Wednesday, October 9, 2013

bring home the precious

For my tips on finding that special item in your local craigslist listings, see yesterday's post.  (And by all means add your suggestions too!)  Today: after you find the object of your search, how do you get it home? Of course feel free to share your own thoughts here as well.

(5) Know when to pull the trigger.  It probably goes without saying that if you don't know what you want (or have the ability to recognize it when you see it), you're wasting your time shopping.  Obviously, if you're searching craigslist and you find an item that's exactly what you want (or meets all your functional requirements and is even cooler than you imagined), is at or under your price ceiling, and is in a convenient location, you contact the seller immediately.  If you see an item that fits those criteria and suddenly start thinking, "But what if it won't fit in my car?" or, "Do I really want to drive out and get this thing?" then you are not ready for craigslist yet.  I'm just giving it to you straight, all right?  But that's OK.  Give yourself six months of staring enviously at others' spectacular finds, and try again.  Maybe go with someone else who has done this before, for your first run.

Of course, the tricky part is not recognizing when that item appears that checks aaaaaaaaalllllll the boxes.  As an intellectual matter, that's very simple.  The question is, how do you know when you've found an item that - while not exactly what you pictured in your head - is adequate for your requirements, and has better price/specs/location than anything else you're likely to find without investing more additional time than you're willing to?  This is a very challenging mental exercise because it requires you to accurately predict the future.  If you could do this reliably, you wouldn't be shopping on craigslist; you'd be paying someone (such as ME!) to do that for you, because you'd have made millions in the stock market.  Outside of actual magic (or the spirit of prophecy, which I find rarely turns itself to purchasing decisions), the only remotely reliable way to make predictions about the future is to look at patterns in the past.  Let's say - hypothetically - you've seen every ad for a vintage sink in twenty-four straight months - plus visited every salvage shop within 75 miles - and you know there has never been one in decent condition with a single right-hand sink for less than $500, and you want to spend $150, and you see one advertised for $200.  This one is 20" deep and you wanted 24", and it's also 42" wide and you'd have been happier with 38" or 40".  However, you want to replace your current sink inside of three months, and your careful watching has told you you'd be lucky if another right-hand sink appeared in the next year.  (It's always theoretically possible that ten will come on the market in that time, but that kind of thinking is a short road to never replacing your sink.)  You now have to decide between indefinite delay and imperfect measurements, for which purpose you need a very clear idea of which is going to be more important to your project in the long run.  The answer is, in this case, you buy the sink (but see point (2)).  Hypothetically speaking, of course.    

(4) Send just the right email.  To those new to craigslist, this may sound like some sort of nitpickery that marginally improves your results but is is no way essential.  I am here to tell you that it is indispensable.  As evidence of that fact, you need only consider that I, one of the wordiest people on the planet, send almost exactly the same email every time I want to buy something.  The phrasing doesn't vary (and I always vary the phrasing.  Of everything.  Everything but this).  Here is the email you need:
Subject: table advertised on craigslist 
Hello,  
I'm interested in the table [or whatever] you advertised on craigslist.  I've pasted the ad below.  [Do you happen to know how tall it is?]  I was wondering when is a good time to come and take a look at it.  
I can be reached at this address or at XXX-XXX-XXXX.  Thanks!!   
[Name]
[pasted ad]
Let's talk about the elements of this email, in order of importance.

(a) I included my phone number.  This is absolutely essential.  Not because I want the guy to call me - in fact, I generally don't answer calls from unknown numbers, so it's unlikely I would answer even if the seller did so.  Rather, the point is that most craigslist sellers will not respond to a message without a phone number - even though they're most likely going to send an email anyway.  (Which is what I'm looking for, and why I emphasize that I will respond to email, even though that's obvious since it's what I used.)

(b) I said that I wanted to come and look at the thing.  Craigslist sellers generally hate questions about whether an item is available if that's all the message contains (they don't want to waste their time keeping your options open.  Buy the thing or don't).  If I really have reason to doubt that it's available - say there's an ad that says "must be picked up today" and I don't see it till the next day, but the ad is still up - I will ask, but I will also clearly state that I am interested in it and I want to come and see it.

(c) I ask a question about the item only if I absolutely have to.  Assume that the person receiving your email has a fourth-grade reading level, started learning English a week ago, is on high doses of PCP, and is in the middle of a nuclear attack while reading the message, and you will correctly approximate the usual level of attention to detail.  Your question probably will not be answered at all (you'll get a message such as, "I can do any time in the next three hours," which you will curse because you are at work for the next five, like most of the adult population), and you will have to ask again.  Therefore, you only ask a question if the point of interest is a deal-breaker and you cannot glean the information from squinting at the pictures.  Example: I am looking for some sort of low credenza-like thing to put under an antique hutch I have.  If the credenza is taller than 29", the hutch will exceed the ceiling height.  I am not driving anywhere for the sake of applying a tape measure to someone else's furniture.  The seller needs to inform me of the height before I agree to go - and if he won't answer (or sends me back something obviously stupid, like "two feet"), then I won't buy it, period.

(d) I do not include any extraneous information.  For example, I do not say, "When is a good time to come and take a look at it?  I am generally available evenings after 8PM."  If you were corresponding with someone normal, this would be a great way to skip at least one set of email exchanges.  But you are not.  See nuclear attack, above.  Any additional words you put in this email (or additional conditions you place on the seller) will increase the likelihood of no response, or a nonsense response.

(e) I generally describe the thing in the subject line of the email.  Spambots go after craigslist a lot, so the more responsive to the ad you sound, and the more human you sound generally, the more likely the seller will take you seriously.

(f) I paste the ad in the email.  While this may increase sellers' confidence that I am a person and not a spammer, the real reason I do this is for my own convenience.  If I'm really going after something, I may send three or four emails with the subject line "table advertised on craigslist" in the same day.  There's no way I'll remember which one was which by the time I get a response - and sometimes sellers don't respond for days.  It also makes it easy to show my husband a picture of the treasure I have found as soon as I receive an email indicating that I'm going to be going to get this thing.  Therefore, obviously, this is optional, but I do find it helpful.

Oh, and this is actually the most important: do not send an email at all if the ad specifically asks for response by phone.  In that case, prepare what you're going to say in advance; follow generally the same script above; and expect the person answering the phone not to follow any form of logic you've previously encountered.  Be friendly and patient.

(3) Bring the right stuff.  I feel like it should go without saying that you have to be able to lift/slide and also transport the thing you're buying, but I'll admit I've arrived without all the requisite firepower myself.  Some sellers have been very kind in helping me move things (sometimes things I could have moved myself given an hour, and some things I would absolutely never have been able to move no matter what).  If you're talking about large furniture, measure your car first.  If you can't transport it, you are totally out of luck.  For our sectional, we rented a pickup truck from U-Haul - cost less than $40, plus $150 for the sofa.  And it's a $3000 sofa (with a small area of damage), so I would say it was worth it.  If the item is flat-ish and not too crazy-heavy, it could also go on your roof.  In that case, you need a roof rack or (if it's light) a blanket to protect the top of your car, and LOTS of rope.  Also, unscrew your radio antenna BEFORE putting the thing on your car.  Otherwise you'll break your antenna off.  Ask me how I know.  If you're going to let the item stick out of the back of your car, you need to come with that area empty, and bring lots of rope and some sort of cushions or blankets to prevent the item from destroying your trunk lid or vice versa.  There's also the getting-it-to-your-car part.  Best-case scenario, for heavy furniture, you bring two strong men.  I pretty much never do this.  For women especially, the first thing to remember is: you can carry more than you think you can, if you are careful, patient, and sensible.  The second rule is: there is an absolute limit to what any person can physically lift, and once you hit it, no amount of determination will help you.  If you are doing any part of the carrying yourself, you must - must - wear sensible shoes.  And clothes that are not easily damaged or stained.  For something truly miserable to carry, like a refrigerator or an armoire, you are wearing long sleeves, socks, sneakers, work gloves, and long pants - period.  You don't want to rip all the skin off your shins with refrigerator coils, do you?  Because in that case, you're not getting a refrigerator, you're getting a tetanus shot.  If you come with a friend, I recommend those "forearm forklift" devices - for a very large and very square object, they work really well.  Alternatively, bring a dolly or a wheeled slider.  You can move a decent-sized piece yourself with a good dolly.  Think about the last time you moved (or helped someone move), how much you could carry, and how pieces comparable in size and weight to what you're purchasing were successfully moved.  Come equipped with what's likely to be necessary.  Also: bring the purchase price in cash.  Exact change only.  No exceptions.  

(2) Negotiate.  There is no law that says you have to pay the asking price for things.  Conversely, however, I will note up-front that I hate negotiating and I'm not any good at it.  For those times when it really can't be avoided, I've developed a couple of methods.  If you are already a good negotiator, you don't need to waste your time with this kid stuff - turn on your charm and go to work.  But for those who hate to dicker, I find that these approaches help.

First method: I am lousy at telling people what they should be asking for an item (even if I actually know).  So, instead, I work from a point that leaves no room for debate: what I can pay for the item.  This does not require you to pretend that you're so poor you couldn't scrape together another $5 for a table.  You don't have to be poor at all.  You just say that the asking price is more than your budget for the item.  In the case of used cars, for example (of which I have bought three through craigslist), you imply that the blue book value (or some other objective figure) is your budget for the item.  Then, you hand over your mechanic's record of the necessary repairs and their cost, and you explain that your budget will only allow you to pay blue book value less the mechanic's total.  It might be that you could afford another $1000 for a car - but that doesn't mean that you'll pay it for this car if it isn't worth that much.  Your budget forbids it, right?

Let's say you're buying furniture, instead.  You don't have objective-sounding third-party information this time.  But I feel comfortable using that sort of language, so I leaned on it when I bought my sink.  I told the seller that I really liked the item (a good starting point) but that it was a few inches shallower than I was looking for, which would require me to build out the counter - adding to my cost.  (This was all true, and easy for the seller to understand, since standard counter depth is 24" and his sink was 20".)  Then I said that that would cut into my budget for the item, and I was wondering whether he was able to negotiate on the price at all.

A couple of specific points here.  First of all, I said this in my first email to him.  This is a bit tricky, with craigslist.  I think you should introduce the topic of cutting the price before you show up.  If someone showed up to buy something from me and tried to lowball me out of the blue, I would show them the door - even if it were a price I might otherwise have considered.  Because I would find it offensive.  Like I said - I don't like negotiating.  Some people might react more positively.  But why take the chance?  Of course, the downside is that you are asking the person to change the price before you even see the item.  It might be nicer than you think.  It might also be less nice than you think.  It might be so much less nice, in fact, that you don't want it at all - regardless of price.  So you're kind of operating blind.  I would say that you only want to do this when you have a very clear idea of what you're getting before you see it in person.  With the sink, I definitely did - the pictures were good, and I had been staring at vintage sinks for two straight years.  I even let my DH go to get it without me (and you have to understand how neurotic I am to appreciate that I "let" him move a 150-pound sink by himself.  For the record, he also refused to go if I went along).  Second point - I didn't tell him how much I wanted to pay; just let him make an offer to discount it.  I found this much less painful than making a counteroffer, and it worked in my favor.  Had he refused to negotiate, I would actually have paid the full $200.  Had I made an offer, I would have found it hard to offer as little as $150 - what I wanted to pay.  But that was actually the number he came back with!  And here's how I got to that fortuitous spot: when I first saw the sink advertised, I ceased breathing for a period.  I knew it was the only right-hand sink available, and that it was going to be mine.  I also knew that the number of people looking for that exact sink in this area in any six-month period would average zero.  The seller was going to have to do business with me or nobody.  (I knew this because I had watched so many left-hand sinks sit on the market for months.)  But he wasn't going to take my word for that.  So I gritted my teeth and I did not contact him until the listing's eighth day.  (Of course I checked every day - several times - to make sure it was still there.)  At that point, I expected he would feel lucky to have a buyer, and be almost ready to drop the price spontaneously.  I turned out to be right.  Of course, this wouldn't work with a massive price drop, a high-demand item, or a very stubborn seller.  But if you put yourself in the other fellow's shoes, you should be able to negotiate reasonably.

I've also negotiated in almost the opposite situation.  A lady was selling an oak pedestal table and four press-back chairs for $80.  They were all scratched, but it was still a good price, and would probably sell fairly fast.  I didn't want the table (nor did I want to transport or dispose of it), but I wanted those chairs.  Immediately.  Within hours of the ad posting, I contacted her and asked her to sell me just the chairs for $50.  Any sensible person would take that, right?  And she did.  Had I offered $40, she might have said no; and to me, the extra $10 was easily worth it to make sure I got to have them.  (I also picked them up at the earliest time she offered.)

Last point about negotiating: this is difficult to do, but if the item you see in person is not what you want, you need to leave without it.  Be clear, be polite, but be firm.  It's your money.  Don't buy it if it's not what it appeared to be.  

(1) Safety first.  This is actually the most important of all the craigslist tips.  You can't enjoy your nice things if you've been stabbed and buried in someone's basement, right?  Right.  This point is so important that I think it deserves its own entire post, so we're going to talk about it in detail tomorrow.

Happy shopping!  

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