intention that it would eventually be a hope chest for her. That story made me feel better about the sale more than even the fact that she paid me exactly what I was asking.
– That said, once you have the cash, you have let go. We sold a gorgeous leather headboard, and as I watched from the window the guy tied it face down on top of his Camry. I was horrified, but the guy paid me more than I had paid for it, so there wasn’t much I could do. Or there was the girl that took some beautiful old brass lamps, and as she walked out said she was going to paint them fuchsia as part of a “project”. I weep, but at least I do so with cash in my fist.
– Most people just want to grab your item and run, but we also met some really interesting people. Don’t forget to enjoy them! After buying a small item, one old guy proceeded to tell us all about being an urban bee keeper. It was really interesting, and if we hadn’t been moving I probably would’ve taken him up on his offer to see his bees.
– You just never know what is going to sell or not. I had an elliptical machine that I had no hopes for. Craigslist was full of such equipment, and even though ours was in great shape, I was sure we were going to have a hard time unloading it. I was just going to ask for $250 because I just wanted it out of the house, but at the last minute David convinced me to list it for $400. To my surprise, I sold it in about two hours. The timing was everything, the guy lived close and wanted it immediately. I had some plants that I sold for much higher prices than I thought I’d be able to get away with. On the other hand I had a gorgeous wall mirror that I thought would get picked up in seconds, but had people flake and flake and flake. Again, I was glad I started early. (I was also glad I resisted the low-ball offers I got, because eventually someone did pay my asking price.)
Selling your things on Craigslist can be a profitable way of unloading your stuff. We were very pleased with our results and for the most part enjoyed the process. And now I’ve got a small chunk of change to add to the money we would have spent on moving and storage that I can use guilt-free when we eventually want to settle down again and buy new stuff. One thing is for sure, when we do, the first place I’ll look for things is on Craigslist!