I hope I have made my case for the magical qualities of craigslist. And now, for the uninitiated - just how do you get to all this magicalness and make it your own? Here are my tips for finding that precious item. For any old hands at craigslist - I would love to hear your tips as well!
(5) Be flexible. Know as much as you can about the thing you're looking for - including, of course, different names for it, variations of the same thing, and different versions that have existed over time. For example, if you're looking for a shallow piece of furniture to put in your entryway to catch car keys, "table" is probably too broad. "Console" is exactly accurate, but if you're the only person who knows that, it's not going to find you the stuff you want. Search in furniture for "entryway" and "foyer" (to get you "entryway table" and "foyer table"). Also look for "sofa table" (the piece of furniture that goes behind the sofa is generally the same height and depth as the one that goes in the entryway). Also try "demilune" (a particular style of foyer table), "commode" (you'll get mostly toilets, but a few people will know that this is the correct name for an entrway table with a cabinet), "game table" (correct height and depth, again), and maybe also throw in "cabinet." Bottom line - do a lot of different searches. And, know your absolute parameters (i.e., what size will fit in your space) - be prepared for something you weren't looking for at all (a desk? A vintage record player? A hall tree?) that would serve your purpose and that you might really enjoy.
(4) Spell it wrong. If you do want a commode, make sure you search for "comode" as well. And be aware of other chronic errors in the mind of the public, and account for them. Dinning tables are almost as common as dining tables; "wrought iron" is almost never spelled correctly (and even when it is, see point (2)); most people selling tufted furniture don't know that it's called that, so don't bother searching that way; items with "nailhead" trim are more likely to be described as "studded"; wing back chairs are "wingback," "wing back," or "wing" chairs; and slipper chairs are usually called...wingback chairs. "Settees" are also an endangered species, though I've seen plenty of "seattees" (and "seatees," "seattes," "settes") - as well as "love seats," "benches," and "sofas" - you get the idea. But there's an upside - as the reward for your bad-spelling searches, you may be the only person who ever finds the listing for that fabulous item from the semi-literate seller.
(3) Price it right. Of course you should know how much you want to spend - it's one of the easiest ways to narrow what can be a flood of results. (I would generally suggest broadening every other parameter and narrowing price, to have the best chance of seeing what you want without becoming totally overwhelmed.) However, if you're constantly running searches for your item (see point (1)) and your search terms are plenty broad, and you're just not seeing much of what you have in mind, I would suggest that every few searches you run your terms with no price limit - just to see what else the market is harboring, and at what price points.
(2) Squint. Following the logic of spelling it wrong - be aware of the prevailing conventional stupidities. On craigslist, this is oak:
And this is walnut:
Odds are, "wood" items are 100% particle-board (also true of "solid wood" items, though not so much in the antiques listings); if it really is wood, all listed species (even items as unusual as hickory and cedar) are actually pine; and "oak" means that it's light-colored, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the species. I have seen KNOTTY pine listed as oak. (How is this confusing???) So what's an exasperated shopper to do? You have to fully absorb all the information that's offered. Learn to recognize real versus fake wood (and tell species apart) from cell phone pictures. Likewise, "leather" often means "vinyl" - but the photos often tell the real story. You also have to puzzle out often unclear explanations of pricing (per item or per set?), size (one seller in a thousand can understand and spell the terms "width, depth, and height"), and items available (some ads include photos of items that are not for sale. Others offer multiple items, with photos of only some. Once in a while you get an ad with pictures and things for sale - but nothing offered is depicted, and nothing depicted is for sale). And it goes without saying that such descriptors as "vintage," "antique," "modern," and "contemporary" are totally unreliable - look at the picture. Of course, also be on close lookout for your own stupidities. I can't tell you how many times I have cursed sellers for not responding to my email, only to look back at the ad (obsess much?) and realize it says, "If interested, please call XXX-XXX-XXXX." Paying attention is key.
(1) Be patient. This is the most important tip by far. I would generally say that if you are particular about your item (say, you want a particular style, or you're determined to buy an antique, or something from a higher-end retailer), and you're looking for a bargain price relative to that type of item, you should allow three to six months. In case you have any doubt, I am completely serious. If you want an insane bargain and/or an extremely unusual item, allow six months to a year. If you're on a tight timeline (I think the shortest deadline I've set myself is two weeks), you have to be looking for something that has a very broad market. (My two-week search was for a dining room table. Craigslist has insanely many tables. Also chairs, by the way. I was also determined to get a real antique with some nice detailing. Oh, and it had to be at least 96" long. Obviously, something had to give, so I decided I would drive anywhere in the DC area and spend up to $100 - a decent price, but not a crazy bargain. Yeah, I spent it all. P.S. I love my table.)
Now, these are just my searching tips - secrets for getting that treasure into your paws to be covered next.
And, again, anyone who has searching secrets of their own - would love to hear them!