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How To Win at Craigslist!

He probably didn't buy those bagpipes on Craigslist

Winning at Craigslist!

There are many aspects to fitness, financial fitness being one of them. One of the downsides of being a fitness junkie is that I’ve tried and ultimately discarded a lot of fitness-related gear over the years. I’ve also moved many, many times, and each time it seemed easier to shed a good chunk of the stuff I’d accumulated rather than haul it all to my new dwelling.

For times like those I’ve always turned to Craigslist unload the stuff I no longer want or need. As a result, I’ve gotten pretty savvy at how to get the best price for what I want to sell and I’m going to share this info with you.

So you’ve got something to sell. Now what?

Before you do anything, you must understand that you only need one motivated buyer.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but I see a lot of people post listings that don’t do enough to target the person they are trying to sell to. As a result, these listings stay up till they expire because the item don’t sell. Many of these items could be sold quickly if the poster took the time to list their items properly.

The upside of this sorry state of affairs is that it makes it easier for you to stand out by taking the time to properly target your one motivated buyer. I define the one motivated buyer as someone who really wants what you have to sell and is willing to pay a fair asking price for it. This person is not a casual Craigslist browser who just happens to come across your item, but someone who has come to Craigslist with the specific intent of looking for the type of item you are selling.

There’s a process for getting top dollar for your stuff, and I’m going to make this process easy for you by outlining twelve simple rules to follow.

Without further ado, here is my list of rules for winning at Craigslist.

Rule #1: Know your marketplace

Regardless of your socio-economic background, political views, religious bent, or sense of fairness, economics 101 dictates that the price of a given good or service in a market unhampered by external interference is always subject to the laws of supply and demand.

Craigslist is no different, and you need to know what price you can realistically expect to receive before you list your item for sale. So, how do you determine a realistic price for your item? I’ll get to that. First, take a moment to look over the chart below.

Emojis make economics fun!

Emojis make economics fun!

A used item will typically fit into one of four broad categories in the supply and demand chart.

An iPhone is an example of an item would fall into the high supply, high demand box, in other words something that many people are selling and many people want.

On the flip side of the demand curve, a common example of an item that is in high supply, low demand is a desk lamp. In other words, many people selling desk lamps but not many people searching for one. The desk lamp is an example of an item you shouldn’t even bother listing. The exception would be if it was a very unique or unusual desk lamp, but that would fall under the next supply and demand box.

If your item is more unique or valuable and less subject to mass availability, it’s more likely to be what I would consider a low supply, high demand item. This type of item will usually net you a higher sales price if you do your research properly. Antiques and specialized equipment can fall into this category, and the pricing is highly influenced by where you live. I’ll cover this type of item in more detail along with an example later when I get into researching a fair price.

The last category would be a low supply, low demand item. This type of item is something that is uncommon enough for few people to have an interest in, but those few people would definitely be willing to pay a fair price for it if they were in the market for it. An example that comes to mind is a specialized instrument like bagpipes. Bagpipes are not common and few people can play them properly, but those that do might love to get a great deal on a high quality used set. Patience is key for items that fall into this category – you need to be willing to wait for the right buyer to come along even if it means holding on to the item for a while and re-listing it a few times if necessary.

 He probably didn't buy those bagpipes on Craigslist

He probably didn’t buy those pipes on Craigslist

I should note that low supply, low demand items should not be confused with low supply, no demand. These are items that no one will want because they are either obsolete, out of fashion, or just plain ugly. An example of an item that would be low supply and no demand is  a projection television set. There are many of these old televisions out there that still work perfectly fine, and every so often someone will post one on Craigslist because they no longer want it. The trouble is that no one else wants it either. Don’t waste your time with this kind of item, just give it away or trash it and move on.

Rule #2 – Do your price research

Once you’ve determined there is indeed a market for your item, it’s time to do your price research. The first and easiest step is to use the search feature on the Craigslist home page for your city to see what other people in the area are asking for similar items. It looks like this:

Craigslist search bar

Enter some keywords that describe your item and press Enter. Look at the search results that are returned. Are there a lot of the same exact items being sold (high supply)? Is it something that lots of people want (high demand)?

If the answer is yes to both questions then it’s very easy to come up with a price – you can just take an average of what everyone else is asking and be done. Here’s an example – I recently upgraded to the latest iPhone model and I turned to Craigslist to sell my old one. I searched for my old phone’s model number and storage option using the Craigslist search box and noted that there were quite a few people selling the exact same phone. The prices varied, but most seemed to be offered at or close to $100, so ta da! I quickly had a price for my old iPhone.

You may be tempted to offer your item at a higher price point regardless of what your price research indicates. Don’t do it. In a high supply, high demand selling environment your buyer has lots of options to buy the same item from other sellers, and all things being equal the buyer is more likely to go for the best deal. Think about it…wouldn’t you do the same?

When supply is low, finding a fair price isn’t as straightforward because by definition there aren’t very many people selling the same item. Craigslist prices in this kind of selling environment tend to be all over the map. For cases like this, a Craigslist search won’t give you enough information. Ebay to the rescue!

An search is extremely useful in this case because Ebay allows you to filter searches by sold listings, so you can see exactly what other people paid for similar items across the country.

I can’t emphasize enough how important this feature is – you get instant access to a treasure trove of market data, and the best part is Ebay allows you to search and filter for free – you don’t even need an account! Search for your item, filter by sold listings, and use this data to come up with a price for your own item.

Allow me to walk you through an example of an item I recently sold that I priced using Ebay’s search feature. I recently had in my possession a vintage Sputnik chandelier lamp, taken out of a remodeled home in a small town in the Midwest. In the 1950s these things were apparently all the rage, but these days mid-century décor is totally not in vogue in small-town Wisconsin.

On the contrary, here in Austin Texas there is a high demand for mid-century décor and this lamp is a coveted blast from the past. For reference, here’s what it looks like…

Sputnik lamp, retro-future cool!

Sputnik lamp, retro-future cool?

Here in Austin, this qualifies as a low supply, high demand item. To determine a price for it, I turned to Ebay…

The almighty Ebay search bar

The almighty Ebay search bar!

A typical search for an item on Ebay usually returns hundreds of items, and searching for a sputnik lamp was no different. Ebay offers many options for narrowing down the list of search results to find the exact item you want, all of which are located on the left-hand side of the search results. I’ve highlighted the sold listings filter checkbox in the picture below. Checking this box will change the search results from currently listed items to items that have recently sold.

Sputnik lamps galore!

Sputnik lamps galore

Once you’ve searched for your item and filtered the results by sold listings, go through the results and make note of the prices for items similar to yours.

My Ebay research for the Sputnik lamp suggested a price of $250, so that’s what I used when I posted it on Craigslist. It sold for the full asking price in three days, no questions asked.

This leads me to an important point – know your local market! Getting the best price for an item sometimes depends a lot on where you live. I was able to sell this light fixture locally in Austin because there are people here that value mid-century décor. In other parts of the country, I wouldn’t be able to give this fixture away for free. If you do your Ebay research and are unable to sell your item locally for the fair price you determined, consider broadening your audience by listing the item on Ebay instead.

Rule #3 – Use informative details in your listing title

Your listing title is your first opportunity to interact with your buyer and persuade this person to click your ad and read more about your item. To that end, you want to make sure you make your title as informative and searchable as possible by using informative and descriptive details. These details can include things such as brand, size, color, weight, condition, or anything else that is relevant to the item.

I’ll refer back to the iPhone listing as an example – I made sure to include the color, storage size, model number, condition, and the fact that it was a Sprint version directly in the listing title. Creating an easily searchable title ensures your item will show up in search results and will allow a potential buyer to quickly zero in on exactly what he or she is looking for.

Don’t judge me for being with Sprint, I moved to Ting!

Don’t judge me for being with Sprint, I moved to Ting!

Rule #4 – Be descriptive in your listing


When writing the listing description for your item, try to think about what you would want to know if you were looking for the same item and answer those questions up front. Your buyer will be more likely to make a decision to buy when all the information they could possibly want to know is readily available in the listing.

Some common details to include:

  • Measurements (for large things that take up space)
  • Condition – is it almost new? Scuffed up? Missing hardware?
  • Type of build materials (typically relevant for furniture, i.e. type of wood, fabric, etc)
  • What’s included / not included
  • Any relevant details that would help a buyer make an informed decision (Example: when I sold my old iPhone I made sure to clarify that the battery still holds a full charge and that it came with two charge cables, headphones, and an aluminum case)

As a Craigslist buyer, I always want to know why someone is getting rid of their stuff so I can be somewhat satisfied that they aren’t trying to unload broken junk on me. As a seller, I try to alleviate that concern up front by telling my potential buyer why I no longer need the awesome thing they are now thinking of giving me money for.

You should do this too. Are you moving? Redecorating? Going to prison? Whatever. Just let your buyer know up front (maybe not about prison) so they don’t have to wonder why you want to part with whatever it is you’re selling.

Writing a good description does take some time, but not as much as you might think and the time investment is worth it. Remember, you’re asking people to give you some of their hard earned money in exchange for something you don’t want anymore. Taking the time to write a good descriptive listing will help to differentiate your item from others and will go a long way towards getting you the best price for what you are selling.

Rule #5 – Add several high quality pictures

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and this is especially true on Craigslist. Listings with good pictures will always get more attention from buyers than listings without pictures. Very few people take the time to add good pictures, which gives you another opportunity to stand out.

Before taking pictures, make sure your item is clean. Seriously. Take a dust rag to that table. Clean the Cheetos smudges off that laptop. Wipe the fingerprints off that touch screen, for the love of Jobs! Would you pay top dollar for something that was filthy? Of course not, and you shouldn’t expect anyone else to either. Your one motivated buyer is going to want to know that you took good care of the item before they part with their money for it.

Once you’ve cleaned your item, take multiple pictures from different angles in good lighting. Stage your items as best you can against neutral backgrounds so nothing else distracts from the item. Frame your pictures so the item takes up as much space in the picture as possible. Crop the pictures if necessary to remove any extra space or extra distractions. The pictures will be shrunk down in size once they are uploaded to Craigslist, so every pixel counts.

A selection of clear, well-lit pictures that show different aspects/views of what you are selling will go a long way toward getting someone to buy it. If you have a modern smartphone there is no excuse –they all take pictures that are more than adequate for Craigslist, and you can easily crop a photo right on your phone.

When choosing a primary photo for your listing, select a picture that shows the entire item rather than just a part of it. The primary photo will show up as a thumbnail in search results, so you want to make it count. The primary photo will always be the top left picture in the photo preview windows as shown below, and will be marked with a “Featured Image” tag highlighted in yellow. You can move the pictures around in the preview window by clicking and dragging them to arrange them how you want.

Even Craigslist tells you to pick the best picture

You must choose a primary photo. Choose wisely.

I’ve included a screenshot of the listing I posted for the Sputnik lamp below. Note that my lead photo is a close-up that shows the entire lamp. Also note that the title has several searchable keywords and the listing provides a simple description that explains where the lamp came from, the dimensions, and what was included (bulbs).

Sputnik on Craigslist

Could this be the light of your life?

Rule #6 – Price your item at the higher end of the price range

Some people like to haggle over prices, and pricing your item at the higher end of a range gives a haggler the opportunity to get a lower price while still leaving you an amount you are comfortable with.

If you’ve followed the previous rules for winning at Craigslist and differentiated your listing from the rest of the pack, a motivated buyer will want to work with you first, even if your price is slightly higher than comparable items. Sometimes that motivated buyer will simply give you your asking price, no questions asked!

Be warned though, a shrewd haggler will see through this approach because they will have done their own market research beforehand. This type of buyer will relentlessly try to bring the price down (source: I am a haggler).

Before you try your hand at making a deal, make sure you decide up front on the minimum amount you are willing to accept for the item. This way, you know exactly what your “no deal” point is and you can say, “Hey, we seem to be far apart on price and it doesn’t look like we can make a deal right now. Let me know if you change your mind though, thanks for your interest.”

The last thing you want is to feel pressured to sell something at a price you aren’t comfortable with and then kick yourself later for not holding out for more money. Remember, you just need one motivated buyer. If the person you’re dealing with is trying really hard to lowball you, they aren’t your one motivated buyer. It’s as simple as that, just move on.

Rule #7 – Be up front with your pricing

Craigslist offers the option to filter search results based on a price range. Some people try to  game the search results by setting their asking price in the price field to $1, which guarantees a listing will show up in search results that were filtered by a maximum price range. This is a cute trick, but totally not cool. As a buyer, I find it irritating to click on a $1 listing only to find out the seller really wants fifty bucks his crummy old desk lamp. This is not a good way to cultivate a buyer willing to pay top dollar and you should avoid it.

Rule #8 – Filter people that will waste your time

Is it any surprise that Craigslist has its share of scammers? Hopefully this isn’t news to you. Through trial and error, I’ve also learned that Craigslist is chock full of time wasters as well. I’m going to provide some tips on how to avoid both.

Let’s start with the scammers. If you post anything worth more than a hundred bucks for sale on Craigslist, chances are good you’ll be contacted by a scammer. Note that scammers who typically frequent Craigslist aren’t looking to scam you out of your item, they are looking to get you to send them money somehow.

This isn’t something to be scared about. Have you ever received an email from a Nigerian prince who has two billion dollars in gold he wants to smuggle out of the country but needs your help to do it? That’s the kind of scammer you’ll encounter on Craigslist, and they are just as easy to avoid.

Craigslist has taken steps to shield sellers from scammers by offering anonymous email relays and I highly suggest you take advantage of this feature (described in more detail in rule 12). Luckily, scammers are easy to spot. Here are some of the signs to look for:

  • Paying by money order. Sometimes a scammer will offer to buy your item sight unseen and will want your full name and address to send you a money order. They will likely offer to give you extra money on top of the asking price to compensate you for your trouble. Delete this kind of email as soon as it hits your inbox because the money order will be a fake. Your bank will cheerfully deposit it and a few days will pass before the bank figures out it was fake, at which time they will withdraw the money from your account and hit you with the equivalent of a bounced check fee. During the few days it will take for your bank to figure out the money order is fake, the scammer will make every attempt possible to get you to wire them money. Some people fall for this, but not you because you’ve been warned.
  • Poor spelling and grammar. Scammers in general seem to have a poor grasp of the English language, so be on the lookout for poorly constructed sentences, misspelled words, and a severe lack or misuse of punctuation.
  • Generic contact message. Scammers are always on the hunt for new victims, so they rarely take the time to customize the message they send you. This means they will not reference your item at all, i.e “hi, is it still 4 sale” rather than “hi, are you still selling the Sputnik chandelier?” Even if this does turn out to be a legitimate buyer, this isn’t someone that I would consider a serious contender as your one motivated buyer. Move on.

You may be contacted by people who aren’t scammers but aren’t necessarily serious buyers. This kind of person might ask a few questions, maybe ask what your “rock bottom” or “minimum price” is, but even if you answer them you’ll never hear from them again. I’ve never understood what motivates this type of individual, the bottom line is they are a waste of your time and you need to be able to quickly weed out anyone who doesn’t quality as your one motivated buyer.

Be advised that there are also now people trolling Craigslist for the purpose of steering people to competing platforms that take a cut of the sale. The pitch is very casual, for example “hey, I’m sure you’ll have no trouble selling your item on Craigslist but you should check out JunkSellr dot com, they specialize in stuff like yours and they handle credit card processing.” Um, thanks but I’m cool with winning at Craigslist for now.

When you create your listing, always ask a potential buyer to add a specific word or phrase to the subject line of their response. I like to be upfront about this in my listing and say it’s “to weed out the spammers who never read”. Going back to the listing for the Sputnik lamp, I asked potential buyers to add the word “cosmonaut” to the email subject line. This allows me to quickly filter the responses from those who are seriously interested in my item from those who only have a passing interest.

I also suggest you always politely ask a potential buyer to add their mobile number to a reply so you can “respond more quickly via text message”. This actually serves two purposes:

  • Spammers will not give you a number. They don’t want you contacting them!
  • You can move more quickly with a buyer while interest is high and he or she is more likely to buy. My experience has been that people that provide their mobile number are very motivated to buy what you are selling and reaching out to them via text or a phone call should take precedence over people that don’t give you their number up front.

Rule #9 – Use keywords wisely

Craigslist uses a very simple search algorithm that scans listing titles and descriptions for words that match the search string. It is not smart enough to look for variations of a word, or even plural vs singular forms of a word. For example, if you were to search Craigslist for each of the following terms, you would get four different sets of results, even though they all refer to the same thing:

  • dumbbell, dumbbells, dumb bell, dumb bells

If you were selling a set of dumbbells, you could increase the odds of someone finding your listing by adding each of the variations as extra keywords to your listing description. Adding variations on spelling of words that are commonly misspelled is also good practice (example: dumbell, dumbells)

You don’t have to get fancy, just add the words to the very bottom of the listing as a comma-separated list. Just make sure you only add words that are relevant to what you are selling. Don’t add a bunch of keywords that have nothing to do with your item in the hopes that it will help you sell it. You’ll only end up polluting search results for other items and irritated users will likely flag your listing for removal.

The picture below is an example of what NOT to do, in more ways than one. Notice how this poor misguided soul added keywords for every type of fitness gear he could think of to try and sell a weighted vest, without even adding pictures or taking the time to write a proper descriptive listing.

The wrong way to use keywords

So much fail in so little space

Rule #10 – Sell multiple related items individually

There may be times when you have multiple related things you want to sell, such as a set of woodworking tools. For example, let’s say you wanted to sell an electric saw, a drill, and a belt sander. You might be tempted to sell all three as a set, but this would be a mistake. It will be much harder to find a single buyer willing to pay top dollar for all three tools rather than three individual buyers willing to pay top dollar for each tool.

If you try and sell a bunch of items as a single lot you will very likely have to sell it all at a steep discount compared to what you could make if you split everything out into individual listings. Yes, creating individual listings for each item takes more time, but the time is worth it – you will be able to get a higher overall price for your stuff, which is what winning at Craigslist is all about!

Rule #11 – Don’t agree to “hold” any items

In my experience, the people that ask you to hold something rarely follow through with buying. In most cases you’ll never hear from them again. Be up front with people who contact you that the first person who meets your asking price with cash in hand walks away with the item. This includes people that want to see your item but can’t meet right away. First come (with cash in hand), first served!

Rule #12 – Safety before sales

Thousands, perhaps millions of people negotiate and complete transactions via Craigslist every day without incident. However, it’s always wise to be safe rather than potentially be sorry. Never put your contact information directly in the text portion of your listing since this makes it really easy for scammers and spammers to harvest email addresses and phone numbers.

When first creating a listing, you will see text fields for email, phone number, and zip code as shown in the picture below. Email and zip code are required, adding a phone number is optional. Craigslist gives you the option to hide your email address via the use of their anonymous email relay system. I always use this option since it gives me a layer of anonymity to screen out scammers and time wasters, and I suggest you do the same.

Craiglist contact info

Jenny, Jenny, who can I turn to?

I never include a phone number in my listings, but I’ve added one in the example above to illustrate that Craigslist provides the ability to specify whether you are open to phone calls, texts, or both.

Once you’ve specified your contact information, created a title, and filled out the description box, the next screen will take you to an option to add an address. You are not required to include your address, and I suggest leaving these fields blank. Craigslist gives you the option to remove the map entirely, highlighted in the lower left corner of the picture below. I never use the map hiding option – I always leave the map set to my zip code to give buyers a rough idea of where I am without giving out my home address.

Craigslist map info

Arrr! Could this be a map to buried treasure? Probably not, matey

Finally, once your listing goes live it will include a small “Reply” button visible on the upper left of the screen. Clicking on this button will bring up a pop up box like the one shown below with the contact options you provided. The contact name and/or phone number will be included if they were provided, otherwise only an email address will be visible.

Craiglist listing contact info

Jenny, don’t change your number!

If you’ve chosen to use the Craigslist email relay then the contact email will consist of a random combination of letters and numbers that is unique to your listing. Any email sent to that address will be forwarded to you anonymously, and any replies you send back to the buyer will also be anonymous. I mentioned previously that I ask for a phone number in my listings, and I follow up with people that do provide a number first. Obviously reaching out to a buyer via text reveals my phone number back to them, but at that point I’ve got their number too so fair is fair.

It probably goes without saying that at some point you’ll have to meet your buyer in the real world in order for you to make the sale. Once you’ve decided that the person you are dealing with isn’t a scammer or a time waster and is in fact a normal person motivated to buy your item, move forward with setting up a time and place to meet as soon as is convenient for both of you.

I suggest meeting in a public place that is mutually convenient, although for big things like furniture there’s no getting around having to give out your home address. For cases like this, use your best judgment. Have someone present with you if possible, and if this isn’t possible then make sure others know the details of who you are meeting and when. Ask them to check on you if they don’t hear back from you.

Meeting someone who has contacted you through a Craigslist post can feel strange the first couple of times you do it. As one lady who bought something from me a long time ago put it, “I feel like we’re making a drug deal!” We got a good laugh out of that, but I do understand that not everyone is used to the idea of meeting a complete stranger in a public place and exchanging something for money. No worries though, this feeling will quickly fade and you’ll soon be selling your used stuff like a pro.

Wrap up

So there you have it – twelve rules for winning at Craigslist by getting top dollar for your used stuff. Take the time to understand and serve your one motivated buyer, target your listing to that buyer, weed out anyone that isn’t serious, follow up promptly with your buyer when contacted, set up a safe sale environment, and get paid!

I know this was a monster post, so if you’ve stuck with me this long, thank you! I sincerely hope this information was helpful. Let me know what you thought in the comments below, I’m especially interested to read about your experiences selling things on Craigslist 🙂

About the Author Mario

I'm a software product manager with a full-time job, family, and a desire to stay strong, mobile, and fit. I separate fact from fiction to find the most effective and affordable options for home fitness. If you'd like to build your own home gym, start here.