This is the first part of a two-part article about the wisdom (or lack thereof!) of buying used gear rather than new gear. Please also see the second part of our article that specifically looks at considerations to do with buying used electronics.
So there you are, browsing through eBay or the local Craigslist; maybe you’re walking through a second-hand store or at a garage sale, but somehow, you find yourself looking at a tempting bargain. Should you buy it?
Or maybe, instead, you’ve simply decided that the best way to make your dollars go further is to buy as much used gear as possible. You already know that a used car that has dropped in price down to one-quarter of new can still have many years and tens of thousands of miles of good life in it – surely the same is true of electronics, too?
Well, yes and no. There are several things to consider when looking at buying used electronics such as radio gear, computers, and pretty much all other ‘gadgets’.
The first surprising point is that while some electronic items drop in price very quickly, others do not. A 5 – 10 year old computer – well, that’s probably going to be available at pennies on the dollar. But a 5 – 10 year old radio transceiver? Not so much.
Indeed, something as old as a 15 or 20 year old radio might still be selling for a high percentage not only of its original price but of what you’d pay for comparable gear, new, today.
There’s an interesting implication of this, and the answer is perhaps not what you’d expect. If a radio still costs 50% of more of its new price when it is 15 – 20 years old, does that mean that it still has half its life to go? Does this suggest that radio gear has a 30 – 40 year life?
Another consideration that is increasingly becoming relevant – with the growing availability of low-priced Chinese gear, you sometimes find yourself with a choice between a ‘brand name’ product (ie primarily the big three Japanese brands – Icom, Yaesu and Kenwood) that sells new for perhaps $750, which sells if 15 years old for, say, $500, or a brand new Chinese product with similar capabilities, for $250. How does it make sense to consider the $500 item when the brand new name brand item, several models newer and ‘better’ is not very much more, and a similar and possibly better new Chinese product is half the price?
Plus, whereas used cars have a number of different services that publish valuations to help you understand if you’re getting a good value or not, there’s nothing comparable for used electronics. This of course works both ways – maybe you’re getting a tremendous value, but maybe you’re being offered something shamefully overpriced.
Age vs State of the Art vs Fashion vs Value
Some things have technological obsolescence long before they actually wear out. Computers and cell phones are good examples of this, although both product lines seem to be ‘maxing out’ and we’re all buying computers and phones less regularly than we used to. But, do you really want to buy a ten-year old computer at any price? Do you really want it with an old-fashioned CRT VGA monitor, some sort of Pentium processor, a mere 1 GB or so of disk, and so on?
We suggest that this is false economy and not a good choice. Remember, after TEOTWAWKI, there isn’t going to be a repair store to go to, there aren’t going to be online help forums, and there won’t be spare parts.
We might buy a ten-year old refrigerator or vehicle, but no way would we buy a ten-year old computer. We wouldn’t even accept one, for free. With many electronic items, the ‘state of the art’ has changed so much as to make the older product truly obsolete, and useless at any price. It isn’t even useful for spare parts. What use is incompatible memory; an old and power-hungry screen with such low resolution as to be useless, a hard drive with an out-of-date interface, etc?
The trap in that scenario is buying something that is very inexpensive, but also very useless.
Sometimes the latest ‘state-of-the-art’ features truly are valuable and worth paying extra for. Before you settle for something ten or more years out of date, make sure you know what you’re missing out on. And even seemingly ‘old fashioned’ technologies like radio transmitters and receivers are changing (quite drastically due to digitization) and with much/most electronic gear, the newer model with newer features can truly be worth paying extra for.
Another factor that encourages faster replacement than is indicated by simple measurement of things wearing out is fashion. Mercifully this afflicts women more than men (such as me!), but marketeers even try to encourage us to change our clothing long before it is worn out. Wide lapels or short. Bell-bottom flared trousers or straight/narrow/skinny. And so on. ‘This season’s colors’ – gack! Cars used to be sold on an annual model refresh cycle, that has slowed down a bit too, but generally we all buy clothing – and probably cars too – long before the economic and effective life of the item we are replacing has expired.
The opportunity in that scenario is buying something that still has a lot of good working life left, and which has been valued lower than it is worth simply because it isn’t fashionable.
Opportunistic Buying – Yes or No?
By nature, many of us preppers are acquisitive and tend to eagerly accept anything we can get, particularly if it is free. Anything we have space to store and which might possibly be of some value in the future seems like a no-brainer to accept – no downside to taking it, and who knows what upside, right?
We don’t entirely disagree with that concept, and if you saw the cartons and closets full of junk we have, clearly we’re as bad as anyone else! We laugh at fashion – we just dig far enough back in our closet to find clothing that matches the ‘new’ fashion but from the previous time it was in fashion.
But there is a danger, if/when you buy opportunistically, that you start confusing irrelevant actions with important results. Which is better : To have a double garage you can no longer drive either car into because it is full of old junk that you’ll never actually use, even in an extreme Level 3 situation? Or to have just a couple of cartons of essential items that you will use and need, for sure? To buy $1000 worth of junk that maybe is worth much more if you ever have a need for it, but then to lack the money to buy a $1000 item that you will definitely for sure need?
The garage full of junk obscures the fact you might be missing some essential items. And your ability to repurpose the junk in your garage will also be reduced after TSHTF, because you can’t just go to the local hardware store or wherever/whatever to get an extra piece of two of stuff to modify/repair/adapt the junk item to a practical purpose.
You’ll also have very much less spare time; you’ll need to focus your time on productive essential tasks, and the same will be true of your friends and neighbors (and, excuse us for saying this, but who knows how many of them will survive through the stressful times and still be available as resources for you to turn to).
A useless thing is a useless thing, no matter how little you pay for it.
Why is it Being Sold?
If you like hearing lies, ask any seller of anything ‘Why are you selling this?’.
Now sometimes you don’t need to ask the question, because the answer is sadly obvious. The item is little better than junk (at least in the seller’s mind); maybe it doesn’t work, maybe the seller doesn’t even know what it is, or maybe it is no longer needed (eg a baby’s crib). You see a lot of that sort of stuff at garage sales.
But when you’re looking at higher value items that apparently still have value and life left in them, it is a question to ask, even if the answer is meaningless.
Nine times out of ten, the answer will be a lie, and the tenth time, it will probably be an obscured truth. For example, if the seller says ‘I got the newer model’, then the obscured truth might be ‘This one failed and I had to replace it’.
If you think about yourself, two things are probably usually true. You only replace things when you uncover limitations or problems with them, and you generally keep things that are working well, even if you buy additional or replacement units. You’re not alone in this approach – many other people do exactly the same, and only sell items when they absolutely for sure have no remaining value, or when something bad has happened to them.
So, know this : There’s almost always a ‘bad’ reason why anyone is selling anything. You may or may not uncover that reason, but expect there to be one.
There are additional lies that specifically relate to electronic gear being sold. For example, ‘it has a nearly new battery’ and ‘it hasn’t been used much’. Unless you see a new battery still sealed in its original packing and with a recent manufacturing date stamped on it, you probably should plan on replacing the battery (or at least buying a new one as spare). The same goes for ‘I’ve just replaced all the tubes’ – unless you can test the tubes, consider them all as near the end of their life – and even if the tubes were recently replaced, you don’t know how much remaining life there is in the new tubes.
Some people might also tell you it has recently been ‘re-capped’ – that all the electrolytic capacitors have been replaced. Ask to look inside the unit and see for yourself – do they look new or old? Is the soldering fresh and bright, or older and duller, like everything else? Has every electrolytic been replaced, or just the ‘easy to get at’ ones?
You might also been told ‘it has just been serviced by an authorized dealer’ – only accept that claim if you see the invoice and perhaps, if it is a high value item, you’ll even want to call the dealer and confirm that the work order was to ‘check/overhaul everything and make the unit in perfect like-new order’ and see if the dealer has any notes about issues they found and weren’t authorized to repair. Just because you see a $200 invoice that says ‘repair item’ doesn’t mean that every fault with the item was repaired, or that the repair used new replacement parts, etc.
One more lie that some people can tell with a straight face – ‘I haven’t used it for a while, but last time I did it worked perfectly’. If it can’t be fully operated and demonstrated to you prior to you buying it, you should prudently expect the worst.
Bartering and Negotiating
It should go without saying that you should avoid paying the initial asking price on anything that is being offered for sale. Experts at negotiating deals consistently tell us two things – the first is that the first person to name their price loses the negotiation, and the second is that the magic phrase to use is, and say this slowly and thoughtfully, in an uncertain but helpful tone, ‘What is the best price you’d accept for this?’.
If you think about it, the two pieces of advice are two sides of the same coin, aren’t they. By asking the guy to name his best price, he is the first person to put a number out there. You might be able to talk the guy down further, but for sure, you know there’s no way you’ll have to pay extra above that revised asking price!
Once you’ve done most of the dickering over price, see if you can then switch to another line of bargaining. ‘Could you throw in the —- as well?’ – see if you can have him include something else as well.
Maybe try to negotiate a deal for two items, but then, when you’ve beaten the guy down as low as you can for a ‘quantity discount’ for the two or more items, then look disappointed and say ‘Thanks for trying to help me with this. Unfortunately, the price is over what I could afford for all the items we’re talking about. But, I tell you what. I’ll take the xxxx off your hands for $—-.’ That way, you’ve managed to get a quantity discount for only buying one thing!
Another thing. Sometimes you might be able to trade something you have and are willing to dispose of as part or full exchange for the item the other guy is selling. This can be the best deal of all. If you have something you don’t need but the other guy wants, and he has something he doesn’t need but you want, then it ends up with you both giving away something unimportant and getting something of value in return. A ‘win-win’ deal like that is the best of all.
If you don’t really need something, but would be willing to buy it at a bargain price, a useful strategy is to say to the seller ‘I’d be interested in helping you out by taking your xxxxx off your hands, but the thing is, I didn’t come here today looking to buy one, and I don’t really need it. So I could only justify it to my wife it I got it at a heck of a deal. What say you try selling it to anyone else for the best price you can for the rest of the day, and I’ll come back at closing time, and if you still have it, then I’ll give you $— for it?’.
This makes best use of the pressure of time in the deal. If you’re going to a one day sale event somewhere, at the start of the day, there’s a rush of buyers all wanting to get the best bargains, and the sellers are optimistic that the rush will continue and they’ll get their asking price for everything they have. But that first rush doesn’t last long at all, and half way in to the day, it is over, and sellers are starting to gloomily think to themselves ‘no-one has even shown any interest in my xxxxx at all’ and they’re starting to think they’ll need to pack up unsold items and take them back, instead of the cash they might have sold them for.
By giving the seller a fair chance to sell the item for more, and by making the point that at the end of the day, no-one else is likely to be buying it, you might be able to negotiate a very low price such as to make it sensible to buy the thing you don’t really need or want.
Please keep reading for the second part of this article, which talks about the special considerations to do with buying used/old(er) electronics.