Friday, August 13, 2010

How to Buy Used Equipment on Craigslist

Except for accessories, I've purchases all of my camera equipment on Craigslist. I can't help, I like the savings.  This really isn't for everyone, as it requires a lot of research and a bit of street-savvy. Some people prefer the enjoyment of new things; others enjoy the thrill of chasing a bargain. To each their own; however, photography is not a cheap hobby and the savings that you can get buying used are not to be laughed at. If the financial crisis of 2008-till-who-knows-when has taught us anything, it ought to be the importance of spending our money more wisely.

Word of Warning:

You must remember this: If the price is too good to be true, it probably is. Don't be greedy; buying used will save you some money, but it won't work miracles. It has been said that you can only cheat a dishonest person, and when it comes for Craigslist and camera equipment, that saying is 100% right. If you see a price that is too low, ask yourself why the seller wouldn't be trying for a higher price. These illegitimate goods are priced to lure in people who are willing to ignore the alarm bells in order to save a few bucks. Don't be one of these people; nothing good will come of these 'deals'.

So how do you know if something is too cheap to be legitimate? Patience. If you watch Craigslist over a period of time, you start developing a sense of what things should cost. Check eBay, though prices are not always easy to compare because of shipping. It's a lot like being in the market for real estate; just like how you would end up watching MLS on a daily basis, Craigslist will soon turn into a daily addiction. I leave it up to your judgement whether or not that is a good thing.

Advantages:

  1. You save money. Lots of it. Compared to buying new, the price of a good quality used lens is at least a third cheaper than buying new. This adds up as your collection increases.
  2. You save money compared to buying second-hand equipment in a camera store. This should not be the deciding factor, as your chances of getting a substandard lens are much lower if you purchase your used equipment from a reputable store.
  3. You get to try before purchasing. Any reputable independent photo store will let you try before you buy. You would never be able to do this on eBay.
  4. If you pick your used lenses wisely, you're not really buying lenses so much as you are borrowing them. Because the depreciation has already been absorbed, thew value of used lenses tends to remain relatively constant over time. Camera bodies lose value faster than lenses. If you acquire a lens that has a good reputation, it will command a strong price when you no longer have need for it and decide to resell it. In some cases, it will be possible to recoup your initial purchase price, or even turn a little profit.

Disadvantages

  1. No warranty. This can be an issue if you need to repair or have the factory re-tune the lens because of front-focus or back focus. If you use your camera body a lot, it might be worth it to buy new just for the warranty.
  2. Increased risk of being scammed. Buying used is not without its dangers. If you are hesitant about exchanging money with random strangers with no substantial guarantees, this isn't for you. However, my own personal experience is that photographers as a bunch tend to be decent, hardworking people. The type of person who can afford a dSLR is typically well educated, comes from a middle class back ground or better, and more often than not, has a family to feed.
  3. You will need cash. Because the seller needs to protect their interests, they will insist on cash. This gets problematic, because camera equipment is not cheap. Again, this is a personal comfort issue; I would not personally conduct a transaction over $400 unless it was within the vicinity of a branch of my own personal bank that was open. I've read some harrowing (and sometimes hilarious) stories of people counting out money into the thousands at some random location during a Craigslist transaction.  I don't personally recommend it.

Questions you must ask a potential seller:

  1. Where did you buy this? They must be able to answer this question. Give higher consideration to equipment bought locally, but equipment bought from a reputable online seller such as Adorama, B&H or Henry's is a good sign. Do not accept "It was a gift," especially if you cannot trace the origin of where the gift was bought.
  2. Do you have a receipt? Consider this a must. This has nothing to do with warranty issues, because most manufactures will not honor warranty issues with second owners. However, a receipt is a good sign (thought not necessarily an iron-clad one) that the product was not stolen.If the equipment is older, say past five years, a receipt might be long gone. In such case, if the original boxes are still available, it is a good sign. A lens without a rear cap is a bad sign, as it could have been discounted from a stolen camera.
  3. What did you use this for? If they can give you a good reason, it's a sign that the lens was taken care of. That is to say, if they seller was purposeful abut how he or she used the lens, then there is a higher chance that it was used with care.
  4. Why are you selling? You want to access the motives for why the seller is letting go of the equipment. You want to buy it because it's the greatest thing ever, so what's the other side's motivation for selling it? You've heard the saying, "Nobody sells a car because it runs too good?" Fortunately, camera equipment is relatively durable stuff when taken care of properly. Again, if the seller has a clear reason for selling, then the chances are better that it's legit. Many times, people find that they don't use a lens enough to justify keeping it; this is probably the best reason to accept as a buyer, as it is indicative of a thoughtful and mature seller. 

How to Conduct a Transaction

  1. Have a budget in mind. This will be the scary part. Camera equipment is not cheap, and most sellers will only accept cash to protect themselves as well. Only agree to transactions where you will be comfortable carrying the agreed upon price in cash.
  2. Always buy from a local seller. Never buy anything from anybody who is just passing through town; it's much harder to confirm the history of the product. That's my advice; you don't have to follow it, buy everybody will have their comfort limits.
  3. Set up a time or place in a public location. I prefer a busy coffee shop like a Starbucks. Make sure the location has lots of foot traffic and is in a good part of town. A bank is an even better location if you can swing it. It should go without saying: do not meet anybody in your residence or place of work. As well, chose a location that is convenient for you. It makes no sense to save money buying used equipment if you have to travel across town to do so. Thinking of money spent on gasoline/transit and the inevitable coffee or snack that you would buy on a lengthy outing. It totally defeats the purpose.
  4. Never meet with anybody after sundown. Light is your safety friend. Also, it's best to minimize the amount of time that you spend walking around with significant amounts of cash in dark places...
  5. Come with a friend if you are uncomfortable. Because I've been selective about which deals to go through with, I have never felt that my personal safety has been threatened. However, there are horror stories out there, so company is never a bad thing.
  6. Bring your camera body. Test out a lens before you buy. Anybody serious about selling their equipment will let you try it first. If they will not let you try, walk away from the deal.
  7. If you are happy with the lens, bargain a little. Only just a little! You should have agreed upon a price before hand, but human nature being what it is, prices tend to be fluid until you shake on them. I would not try to do more than $20 under what you talked about before hand; realistically, you might get $5 or $10 less. Once you agree, shake on it and consider the price final.
  8. Carefully count out the cash until both parties are satisfied. Make sure that the equipment being sold is on the same table that the cash is being counted on. At this point, you should have decided that you are comfortable with the person that you are doing business with. If that is the case, it is important that both sides feel that the deal is being conducted fairly and honestly.
  9. Chit chat. I've met some really nice people buying and selling through Craigslist. Hopefully, they're as interested in photography as much as you are. Once the transaction is done, the conversation usually loosens up; this is also a good sign that the product is legitimate.
  10. Support your local independent photo store. The internet and big box stores like Best Buy aren't making life easy for them, but these are usually staffed by the most knowledgeable sales staff in town. If you aren't going to buy a big ticket item like a a lens or a dSLR from them, at least consider accessories like bags and polarizing filters.

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