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Over the last couple of years or so I’ve equipped a pretty decent electronics lab for cents on the dollar relative to how much ‘real people’ would spend — I’m now having a go at doing the same thing for building a hopefully pretty decent home studio setup for music production purposes.

More than one person has asked me how I manage to do this — I’ve picked up some truly ridiculous bargains — so I must be doing something right.

  1. Stop being nice. The first word of advice I’ll give is forget about notions of fairness or niceness. You don’t need to rip anyone off or steal anything from anyone. A trade on eBay is entirely fair because both sides have to agree. If you’re selling, a higher price is good, if you’re buying, a lower price is what you’re looking for, so don’t feel ashamed about that. It’s a game, it’s how the game is played, like it or not. Get over yourself. Look at it like this — you want to create a capability for yourself. It might be you want to build out your wood shop or machine shop, or build yourself a kickass gaming PC, or extend your Star Wars action figure collection. You have $X to spend. If you spend that like a real person and buy new, you might get 3 things for $X. If you buy used, you might get 10. But if you’re a true bottom-feeder, you might get 30 to 100. That’s getting on for two orders of magnitude leverage on $X — it’s not so much that you’ll save money, you probably won’t because if you’re like me you’re going to spend $X anyway — but what you get for your money will be drastically different.

  2. Do your homework. Make sure you know a fair bit about the thing you’re trying to buy. There are several reasons for this, but the biggest reason why people spend way more than they need to is just not having spent enough time figuring out what constitutes a reasonable price to pay for a particular item.

  3. Don’t be in a hurry. You might have decided that you want to buy a new keyboard. You’ve always had a hankering for a Yamaha DX7 Mk II, and nothing else will do. If that’s what you want, go for it, but use the techniques below to help you figure out how to get one (much) cheaper than you otherwise might. If you must must must have one right now, know that you’re probably going to spend 50% – 100% more than you probably need to. If you have the attitude that you want one some time in the next 2 to 3 months instead, you can wait for a better price to come up.

  4. Be flexible. Say, for example, that you want to buy a particular machine tool. You kind of want a particular De Walt, or some such, but something roughly equivalent from another brand is also acceptable. This greatly increases the pool of potential deals, which purely by statistics pushes down the price you’re likely to need to pay. If you want to be a super-duper bottom feeder, you might once every day or two look at every listing in a broad category, giving you the chance to snap up something you might not otherwise have thought of picking up right now for an insanely low price. It’s also usually worth the risk buying extremely cheap stuff from China — I’ve hardly ever had problems and saved a ton on money this way. Beware of fakes, however, and don’t buy anything that would be a serious problem or even a hazard to you if it either failed to materialize or turned out to be defective.

  5. Getting the best out of auctions. Not all eBay items are actually auctions — those that are accept bids up until a deadline, whereupon the highest bidder (assuming you’ve exceeded the reserve price) will get the deal. This kind of transaction is often the best way to get a really good deal, but it’s also an easy way to spend a buttload of money you don’t really need to if you don’t do your homework or (more typically) you get caught up in having to beat another bidder and let the price go too high. The trick here is always snipe. My advice is work out exactly what the most you’d pay for a thing would be, then bid that amount with about 5 seconds to go before the end of the auction. This has several advantages — most usefully, it avoids bidding wars, so you’re never tempted to bid higher because someone beat you, and it also avoids encouraging other people to start outbidding each other. You want to avoid pushing the price up, obviously, so this is the best way to do that. Also, only bidding your maximum has the advantage that you will lose the deal if the price goes up beyond an amount that would constitute a good deal for you.

  6. Look for auctions that end at stupid times. Trust me, you stand a way higher chance of winning a last second snipe bid if your potential competitors are in bed asleep. I bought a digital mixing console (Yamaha 02r) for $56 this way. Yes, fifty six dollars, an order of magnitude under the going rate.

  7. Add 1. This sounds stupid, but always add $1 to your bid price. This is basic psychology — people tend to bid in multiples of 5, 10, 25, 50, 100, etc. If you add $1, that means that the three people who bid $100 will be beaten by your $101 last-second snipe and you’ll win the deal.

  8. Look for Buy-it-now or Best Offer. I have a personal liking for buy-it-now trades because they are quick and don’t require sniping, so the trick here is to search for the thing you want, sorted by price + shipping lowest first. Try to find a lower priced item with Best Offer enabled and just basically shamelessly lowball them. It’s amazingly common to find someone just say yes if they are desperate to make the deal. You have the opportunity to add a comment — now’s the time to exploit some mentioned failing (e.g., a big scratch, missing power supply, whatever) to push the price down.

  9. Look for recently listed Buy it Now at below-market prices. Very occasionally someone will list a buy-it-now item stupidly cheap. You can pretty much guarantee that some other bottom feeder will want it, so the trick is to get in early and act fast. You can do this by spamming a search looking for items as they are added — this works well if you are looking at items across a broad category. If you want something very specific, learn to create a query that will automatically email you when something is listed below the price you want to pay — when that email arrives, jump on eBay immediately and hit Buy it Now. I picked up a current model LeCroy differential amplifier in mint condition, new price nearly $6000 for $300 this way. I have no idea why it was listed at that price, and frankly didn’t care. It’s in my lab now.

  10. Learn the query language. The eBay search box has quite a bit of hidden functionality. You can, for example, use a query like, ‘(hp, tektronix, lecroy, fluke) (oscilloscope, spectrum analyzer, dynamic signal analyzer, DSA) -manual -spare -calibration’ to show you all the oscilloscopes, spectrum analyzers and DSAs listed that are made by HP, Tektronix, LeCroy or Fluke, whilst filtereing out spammy listings for manuals, spare parts and calibration services. In conjunction with stored queries that email you when they get a hit, this is true magic.

  11. Search for lots/multiple packs, etc. Many people skip over listings for multiples of something if they only want to buy one. This can be the very best stunt ever, because sometimes you can end up with 6 of something for less than you’d normally pay for 1. You can then sell off 5 of them, so you end up with the thing you wanted and a profit.

  12. Buy broken things. This option is best if you have a capability of fixing things either yourself or at low cost. Often, items will sell at a fraction of their usual eBay trade price if there is something wrong with them. This is the other really huge route to cost saving. Read the listing very carefully. Often, you find things listed as ‘can’t test’ because the person selling it knows little or nothing about it and is listing it as parts-or-not-working because they don’t want problems. ‘Powers up but now way to test’ or ‘Missing power supply, can’t test’ is music to my ears. Also, if you do your homework and know the usual failure modes of a particular item, having one up for sale presenting those symptoms is a sure bet because you can pretty much guarantee that you’ll be able to fix it at a known cost. I’ll often Google for the service manual for a device before I bid on it so that I know I’ll be able to fix it. Some manufacturers are really good with that — Yamaha are awesome, as were HP and Tektronix in the older days. Others, e.g. TC Electronic, suck hugely and don’t even release schematics, so I’m much more careful. If you’re going to buy something broken, it’s wise to bear in mind that, if you can’t fix it, you might be wanting to resell it, so try to pay below-market (even for a broken item) if you possibly can so you end up not losing (much) money. I’ve been pretty lucky with this — of everything I’ve bought (easily over 100 items of lab gear, shop equipment and music gear), I’ve only ever had a couple of lemons, but it’s always worth being realistic that if you’re going to adopt the Way of the Cheapass, sometimes your eBay-fu will fail you.

I hope this helps, and good luck cheapassing your way to success! 😉

Please note: this was cross-posted from my main blog at -- If you want me to definitely see your replies, please reply there rather than here.

#Electronics, #MoMBlog, #Recording, #TestGear


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