The Audacity of Reasonable Expectations


The oven looked like an aquarium. The picture in the ad showed the oven in the kitchen, but at some point it had been moved outside so that it could get some rain. When I arrived, it was outside under a tarp from the late 70’s. It was more fishnet than tarp. When we pulled the tarp off, the oven was filled with water. The seller and I stared at the oven. There was no apology. And really, what should I expect for $50?  I should have been grateful that the lady hadn’t run the oven over with her car first.

The seller, in an effort to make things better, removed the drip pans to pour out the water, which only revealed the standing water below the drip pans. Frustrated, she went and got some towels to wipe the water up. I then opened the oven which revealed a small lake inside. There was a half an inch of standing water inside the oven somehow. I then noticed that the water had started to rust out the parts of the metal, screws and even the drip pans. It was at that point I told her I was going to pass on the oven.

The lady said nothing, but did give me a crazy smirk as if to say “what did you expect from a cheap oven?” I smiled as I picked up on my perceived audacity. I was to be grateful to the opportunity that this kind woman had bestowed upon me to purchase her waterlogged, rusted out oven that may or may not have even worked.

The Problem

Many sellers think that the only thing that matters is price. The reasoning goes something like this. “I need to sell my oven, but it has glaring defects and looks like a bird bath at the moment. I will lower the price to compensate for the defects, and I won’t say anything because the low price justifies hiding the defects from potential buyers.”

The problem with this approach is that it’s up to the buyer to decide which defects are acceptable, not the seller. A low price doesn’t justify hiding major defects that will usually cause most people to not want the item.

The Solution

Common sense. If you were giving the item to your mother, what would you tell her about it? Share that same information with prospective buyers. If you don’t, and a potential buyer comes and notices that there are fish swimming in the oven, apologize for not mentioning it, and possibly wasting a little bit of their life. Telling someone your oven was used as a rain catcher for the past week might save them a trip.

Parting advice

If you are inquiring about the condition of an item for sale on Craigslist, and the buyer starts giving you some attitude, or short, terse answers to your questions, it’s usually best to pass. They are obviously annoyed that you would actually care about the condition, and that’s not the person you want to be buying from.

The classic moment in the whole ordeal was when the lady went in to get the towels, my son Elijah turned to me and said “Dad, I don’t think we should buy it.” I didn’t think so either. So Elijah and I left and went and got coffee and a hot chocolate, inside where it was nice and dry.

Have you gone to buy an item only to discover it was hit by a car? Any other funny surprises? I’m sure you all have some great stories!

Have short questions for me? Send them to me via twitter @ryanfinlay


  1. Ryan,
    Just wondered what the woman’s ad stated that went along with the misrepresented photos. It’s tough when they put a picture of it from years before. I haven’t had too many problems with deceit like your story but I do know that cars and bikes always look so much better in the photos than they do when I see them in person.

    • It just said everything works great and that it was in great condition. It probably was in good condition before she moved it outside. She just failed to mention that she had been storing outside in the rain for a while.

  2. We just bought a car for $700. I tried talking him down to $600 for it because of an un-explained oil leak. I wish I had talked him down to $500 or walked away.

    The oil leak turned out to be a bad head gasket.

    Over the past 4 weeks we have replaced the water pump, timing belt and head gasket — and yesterday the slave cylinder on the clutch went out.

    I sometimes find it hard to listen to my gut when I’m looking at a potentially good deal. I really wish that I would’ve.

  3. One time I went to look at a washing machine, and when I got there it was sitting outside, so I took an extension cord out of my truck to test it out. After plugging it in and putting it on spin it didn’t do anything. Then the guy whacked it really hard, and it started going. He told me you gotta whack it but that it worked every time for them when they’d whack it. The advertisement failed to mention that, in fact, it said it worked well, and they didn’t want to lower the price because they had given their address out to a bunch of people who responded to the ad, and they were all driving over there. The same ad which failed to mention the required whacking for it to go. The machine also looked pretty bad so I passed haha.

    • Haha I really hate when I point out something broken on a machine like that only to have the seller say no because they have other people. Other people who most likely won’t catch the flaw. You leave wishing that you could warn potential buyers. That would be a great feature if Craigslist could come up with a way for it not to be abused.

      • Yeah, I know the feeling, I had a guy with a machine he said was five years old, when it was fifteen, and it spun weakly. I explained him what was wrong with it, showed him what was wrong and offered him a nominal amount…. he balked with the same reason you’ve been fed. Maybe if I see the same thing I’ll play innocent – ‘hey it seems kind of slow… how about I put a soaking wet towel in and see how well it spins the water out of it…’
        if he doesn’t consent or it comes out soaking wet and he still wants too much for it, you know and he knows you know he is a tool. It might be satisfying.
        Anyway I guess that is why we charge a premium… I don’t pay for junk, and I don’t resell junk and 90% of the time we can tell the difference. It really is a great service.

        It was a cold winter and I had several people with frozen machines in their garage or outside. Thawing
        them out they all worked fine, but there is the chance that it has damaged the pump and it fails down the road… I dunno. I admit I knocked the price down over this and resold. Is the machine compromised? At least I see if it thawed out and still worked. Maybe I’m a bad person too…

        I have an idea I am looking at with regard to testing dryers. Dryer motors and timers will still run on one half of 220/240V. I found this out when someone complained to me their dryer wasn’t heating. I knew it heated at my house, so I looked up possible causes before I checked it out. Anyway on youtube I saw a video where the problem was a faulty connection to the outlet. Sure enough there was no power on one side of the outlet. Blown fuse on the house’s panel. Replaced the fuse and it was fine. I’ve had the same complaint with the same fix come up again too – diagnosing a problem correctly by text message makes me feel like a wizard 🙂 Anyways It should be possible to rig up a cord that will plug into a standard outlet and let you see if the thing spins well, and if the timer goes well, even if a proper dryer outlet isn’t easily available. I haven’t confirmed if this will work with all dryers but even if it works with whirlpools i think it will make things a lot easier.

        Cheers Ryan, you’ve helped me tremendously with this business. My customers have always been so happy it’s a real breath of fresh air selling a machine1!

        • I think you might be onto something! I’ve seen the same thing multiple times, only 110v coming to the machine, machine would run but no heat. Let me know if it actually works. I’ve thought about trying it a number of times.

          Sounds like you are doing great Tom. Glad to be of help!

  4. Good story! This scenario has happened at least once to any Craigslister who has been buying/selling for a while. I hate the let-down moments when you decide not to buy because the item you’re looking at is junk/broken/misrepresented in the ad. At the same time, I’ve had a few instances where I’ve taken advantage of seemingly no-go situations.

    One time in my early bike buying days, I was interested in this dirt jumper an hour away. The seller couldn’t communicate by phone but was very detailed in his emails. The pictures in the ad were a little blurry but the guy said he built it up recently and never had time to ride; apparently it was just sitting in his shed. He had it listed for $400. A few days into my communication with the guy, he told me he pulled it out of his shed and found some rust on the axle nuts, and said “with the rust I know I can’t sell it for $400… I will drop it to $300.” A few days later I decided to go check it out anyway. The bike was immaculate, and the rust was so insignificant and only on the axle nuts ($1 part at any bike shop) that I couldn’t believe the price was dropped at all. I bought it for $300 and after riding it for half a year, sold it for $520 (without even replacing the nuts).

    Could I have gone with my gut and assumed the word “rust” meant the entire bike was worthless? Sure. Could I have passed up because the pictures in the listing were kind of blurry? Of course. But I randomly decided to go for it, and I eventually came out on top. I only wish all these scenarios ended up so well!

    • That’s a cool story. I would say that if someone says a little rust, it tends to be a bit more than a little 🙂 There are always going to be exceptions. Glad this was one of them for you!

  5. I try to ask as many questions as possible, before I make the trip, but I have been “bamboozled” a couple of times on CL. I have no problem saying no, and the old adage applies: “If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

    Sometime you can find a hidden diamond (or diamond in the rough); Sometimes it is just a waste of time and gas.


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