Michelle Howard was skeptical when a friend suggested she search the Internet for a free computer for her daughter.
But within a week, she found a used and fully functioning Toshiba laptop she didn't have to pay for.
"So I said, okay, I'm hooked," recalled Howard, 38, of St. Petersburg.
Now she has furnished one of her three daughters' rooms through freecycle.org, a Web site where people give and receive things for free. She loves the laptop, but says her favorite Freecycle memory is the time she gave a Little Tykes Cozy Cottage toddler bed to a woman raising her grandchild.
"To see the look on her face, she couldn't believe that somebody would actually give her something of this magnitude free. It was awesome."
There's a booming Internet trade in the Tampa Bay area for free stuff. People are giving away boats, televisions, toilets, refrigerators, kittens, baby clothes, half-full cans of paint, used People magazines, unused coupons, even dirt.
Freecycle, craigslist.org and other sites have made it easy to give your old stuff to people who need it, and sort through others' cast-offs yourself. Together, these sites amount to a vast online flea market with plenty of trash, occasional treasures, and much that falls in between.
For some, these no-cost transactions are matters of convenience — people give away an old couch so they don't have to cart it off themselves. For others, it's a kind of environmentalism — sending the couch to someone else's living room is much better then interring it in a landfill. For still others, it's a way to survive a tough economy.
But for many, these sites are the 2008 equivalent of your mother asking her neighbor for a cup of sugar.
"It's a community of people that are using the local resources to give what you're no longer using," said Leace Hughes, 43, of Safety Harbor, who uses Freecycle to help provide for her daughter and granddaughter and who also gives things away.
"I once gave away a camera to a young teen who was going on her first trip abroad," said St. Petersburg freecycler Jack Schramm. After discussing some of his own world journeys, Schramm felt he had helped instilled a love of travel and photography in a new generation.
People sell all manner of things on craigslist.org, from real estate to erotic services. But the site also features a free section where Tampa Bay residents give away myriad things. Last week featured one or two dozen offerings a day including: inkjet printers, firewood, tadpoles, a bicycle with a broken frame, baby cereal, a Christmas tree and composted horse manure. People even mail each other coupons.
Freecycle, on the other hand, is all free. It began in Tucson, Ariz., expressly for the purpose of keeping usable furniture, appliances and other goods out of landfills. It boasts more than 12,000 members in Tampa, more than 5,000 in St. Petersburg and nearly 3,000 in New Port Richey.
It may be virtuous to recycle your cardboard moving boxes. But Schramm says it's even better to let someone else use them before they get recycled, because "that is energy that does not have to go into producing boxes."
And that's why Jennifer Varela of Dunedin posted a notice recently on Craigslist about some romance magazines she had finished. Someone came by quickly to pick them up. "It's a form of recycling. At least it made it to another person," she said.
In some cases, it's a race to beat the garbage man: People post "curb alerts" about usable furniture, bicycles or other things they put out before trash day.
Some exchanges like this pre-date the Internet. For, example, the St. Petersburg Times' "Reader Exchange," printed Saturdays in the BayLink section, connects readers with items they are seeking or want to give away. And think of the family with older children in your church, synagogue or neighborhood who gives a bag of children's clothes every year to a family with younger kids.
But the Internet is making it easier to give.
Hughes, the Safety Harbor woman, said she has started using Freecycle to give away old furniture, as well as clothing her daughter doesn't wear anymore. She has learned it's okay to give away things that aren't perfect, as long as you are honest about the defects.
"There are people out there that don't have a couch at all," Hughes said. "So if you have one and there are a couple of tears on it, it'll still be … better than nothing."
Some are quite happy to pick up broken or dated items, in hopes of making a few dollars. Ed Dehart, 52, of Tarpon Springs, said he is disabled after a bout with cancer of the esophagus. He uses Web sites for something to do and to make a few dollars. Last week he got 10 computer monitors from a company called Bell LLC in Tampa, which had just upgraded. By the end of the week he had traded those to someone for six computer processors, which he planned to assemble into usable desktop computers that he could sell or give away.
"There are people on there that need computers for their kids and things, and we'll do that too," he said.
Because these transactions often involve going to someone else's home, some frequent users recommended a few safety precautions. But most said they haven't had troubles.
"I just offered some children's clothes recently of different sizes and one of the ladies that responded to my post turned out to be a neighbor that I had never met," Hughes said. "She lives in the same apartment complex."