Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Not Thieves

Not Thieves

This is all about Craigslist (CL) and material things. It’s about some specific reasons I think you should buy things on Craigslist, if you are planning on buying things anyway.

I had been chary of buying on CL. I’d sold stuff and I knew I was honest, but I wasn't so sure about other people. It seemed like a hassle and it seemed risky. And then my sister convinced me to try it with the first item here, the Ikea desk, and I really haven’t looked back.

Lesson #1: If it is a commodity-type good, check CL
Desk: Ikea Glass Top and Sawhorses
Proof-of-concept. I was with my sister, about to buy this Ikea glass-plate + sawhorse = desk. New it’d have been around $120. I am about to buy it at the store. My sister thinks to check CL. The exact thing I want is being sold for $40 a block away from where I’m staying. I’m torn; it means calling someone, what if it’s gross, what if it seems shady, etc. But I go ahead and call. The next day I meet Stacie, my lovely neighbor, and talk to her about the neighborhood, the move between Los Angeles and London and how her British husband is just nuts for the weather here, the difficulty of finding a rental as nice as theirs (a small but stylish house). Friendly neighbor stuff. Get the desk in I’d say “practically new” condition at a 2/3 discount.

Lesson #2: If you’re willing to put in legwork, you can buy computers and tech on CL
Computer: Ridiculous Quad Core AMD Phenom II Gaming Rig
I have wound up buying a bunch of computer stuff on CL, but one particular experience changed how I’ll purchase computers in the future. I wanted a gaming system: something powerful and graphics-y. I was worried about electronics and computers on CL: no comfort of a corporate warranty that will probably screw you over but at least will for sure be there to screw you over. I nonetheless thought I’d poke around. I found Steve, who is fantastic and if you are looking for a performance machine seriously get in touch and I’ll give you his info. Steve takes me through a very involved self-education process about this purchasing decision, involving motherboards and graphics cards and upgrade capabilities and my research into comparable systems. About 20 emails, many long. This obviously makes Steve a customer service hero (and also possibly explains why he struggles to make a lot of money doing this). It’s worth noting that it also took up my time, so if you’re not up for that this process may not be for you. But I was game to get a little educated; it was part of my goal with a nicer system. I eventually stop faffing around and one weekend drive to pick up the system. Steve shows me how to install a graphics card and teaches me a number of extremely useful things about BIOS controls that I’m really glad to know. Again, if Steve-who-sells-computers is some kind of crook, he’s going to a lot of trouble to create an office space and real-world identity that both corroborates his larcenous cover narrative and makes him pretty easy to track down again. Which I’ve done repeatedly with several small questions, all of which were also immediately dealt with. When I thought the fan was a little noisy, Steve simply sent me a new one without my asking. 

Steve is an audio engineer who does this for some extra money, though to hear him tell it his margins are tight because he’s squeezed by supplier power on one side – as a very small scale retailer, he doesn’t get the components for much cheaper than I could – and competition from other custom builders. Looking at the cost of the components of the system, I think he’s being straight about that. The superiority of this experience to the one I had in mind initially – spending twice as much money for less computer loaded with bloatware and with limited support – has been completely revelatory. I don’t think I’ll ever go back.

Lesson #3: You can get nicer stuff than you would otherwise
Initially, I have trouble finding nice beds on CL. There is nothing nice, mostly pretty crappy Ikea beds for super-cheap. Then there’s another category of $1000+ very nice beds, but that’s not for me. I go to see a cheap Ikea bed being sold by a really sweet design student: it’s exactly the bed that my sister and I had agreed I should under no circumstances buy. But after trolling for five or six days, I find this bed. Again: nearby. Thanks to Range, I can pick it up myself. I pay $325 all in, which is more than I’d planned to spend on a bed but now I have a nice bed, which is a first. I just would’ve never bought a bed this nice new or even at retail used prices

Further and more importantly: yes, I had to drive and pick this up myself. But again that afforded me the chance to meet someone. Joseph and I chatted about his moving in with his girlfriend, my absolutely-not-moving-in with a girlfriend of any kind, some restaurant tips in West Hollywood and some guidance on good less-crowded beaches for surfing.

Lesson #4: Hold out for what feels right - sometimes you get really lucky
Chair: Some Kind of Upholstered Pneumatic Office Chair
I wanted a nice chair. I was talking to a broker; a guy who runs an online business that sells used office furniture through CL and other outlets. We were negotiating over this fancy office chair that sells for $800 or so new that he was selling for $250. I tried to get him to come down a little – everyone comes down a little on CL, sometimes more than a little – and he wouldn’t. He was weird about responding: delayed and elliptical and always all caps shouting. So the morning that I had sort of planned to go get the chair from him (but hadn’t yet heard from him to confirm), I took a quick look on CL. And less than 30 minutes later I was handing Hakim five dollars – FIVE DOLLARS – for a less fancy but very nice pneumatic adjustable office chair in great condition: clean, no scratches, no nothing. FIVE DOLLARS, for a chair that was a ten-minute drive away, from a dude whom I chatted with for ten minutes about my move and his favorite bars in Santa Monica.

Lesson #5: You can buy bikes with a clear conscience. But it’s hard.
I shared the common concern that I might be completing a market for stolen goods by buying on CL. The more I bought on CL, the more naïve this seemed. I definitely had a few interactions with people that seemed shady or off-rhythm. So I just dropped the communication and didn’t buy from them. I’m confident that, if anything, I was overly cautious and kyboshed transactions with some completely legitimate people.

But bikes were harder. I had been warned that they’d be harder, and they were. It was just the percentages: a much larger fraction of the posts seemed obviously shady, and I had many more off-kilter interactions. Including several with what I took to be obvious red flags: two sellers who disappeared entirely at requests for a serial number to check the bike against stolen bike registries, for instance. I had sort of given up, particularly because bikes are complicated toys and I don’t know much about mountain bikes. But I was lucky and had some help from awesome friends who kept trolling, so the happy if unexciting conclusion to this story is that once again CL delivers.

There is no way that Oleg and Marina stole these bikes. They invited me into their home. They had men’s and women’s bikes that fit each of them, and a new daughter and no time to use them. They commiserated with me about the fact that I had neither a wife nor a fiancé nor, no, not even a girlfirned who might be interested in buying the hers bike to match the his I was purchasing. Oleg laughed at me kindly when I offered my car keys for him to hold while I took the bike out for a test ride. They were just a married couple selling a bike, and my willingness to buy means that it got sold and means I got a really solid entry-level mountain bike for an approximately 50% discount.

I applaud you if transact on CL, and exhort you not to turn up your nose if you don’t. Be cautious and thoughtful and all of that, of course. But there’s good stuff. For cheap. I saved, by my estimate, around $2000. And you'll be part of a nice, sensible way of efficiently allocating unused stuff. It's a good marketplace! For me going forward, it’s always going to be the first stop.

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