Craigslist is a great resource for scoring local deals but only if you’re adept at using it. Today we’re taking a look at tips and  tools you can use to go from being a casual Craigslist user to a deal-scoring ninja.

Photo by Beatrice Murch.

You can save huge amounts of money by using Craigslist to score local deals. The site, however, is super Spartan and doesn’t lend itself to easy power use. Armed with the right tools, however, you can cull the simple text listings of Craigslist to find awesome deals. Read on to learn more.

A Brief History of Craigslist and Some Safe Shopping Tips

Although eBay is often lauded as being something akin to a giant garage sale, in reality Craigslist is quite a bit closer. For the unfamiliar Craigslist is a simple classified web site that began, way back in 1995, as an email distribution list created by Craig Newmark  to service the Bay Area. A year later he created a web site to centralize the listings. Since then it has grown quite a bit, but has changed very little in appearance since the early days. Craigslist is a hyper-local classified system where in people can list goods and services for sale, personal ads, job listings, apartment rentals, and more. Anything you might find in a traditional newspaper classified section (and then some!) can be found on Craigslist. We’re framing the following tools in light of you wanting to search for deals on physical goods; in most cases, though, you can just as easily adept them for rental listings or other Craigslist postings.

Unlike more traditional newspaper listings Craigslist is, essentially, totally unregulated. The community self-polices by flagging problem entries (scams, illegal listings), but for the most part it’s a buyer-beware market. Staying safe and not getting ripped off is pretty easy, however, if you follow some common sense guidelines.

If it’s too good to be true, it probably is (and it’s probably stolen). People selling $100 iPads are either selling stolen iPads or they want to club you with a tire iron and take your $100 (or both). Don’t meet potential sellers on Skid Row at 2 AM. Unless the person is selling an item that can’t easily be brought to a public place (like a hot tub currently attached to their deck), avoid going to their home. If a situation seems like it’ll end up with you getting robbed, it probably will and you should reconsider. Always be prepared to walk away from a deal; if a guy said the used bike was $200 and when you show up he insists it was actually $300, hit the road. You can read more tips directly from Craigslist in their avoiding scams and personal safety sections.

Finding the Loot

A brief history and some safety tips aside, it’s time to find some loot. Craigslist is packed with loot. Even the small metropolitan Craiglists have so much stuff: electronics, tools, bikes, car listings, furniture, musical instruments, and more. It’s free to list things so people have very little reason to avoid listing anything and everything they want to offload for cash.

The basic Craigslist interface isn’t the greatest for finding things quickly, however. You’ll spend a lot of time reading links and a lot of time clicking through them to get additional information. If you’re trying to keep an eye on multiple areas of interest on Craigslist, especially if you’re trying to look at multiple local Craigslists, you’ll get frustrated pretty quickly. Craigslist was designed for simple listings not for complex searching and tracking.

Fortunately various developers have jumped in to create a Craigslist experience that the base system doesn’t provide. The first thing you want to do is to supercharge your search experience. If you’re trying to keep an aggressive eye on collectible cards, vintage bikes, iPads, or game consoles you’re going to need to go beyond simple manual searches. You want one of at least three things in your Craigslist search tool: better access to photo listings, cross-Craigslist site searches, and—ideally although not all search tools have it—some notification method. Let’s take a look at some some of the power user tools you’ll want to put in your deal-hunting tool kit.

Search Tempest: Search Tempest—seen in the screenshot above—offers a plethora of handy Craigslist search tools. You plug in a zip code, some keywords, and a search radius and it will search all the Craigslists that fall within that search radius. You can then check through the listings for not just the most local listing but for all listings that fall within your search radius. You can toggle on image thumbnails—with mouse-over enlarging–and mashup your searches against a map to see how far you’ll be driving to get the loot. You can also set up RSS feeds for any of the custom searches you create.

Crazed List: If you want to search multiple Craigslists but not necessarily limited by a perfect radius, Crazed List allows you to cherry pick just those USA and  global locations you want to use. This is handy if the geography of your locale makes a perfect “200 miles from here” radial search impractical or if you’d like to search locations where a friend or relative of yours can pick up the item on your behalf. In addition you can set a minimum and maximum price window. You can either search on Crazed List or use Crazed List to generate RSS feeds for your searches in your target locales. The only down side to Crazed List is that you need to use a web browser, such as Firefox, which allows you to disable referrers (this limitation applies only to the web-based search, not to the generation of RSS feeds).

CraigQuery: Similar to Crazed List, CraigQuery searches multiple Craigslists from around the USA. Unlike Crazed List you don’t have to do any mucking about in your About:Config browser file to gain the full functionality of the site. You can select multiple regions, search by keyword and set a minimum and maximum price window. CraigQuery automatically thumbnails listings with images.

Craigstoolbox: Available for both Firefox and Chrome, Craigstoolbox is a tiered-price extension. The free basic package offers enhancements to the Craigslist experience such as 15 inline images per search and a favorites system, the $9.99/year version adds in unlimited inline images and Carfax and AutoCheck integration, and the $19.99/year version adds on to that with SMS and email notification tools. You can achieve the same functionality offered in Craigstoolbox for free by cobbling together additional tools but if you want an all-in-one solution, it might be worth the premium.

Typo Buddy: Typo Buddy is a one trick pony, but it’s a handy trick to have in your deal hunting toolkit. Typo Buddy searches Craigslist (and eBay too) for variations on your search term—typos. If somebody puts a listing on Craigslist for a “playstaytion”, for example, nobody searching for “playstation” will find it. If you search your local Craigslist with Typo Buddy, however, it will plug in variations of PlayStation like “playsation”, “playstaytion”, and “playstaion”. No, we didn’t need to try very had to think of those variations, those are all typos from our local Craigslist that Typo Buddy found.

CraigsEasy: CraigsEasy is a free bookmarklet designed to enhance your on-site Craigslist searches. When you’re looking at the search results on your local Craigslist you can simply hit the “Easy” bookmarklet from CraigsEasy to convert the search listings into an image gallery. It’s fast and resistant to being shut down by Craigslist as it’s just a bookmarklet that acts upon the search results you’ve already loaded up.

Setting Up Loot Notifications

Having good search mojo is only half the Craigslist battle. The other half is beating the rest of the deal hounds to the punch. Most people list stuff on Craigslist because they want to get rid of it and make a buck or two in the process. If you can get to them first and make them a decent offer, you can have the loot in your hands before the suckers you beat out have even sat down after work to check Craigslist. The faster you respond the more likely the person is to say yes to your offer, the faster they say yes the faster you can get the item, and the faster you get the item the less chance they have to wait for better offers and turn you down when somebody else offers more money.

Photo by Johan Larsson.

There are three common ways you can receive notifications: email, SMS, and RSS. Which one you select is dependent on what kind of setup you spend most of your day with. If you have a smart phone with automatic email updates, email is a handy and information rich solution. If you have an older phone you might be stuck with SMS updates only. RSS feeds are also a viable choice for smart phones with an RSS reader—this would be a great time to use the new widget feature in Google Reader for Android. If you’re at a desk all day you can, of course, use email or RSS just as effectively; mobile solutions are superior, however,  if you really want to stay totally on top of listings. One thing to keep in mind, even if you find an email-only solution you can always set it up to email your phone using cell-provider email gateways.

Previously mentioned Search Tempest and Crazed List support custom RSS searches. It’s worth noting that Craigslist has native RSS support, but third party search tools usually make it easier to grab RSS feeds for multiple custom searchers. The pay version of Craigstoolbox supports both email and SMS notifications.

In addition to the aforementioned solutions, you can set up notifications using the following tools:

HEYCRAIG: HEYCRAIG is a simple search-to-email notification tool. Visit the site, plug in your search terms, your email, and the city you want to actively search in, and HEYCRAIG will send you an email every time a match for your search terms is listed on that local Craigslist.

NotiFinder: Like HEYCRAIG, it enables email notifications. Unlike HEYCRAIG, it supports variables like which category you want to search, minimum and maximum price, and how often you want to be notified (instantly, daily, weekly).

CraigsNotifica: A free Android-based solution that actively monitor Craigslist with custom search parameters and than alerts you via audible ring, vibration,  and/or flashing LEDs when a match is found.

CraigsPro+: For iOS users, CraigsPro is an inexpensive ($1.99) solution that makes searching Craigslist and setting up notifications a breeze. Custom searches can be converted into search agents with customized notifications (sound, vibration, and push-style icon updates).

Armed with the above tools to provide blanket coverage via email, SMS—remember to use the email-to-SMS trick if need be—and RSS, you’ll be first in line to respond to new Craigslist postings. Even if you don’t end up scoring every deal that the notifications alert you to you still benefit—because you’ve got an active eye on the price of things in your area you’ll become better at spotting excellent deals and making offers that will be accepted quickly.

Have a tip, trick, or tool for scoring deals on Craigslist that we didn’t cover here? Let’s hear about it in the comments.


Profile Photo for Jason Fitzpatrick Jason Fitzpatrick
Jason Fitzpatrick is the Senior Smart Home Editor at How-To Geek. He has over a decade of experience in publishing and has authored thousands of articles at How-To Geek, Review Geek, LifeSavvy, and Lifehacker. Jason served as Lifehacker's Weekend Editor before he joined How-To Geek.
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