What do a boat plumber, a Hungarian handyman and neighbors who jokingly call themselves Sister Wives have in common? They are just a few of the delightful people I encountered buying used furniture on Craigslist in Florida this winter.
There is a lot of negative press about Craigslist, but I have this attitude: If I am cautious and exercise common sense, it is possible not only to get great bargains but also connect with good people I otherwise never would meet.
As my decorating style is eclectic, I've always preferred old furniture to new. I have a few nice antique pieces handed down through the family, but I've also trolled yard sales and resale shops to furnish our home in Forest Hills.
Almost 25 years ago, I bought a retro coffee table and two matching end tables at Goodwill for $80. No one in my family particularly liked these pieces, so I stored them in the attic all this time. Now they are called "mid-century modern" and are actually collectible -- and I have a place to use them.
Going south for the winter
Winters in Pittsburgh have become very challenging for me. Not that they haven't been hard for everyone lately, but over the past several years, I have become more and more intolerant of the cold. I have a medical condition called Raynaud's phenomenon that makes my fingers and toes turn blue when I get chilled.
A few years ago, I became a seasonal renter at a development in Sarasota, Fla., called Pelican Cove. It's a gem of a community with many of the same features as my Forest Hills neighborhood -- especially natural beauty and great sense of community.
One thing led to another, and last March, my husband and I bought a condo there. The housing market in Florida was still quite depressed a year ago, and the place was a great deal -- so buying a second home became an option that I hadn't thought possible.
The empty condo also presented a great opportunity to make use of the furniture languishing in the attic. But how to get it to Florida -- along with some boxes of household goods -- without a lot of expense? I had enough to fill a small truck but not enough to hire a moving company or rent a U-Haul.
I previously had luck disposing of old furniture on Craigslist, so I posted an ad on the Pittsburgh site: "Can U drive my stuff to Florida?" When that didn't get much of a response, I placed an ad on Craigslist Sarasota and asked: "Driving home for the holidays?" I got a bite!
Ministering to travelers: Santiago and Kari
Santiago and Kari were driving from Florida to Grand Rapids, Mich., just after New Year's to visit family. After multiple emails, texts and phone calls, we worked out an agreement whereby they would drive their van through Pittsburgh, pick up my stuff and take it to Sarasota on their way home.
I had a good feeling about these folks. Santiago sounded really nice on the phone, and whenever I called, they either were coming from church or on their way there.
As it turns out, Santiago and Kari are evangelical Christians who recently moved to Sarasota from San Diego, where they founded a street ministry for homeless people. Although Santiago's work in the heating and air-conditioning business brought them to Florida, they are, they said, "not interested in pursuing the American dream" but seeking new ways to minister to those in need.
Besides driving my stuff from Pittsburgh, the couple offered their services on the Rideshare section of Craigslist. "We originally were just planning to take things," said Kari, "but we saw this as an opportunity to help people get where they needed to go."
They made a particularly meaningful connection with a street performer they drove from Florida to North Carolina for cancer treatments. (She gave Kari a hula hoop as a memento of the trip.)
The pristine sofa: George and Wanda
George and Wanda recently downsized to a smaller home in North Sarasota and decided that their furniture was too big for the new space. The beautiful sage-green sofa they were selling on Craigslist for $275 would go perfectly with my living room walls that are -- my good fortune! -- a complementary shade of light green. With no discernible wear, the sofa had been in the possession of two individuals who are neat as a pin. No kids, no pets, no smoking = my gain.
They had other stuff for sale, so I snapped up a chair and two wrought-iron lamps. George said he had been to Pelican Cove the week before to work on someone's boat in the harbor. He is a self-employed boat plumber, a profession I never knew existed. He has a van but was unable to help me transport the sofa because it was filled with his plumbing tools.
Getting the sofa home: Dan and Eric
Fortunately, I had seen an ad on the Pelican Cove bulletin board placed there by my neighbor, Dan, whom I had never met. The ad said: "I have a truck. I will pick up your couch or other furniture and deliver it to Goodwill at no charge."
Hmmm ... So I called Dan and asked whether I could hire him to transport my sofa. It turns out that I had met his wife, Pauline, and their dog, Bailey, while walking my dog the day before, so he already considered me a friend. He did not want any money, just my support for a condo association referendum that would allow residents to park small trucks overnight in front of their units.
Currently, Dan has to move his truck to the employee parking lot every night by 10 and retrieve it by 6:30 the next morning. He wishes he could sleep in "just once in a while." When my proxy form for an upcoming board meeting arrived in the mail, I checked "Yes" on the truck issue. I felt good about doing my civic duty -- and helping my neighbor get some better-quality sleep.
After picking up the sofa on a Sunday afternoon, Dan and I were met back at Pelican Cove by my four-doors-down neighbor, Eric, who is from Washington, Pa. He and Dan carried the sofa up the steep stairs to my second-story condo and through the door with about an eighth of an inch to spare.
Going back to Hungary: Robert
I answered Robert's ad for an Ikea table, four chairs and bookshelf -- all for $100 -- that I wanted to use for a ceramics work space on the screened porch. To my surprise, he delivered the furniture in its unassembled Ikea state (that is, in about 30 parts).
Robert handed me a clear plastic bag with many different-sized screws and bolts and started instructing me on what went where: "These are for the backs of the chairs, these are for under the table ..." I guess he saw my panicked look, so he agreed to come back and put it all together for $20.
While he did the assembling on the living room floor, Robert told me that he and his new wife, Criztina, would be returning in a few weeks to their native Budapest, Hungary. Robert, a handyman, had lived in Sarasota for 15 years. Criztina recently came over to live with him, and he had an apartment with the IKEA furniture all ready for her. But she didn't like it here.
Robert's previous marriage ended in divorce. "I didn't understand the American woman," he said. "Well," I replied, "neither does the American man." We laughed.
The lovebirds: Claire and Kevin
Claire listed a "like-new" Ikea desk for $60 that I bought sight unseen after seeing the photo on Craigslist.
We had several emails back and forth about whether I could pick up the desk in my Subaru Forester. Her: "My boyfriend, Kevin, says we have the exact same car and no way it will fit, assembled, or unassembled." Me: "I re-measured the car, and I'm sure it will fit." Her: "I re-measured the desk, and I think you're right. Come on over."
When I showed up, Kevin looked back and forth from the car to the desk, the desk to the car, and insisted it wouldn't fit. Of course, it slid right in. Claire and I had a wink, wink, "I-told-you-so" moment, and she slapped Kevin down with, "The girls had it covered."
She then lowered the price by $20. "But honey," whined Kevin, "I spent so much time putting it together." She kissed him on the cheek and said, "I know, sweetie, but it would have just gone to Goodwill." While the lovebirds cuddled and bantered, I whipped out my $40 and beat it out of there.
Making moves easier: Dennis and Ron
"Gorgeous 3 pc dresser," read the Craigslist ad. It caught my eye because the 102-inch-wide dresser came apart into three sections that would be easy to get into the condo. It was kind of old-fashioned looking, but I had some special paint for making dowdy furniture look "shabby chic" and thought I would give it a try.
Dennis, a retired interior designer from New York, and Ron, who owned a gift and floral shop in Philadelphia, are partners in a niche business called Transitions. They run estate sales in the Sarasota area and help people scale down their possessions when they move to smaller apartments or assisted-living facilities.
The men are on a mission to de-stress the downsizing experience. Prior to the move, they visit the new residence and map out where all of the furniture will go. "That way," said Dennis, "they don't take a 92-inch sofa for a 72-inch wall."
The dining room set: Shirley, Millie, Judy and Jim
Four couples, all friends and neighbors on the same street in Auburn, Calif., followed each other to Florida and bought winter vacation homes on the same dead-end street in Venice. "Kind of like Sister Wives," quipped Shirley. Four of the friends love to buy old furniture and fix it up, so this has become their retirement hobby.
The round table and four chairs were in the driveway, and before my friend Louise and I got out of the car, I could tell the set would be perfect for my small dining area. Jim had done a great paint job on the set, and Millie had reupholstered the chairs in a nice neutral print.
Shirley was the negotiator, and I offered her $175 -- down a good bit from the $275 price posted on Craigslist. She countered at $195, and we had a deal. Plus, she delivered the furniture the next morning at no extra charge. I gave her a ceramic bowl I made as a "thank you" -- and we both thought it was a win-win.
ISO wicker: Greg
While on the hunt for a wicker love seat and table advertised by Greg, my GPS sent Louise and me to a waterfront mansion in Venice instead of Greg's condo down the street. The mansion's exquisitely carved wooden door swung open, and we were met with a blank stare when Louise asked the owner, "Are you selling the wicker?"
While the nice lady stood in the doorway and tried to point me in the right direction, Louise craned her neck to view the sunset on the Gulf of Mexico, clearly visible through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the back of the house. "You have a beautiful home," she gushed, half-hoping, she later admitted, to be invited in for a glass of wine.
We called Greg, and he came out on the street to wave us down. If I had any concerns about going into a stranger's condo, they were quickly quelled. It was difficult to picture 75-ish Greg as an ax murderer in his tassel loafers, khaki shorts and crisp T-shirt with rows of golf clubs printed on the front.
Greg assured us that his wife, Laura, at home in Connecticut, bought "only the best" -- and the wicker did, indeed, look to be in perfect condition. We started to load the pieces into my car, and I joked that if they wouldn't fit, I might have to leave Louise behind and come back later to pick her up. Greg thought that was a great idea -- ha ha -- but Louise said her husband wouldn't approve -- ha ha -- so that conversation came to a screeching halt.
The wicker did fit in the car, and Louise and I laughed all the way back to Pelican Cove ... about preppy Greg, the mystified woman in the mansion and Shirley and the Sister Wives. Craigslist provided me not only with lots of nice, cheap furniture but many new friends and experiences along the way.
Jane Freund (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a freelance writer, photographer and ceramic artist from Forest Hills.