Friday, December 21, 2012

Buying Broken Equipment on Craigslist

Seen today on my local Craigslist. Price got my attention, until I read further:

Nikon 18-200mm VR1 - $320

"Nikon 18-200 VR1 lens. The VR doesn't work anymore, but the lens performs perfect otherwise. Photos are very sharp, focuses fast and accurate, zoom smoothly. No scratch on the glass element. "

Good used copies of this lens will still go for above $500 CDN... however, I am also starting to see more listing below that for wear and tear issues... dropped lenses, focus motor issues, etc. This is a high quality lens compared to a kit lens. It's well built, but it's also mechanically complex. So would I buy it? No. The price discount is about right, as the broken VR system essentially renders this lens the same as an older 18-200 non-VR type lens, but with better optics. A big downside is that used copies on eBay list for around $350 already (shipping extra), so while the discount is fair, it might not be enough to compensate for the loss of functionality. Remember that Nikon warranties are not transferable. However, just pricing in the cost of the lost functionality isn't the complete story. If you are willing to make this calculation, there is no guarantee that a future buyer would be willing to do so if you yourself decide to re-sell the lens later. If you have your heart set on buying something that is damaged, be prepared to keep it forever; if you can re-sell it, consider it icing on the cake.

Another factor to consider in determining price is other alternatives the same amount of money would buy. At $320 asking, this is less than the asking price for a Tamron 18-270VC, but more than the the price of the to-be-passed over old 18-200 non-stabilized lens by Sigma and Tamron. However, for less that $300, you could find a used copy of the Nikon 18-105VR. Why is this a viable alternative? It's because the 18-200VR focus breathes, meaning that you only get 'true' 200mm of focal length when focusing at infinity. If you are focusing at anything within normal distances, the effective field of view is not that different from the old Nikon 18-135. Therefore, the 18-105VR, being just a bit on the short side, will give you almost as much range, and will be a sharper lens than the 18-200VR. When it comes to financial dangers on Craiglist, you want to be wary of first coming up short compared to market expectations for a given piece of equipment, then you want to evaluate the utility of the item compared to something with comparable functionality... the financial "danger" here being the opportunity cost of having your money tied up in something that is hard to resell.

This is all assuming that the lens is unrepairable. There's a high probability that the cost of repair will be prohibitive. Since the price difference  to a fully functional used 18-200VR is about $200 (or less), this is pretty much the case, as no repair with Nikon is going to cost less than $200, and the malfunction of the VR mechanism is probably much more than that. A point worth remembering is that unlike camera bodies, Nikon lenses come with a 5 year warranty, so if you are tempted by a similar situation, it's important to ask if the owner (assuming it's the original owner and less than 5 years) has considered getting the lens checked out. Remember, only the original owner can do this, as the warranty is not transferable. There's no guarantee that Nikon will reject the warranty claim, either.

What all this goes to show is that a lens is more than the sum of it's parts. Once you remove the VR function from the 18-200, it pretty much loses a lot of it's value proposition, even if you price accordingly. The issue of re-sellability has always been a big one with me. Over the course of three to four years, used lenses don't lose much value, and can actually gain depending on supply and currency fluctuation in new lenses. You might want to keep your lenses forever, but having the option of being able to sell them when you want is a not insignificant amount of financial flexibility.  Some lenses, if you can't re-sell them, it might not be a big loss, but with lenses like the 18-200VR and 16-85VR, re-sellability is an important decision, as demand for these lenses remains fairly strong over time.

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