Helen Carefoot, The Washington Post
Back before she owned her firm, Washington interior designer Kerra Michele ran a blog that chronicled how she made over her small rental apartment with DIY projects and treasures found through Craigslist.
She moved out of that starter apartment, but she still regularly buys second-hand furniture online to add a homey, collected feel to her projects. Craigslist and other online community marketplaces such as Facebook Marketplace, Letgo and OfferUp can be a wallet-friendly way to furnish your pad. But they can be daunting, she says, if you don't know how they work. Here are some guidelines for navigating these forums.
Do your research
If you see something that's too good to be true, chances are it is, says Rob Douglas, a former private investigator and security consultant whose expertise is in identify theft. "If that's just the best price you've ever seen, watch out," he says.
Respond to complete ads that list important information such as dimensions, materials, condition, brand and the age of the item. If any information is missing, ask as many questions as necessary to determine whether the item will work for you.
Orlando Soria, a designer and host of HGTV's "Unspouse My House," suggests comparing the price listed in an ad to other retailers to see whether it's reasonable. For vintage items, he suggests calling around and reaching out to stores that specialize in used furniture.
For high-value items such as antiques, Michele recommends asking for certificates of authenticity or appraisal. If a certifiable antique is what you're after, an antiques store or specialized website might be a better choice than Craigslist or Facebook, Douglas says, because there's more risk involved with buying and selling higher-priced items and they might have extra measures in place to verify authenticity and handle large payments.
(If you're not sure what exactly you want, Michele likes Apartment Therapy's Bazaar, a localized list of vintage home furnishings and accessories that have been vetted by the site's team based on designer.)
When you see the item in person, Michele and Soria both recommend closely inspecting it from all angles to make sure it's in good condition (or at least the condition you were expecting) and that it matches the description. Turn the piece around, look underneath it, open drawers, look at joints and where pieces fit together, and examine the hardware; if there are any discrepancies, say so.
"If they've priced the piece as though it has solid wood construction and dovetail joints and you show up and it has a particle-board back but it's still in good condition, then maybe you can offer them $100 less," Michele says. She also administers what she calls the "squeak test" for furniture and the "smell test" for items with fabric: She leans on the piece to see whether it's sturdy and smells any upholstered areas for odours such as mildew or cigarette smoke.
Move quickly, but have a plan
If you see something you want, contact the seller as soon as possible. As a seller, it makes the most sense to offer the item to multiple buyers and see who bites first, which means slowpokes could be left behind. Buyers, arrange to go see items early in the day and be upfront about your interest.
If you're the first to snag a steal of a desk for $60 but you can't fit it in your car when you get there, however, that's not much of a steal. Make sure you know the dimensions of the item you're buying, and measure any doorways, elevators and staircases you'll need to move through beforehand. If the item doesn't fit, it's likely you won't be able to return it.
"I've had a lot of clients actually buy stuff on their own and then not be able to get the furniture in their house because they didn't measure the stairs, so make sure you do all that prep work in advance before you pick something up," Michele says.
For larger items, she sees the item ahead of time and lets the seller know that if she likes it, she'll give a small cash deposit and then return another time soon to haul it away, which gives her time to make arrangements with Zipcar or U-Haul without wasting money if she doesn't want the item.
No deal is worth compromising your safety, so exercise caution and use your common sense. Douglas advises buyers and sellers to familiarize themselves with their chosen platform's best practices and safety tools. For example, Craigslist creates anonymous email addresses for both sellers and buyers to use for correspondence. Both Facebook and Craigslist offer tips for personal safety and avoiding scams. Report any suspicious postings or bad actors to the platform.
Try to verify who you're dealing with: If the platform has user accounts, look at the seller's account to see whether their profile appears legitimate and whether they've sold other items in the past (Facebook Marketplace lets would-be buyers see the seller's other activities in the marketplace). You can even pull metadata from photos to see where they were posted from to get a general idea of someone's location, and Douglas also suggests putting photos into a Google Images search to see whether they appear anywhere else.
Michele always brings a friend when she looks at items. Tell someone where you're going and what you'll be doing, and meet in public spaces during the day to exchange items and payment.
Beyond your physical well-being, safeguard your personal information. With Facebook Marketplace, much of your key identifying information is available on your profile. Douglas advises using Facebook's privacy settings to limit who can see your basic information and to keep contact on Facebook Messenger.
Deal in cash only, don't give out your bank account number, and don't wire funds. Although providing personal information such as a Social Security number might be necessary to rent an apartment, it's never needed to buy a couch. Michele always prefers to pay in cash and negotiates the amount before meeting in person. There is a risk involved in dealing with cash because you can't recover it, Douglas says, but at least it doesn't involve exchanging personal financial information.
To protect from social engineering schemes at in-person meetings, Douglas suggests divulging no more information than is necessary to complete the transaction.
"In dealing with any of these platforms, it's the ease and speed of transactions that makes it attractive to us and the bad guys, from scamming you on the product or extracting information from you," he says. "On any of these platforms, if something gives you the heebie-jeebies or is too good to be true or doesn't make sense, walk away."