Lately the use of Craigslist has been to find housing or furniture in the Washington D.C. area. To this end, I believe Craigslist is the most effective means of searching; effectiveness is measured by the time, relevance, and number of responses received. For a cash-strapped young professional, the ability to search for local deals while restricting prices shown is extremely well-received. (I have no objections to buying second hand for the right items -- which probably is not the case with everyone.)
Amongst examples of my success with Craigslist:
- Finding housing for much lower than market value. Although the housing I found is shared with strangers, it has worked out well for my needs. For instance, I currently pay $450 a month for a room in a 4-bedroom apartment in Arlington VA...all utilities and internet included. It's not within walking distance to a metro station but good enough for me.
- Acquiring matching bedroom furniture for about $200 altogether. I purchased mostly Ikea furniture: queen bed frame ($60), desk ($25), book shelf ($10), dresser ($20), and a nightstand/cabinet (free). The most expensive acquisition was the mattress, which I purchased for $100 (for a Simmons Beautyrest Classic). I'm still a little bummed about the latter but it wasn't a bad deal in hindsight.
The biggest downsides to purchasing on Craigslist are (1) time taken to search, (2) possibility of scams, and (3) transportation to pickup items.
The first is perhaps the biggest obstacle: unless one has vast amounts of free time to search out desired items, one isn't going to find good deals. Time accounts for the amount spent on search, correspondence with seller, and time taken to actually go through with the transaction. In retrospect, I have spent more than the optimal amount of time on Craigslist looking for things to purchase. The "Free" section in particular sucks time away like no one else's business -- due to the fact that people are giving away things for free. Every now and then, the "free" item can be quite valuable.
Secondly, there are scams present throughout Craigslist. It is everywhere from jobs, to housing, to sale of items. My personal experience has been with housing. When I started looking for housing, I initially came across a listing for a 1-bedroom apartment in Arlington VA for about $900. (For those unfamiliar with housing prices in Arlington, a 1-bedroom located within walking distance to the metro costs at least $1300 per month). What's more, the ad said utilities and internet were all included! After a few email exchanges with the poster, who claimed to be a disabled wife of a international volunteer intending to rent out their apartment, I became skeptical because I was told to wire a deposit before I could see the apartment. I almost bit since the deal seemed almost too good to be true. Ultimately, I realized the scam after looking up the destination of the wire transfer: Western Union, a bank notorious for the so-called Nigerian scams. There was another instance of a possible scam, but I was wiser this second time. Lesson learned: always inspect the place before making any decisions.
Thirdly, one has to have at least a car to purchase items from Craigslist. While public transportation is possible, it is both unreliable and unwieldy if the desired item is sizable. This is especially true of furniture pieces like futon, tables, or couches. One of the reasons most of the furniture I brought were Ikea was because they could be broken down (still took me a number of trips to transport everything). Now, my Honda Civic pleasantly surprised me of its ability to fit large items (e.g. A QUEEN SIZED MATTRESS) but I recommend a larger vehicle. This means that if you don't own or know someone who owns a truck or a van, it will add additional transportation cost.
I personally recommend Craigslist for things like furniture, because it can be purchased at least half of retail price while still in very good condition. This is particularly true of tools -- less true for things you come into daily contact with, e.g. a mattress. Think of it as a means to protect the environment too.