Oct 062012
 

In order to accumulate all that I have accumulated, I have spent a fair amount of time scanning the listings on eBay. I probably watch eBay more closely than a lot of people do, and I’ve managed to do relatively well I think so far. Here are some miscellaneous ramblings about eBay.

My history as an eBay buyer goes back pretty far, I think my first experience with it was buying a Palm m125 from someone back in 2002. But then I left it untouched for almost ten years, and when I got back to it at the beginning of 2012, I had to start over, I couldn’t resurrect my old account. It didn’t matter much, though I didn’t like starting over again with zero feedback.

I was definitely more cautious and worried about eBay at the beginning, not really knowing what to expect. (Was I going to get scammed? Get into protracted shipping disputes?) But now, after most of a year back on eBay in a pretty active way, I’ve had almost no problems. I don’t have much experience at all with whatever “mainstream” eBay might be, though, my focus has entirely been on things relating to vintage computing, and perhaps it is different if you’re trying to buy modern things.

Even now, I still succumb sometimes to a sense of urgency when I see something I’m interested in get listed. What if this is the last one that ever gets listed? Though after having watched for a while, that’s almost never true. Things do often appear in waves, something that hasn’t been listed before in the time I’ve been watching will appear, will sell, and then not long after, three more appear. I don’t know if this is because those latter three owners noticed the first one go and want to catch the market, or if it’s just “time” for the thing—probably a bit of both.

Dealing with vintage computers is difficult because quite frequently it is not the original owner selling them. Somebody got the whatever-it-is at an estate sale or from a school or office dumping old machines, and they don’t know what it is or how to know if it is complete or works. And sellers often can’t be bothered to try anything, although sometimes if you ask them directly they’ll try something out. Furthermore, you may well not want the seller to power-test an old computer, since there’s a non-zero risk that something could get fried.

Another tricky thing is the pricing. People who bought the computer themselves back in the 80s might remember that it was a $5000 investment at the time, and feel that they deserve to recoup some of that. People who simply have no idea will also sometimes list computers at way above their current market value. Usually, that’s not a real problem, the listing will just expire without bids, and hopefully be re-listed lower. But every once in a while, somebody will grab one at a pretty high price. That then affects future listings, since sellers of similar systems can look to see what others have recently sold for and set their starting prices accordingly. At some point, they just won’t be selling at the higher price and the selling prices start to fade back.

With these old machines, there’s “rare” and there’s “rare”, and really the only way to know is to know. What seems rare to the seller may well not be rare at all, it’s not often that the seller really knows. Conversely, sometimes a seller has no idea that something is rare and just lists it as old junk. If it’s done auction-style, the market will usually let the seller know that it was rare, but there are occasional “buy-it-now” prices on things that really undervalue the equipment.

On the topic of value itself, there are two kinds of value, really. One is the value to you, how much is it worth to you to have this in the collection or to play with? And the other is, how much would somebody else pay you for this if it were fixed up and listed properly? The first kind is the only real safe kind, I think, though I’ve grabbed a few things that I don’t really need on the second theory along the way as well. I’ve yet to actually sell anything, but if I see something that is going for cheaper than it’s worth, I can be tempted. It’s quite possible that none of that will “pay off” for me, and it seems important to approach that kind of speculative buying with caution. There are a lot of things that could thwart such plans. The market may simply get less favorable, of course. But also the whatever-it-is could be damaged in shipping, or be entirely irreparable, or—even worse—it might work for a while but then stop working before you can sell it on. So, even though I have accumulated some things that I intend at some point to sell on, I’ve tried as a rule never to buy something solely and explicitly for that purpose. Usually if I have a redundant machine, it’s because it was being sold with something else that I didn’t have and wanted.

A fairly large proportion of what I’ve gotten from eBay was listed as “untested” or “tested to power on”, and to the extent that I’ve tested the things I received myself (all of which I intend to test, but not all of which I’ve had the time to), things have gone pretty well. Plus, I have a bit of an inflated opinion of my ability to tinker and fix if there’s something not too wrong with it. In fact, back to the “value” question, for me part of the value in having something is in cleaning it up and making it go, so even if I get something that doesn’t quite work, the troubleshooting part is kind of part of the fun. Nevertheless, I’ve had good luck, maybe more than my share of good luck, with these things. They have all generally worked. If I see that something “powers on” I am more likely to be interested and bid, because that indicates to me that there’s a chance I could fix it if it needs fixing, but I wouldn’t take a seller at their word that something is “fully tested” unless I see details of what tests were performed. Given that so many sellers don’t know what they’ve even got, I doubt they’ve run a barrage of dealer diagnostics on the machines. And, I should say, sometimes sellers can talk a good game and still be just mostly making it all up—it’s also useful to be knowledgeable about the system you’re interested in because you can spot the sometimes ridiculous things people say, confidently and authoritatively, about what they’re selling.

Another thing I’m fairly conscious of is appearance and “extras”. Something that comes with a bunch of fairly good-looking manuals is much more tempting than the bare machine, and something that looks beat up to the point I wouldn’t really want to display it is not very tempting. Lots of old computers (particularly Apples) have yellowed with age, and sometimes can wind up being pretty ugly. Or a school will have taken permanent marker to the case, or engraved things in it. Or there will be a sticker, which can only be removed at the cost of leaving a sticker-shaped discoloration where the case yellowed at a different rate. If something looks good, I may be tempted to fight harder in a bidding war.

Because a lot of people who are selling vintage computer equipment don’t have a lot of experience with it, shipping is also a concern. It costs a lot to ship these safely. If a seller is offering cheap shipping, it might be something to worry about. It’s not that uncommon for the shipping to be as much or even more than the cost of the machine. Old machines are heavy and shipping companies are not gentle. Writing “Fragile” on the box is not going to help. Again, for the most part, things have gone pretty well in this department. Of all the things I’ve had shipped to me, I’ve only really had serious damage on a //c monitor (with a very heavy metal stand), an iMac G3 (all-in-one with a heavy CRT) and an Apple /// case (again, a very heavy machine). Both the //c monitor and the Apple /// case I was able to piece back together well enough that the damage isn’t visible from afar, but the iMac will never look right. In all of these instances, it was because the shipper did not pack it well enough to take into account the relatively fragile plastic combined with the serious weight. So, it doesn’t hurt to make a note to the seller when you buy something heavy to remind them that they need to pack it assuming that it will be thrown down every flight of stairs between them and you, and if it’s something rare enough you might even offer to pay a little bit more for packing materials to have them overpack it.

When it comes to actually buying things on eBay, particularly with the rare things, there are a couple of different strategies, though I think only one of them is a real strategy. The non-strategy is: you see something, you put in a bid matching what you’re willing to pay. This will more often than not simply lead to you not getting the whatever-it-is. Somebody will outbid you by a dollar, and that’s that. If you really did put down a bid for the absolute maximum you want to spend, and that dollar difference really would have put you over the tipping point beyond which it’s not worth it to you, then that works just fine. And eBay does encourage this a bit by the fact that the bid you place is private, it will only actually register the amount that it takes to beat the next-highest bidder. So if you tell eBay that you’re willing to pay $100 for something, you can still wind up paying only $41 if the next-highest bidder maxed out at $40. The other advantage of putting a bid down is that you don’t miss things because you forget or can’t be around when the auction ends. I’ve missed out on quite a number of things that I probably could have gotten, even those that have ended by with no bids at all, because I waited to bid. But the real strategy it seems to me is sniping. I usually don’t bid on something I really want until the very end—bidding calls attention to the value of something, people start seeing it in their “other people are bidding on” lists, and tips your hand in your interest. The goal of sniping (putting in a high bid in the last seconds) is to catch your competitors in a situation where they can’t respond with a higher bid before the auction runs out. There is no downside to doing this, if you get it, you’ll probably get it at less than you would have if you actually got into a real bidding fight with your competitors. It doesn’t feel “nice” but this is the marketplace, the goal is not to be nice, the goal is to win the auction and not pay more than required. The eBay clock is not completely consistent across platforms, and it sometimes takes a moment to process a bid, so bids in the last 4-5 seconds might not make it through in time. But generally on something valuable or rare, the high bids balloon within the last 30 seconds. One thing this means is that it is almost meaningless to look at the bid price on something like this 4 days from the end of the auction. It might look cheap, but that’s just because everyone who is gunning for it is waiting until the end to bid. Quite often on things like original Apple IIs, Apple ///s, Lisas, the going price doubles in the last 30 seconds. Though I haven’t really participated in those that go for the big bucks, I have watched a lot of them, and it’s kind of staggering. Prices on real, nice, rare computer systems are nearly meaningless until the last minute.

There are services out there that can snipe eBay auctions for you; you give it the amount that you want to bid in the final few seconds, and it will submit the bid for you. I’ve never used one of these mostly because I don’t really trust them to work, but I imagine that many I’ve been up against have used these services. I’m always there, counting down with the clock. It is important to have an idea of what’s beyond your budget if you’re there, though, since there is often a need for a split-second call on whether you react to someone else’s early snipe by going even higher.

I guess the other thing to mention is that I have a lot of saved searches watching things for me fairly constantly. For this, I generally rely on the iPhone eBay app, it will go through the saved searches and show me all the new results for each search since the last time I looked through them, something which neither the web interface to eBay nor the iPad app does. Occasionally, something comes up this way which has a “buy it now” price set to something that is fair or even cheap, and so it’s possible to jump on it right away when I see it. Usually I just build up a big watch list and periodically trim out things I don’t want after all or which have already been bid beyond my interest, and do some research with the pictures and make notes on the web interface.

As for the pictures, they’re important, and again it’s useful to know what to look for ahead of time. Sometimes the pictures are just awful and don’t show you what you need to know. For me, there are often details that I’m interested in that just aren’t in the pictures. For Apple II pluses, for example, it’s nice to know if the keys are all there and the case is in nice shape, but for me to know if I’m actually interested in getting one, I would want to know the serial number on the case and the board date on the motherboard. And what cards are inside, since sometimes the cards inside are worth a lot even if it means you need to get a II plus thrown in. And if you know what you’re looking at, the pictures can also reveal something valuable that the seller didn’t consider important to mention, like those rare expansion cards. Sometimes other potential buyers notice and sometimes they don’t. I got away with an Apple /// with a very rare card in it for quite cheap because the machine was missing its case and so didn’t look very presentable, and I’ve seen a couple of //es recently get bid up to what would seem absurdly high except that if you look closely at the pictures they turned out to have a rare 3.5″ floppy drive controller card or an accelerator in them.

Oh, on ratings, before I finish winding down my random thoughts after most of a year of active eBaying. I have found that the ratings are a bit meaningless. Pretty much everybody I’ve ever gotten anything from has had a 95% or higher rating, but in general there are a couple of issues with these. First, giving a bad rating is seen as a very harsh step, so mostly the experienced eBay users never give anything under positive 100% ratings across the board. However, there are also a few buyers that will give negative ratings that appear to be gratuitous, based on sellers’ responses. I usually look at the negative ratings, but more often than not I believe the seller’s reply. So ratings turn out to be not very useful; I’m hesitant to leave less than 100% rating with anyone unless I’m really unhappy and can’t resolve it with the seller first (and that has never happened). I still wait until the whatever-it-is arrives before leaving a rating, but just on principle. The things I’ve gotten that weren’t packed well often came from sellers with high ratings. Some sellers with negative ratings have still worked out just fine for me. In my own comments I try to be accurate and complete, I’ll mention if something is packed well. But in general, I think there’s enough error in ratings that I don’t take them too seriously. At least, I don’t generally assume everything’s great just because of high ratings, though I am more cautious of people with less than 95% positive feedback. Also, sometimes people just don’t have many ratings. Everyone has to start somewhere. People sold things to me even when I had not many feedback scores, and I’ve bought things from people that had not many feedback scores successfully. I don’t know really how to fix this system, but it doesn’t seem like feedback scores give a very complete picture.

Anyway, maybe that’s enough rambling about eBay for now. I’ve had almost uniformly positive experiences, and I don’t think for the most part the prices have been outrageous. People do like to disparage eBay, but with at least the moderate level of care I’ve taken in using it, it has done the job pretty well. There is no other comparable place to find things. Craigslist is not much better, often the prices I see listed on CL are more outrageous, and not everyone is up for shipping (nor are there as many in-principle protections in place for transactions) if you find something in a distant CL posting. Where I’ve paid a lot for my eBay use is in shipping, but I know from shipping things to myself that shipping is just expensive, it’s not really a flaw of eBay. I’ve not dealt with any eBay sellers who dramatically inflate shipping costs, and I haven’t even seen many that have given clearly outrageous shipping quotes. Perhaps it’s because I’ve by now already secured most of the things I consider high priority, but I now let a lot of auctions go because the price is beyond the norm or because the machine is too beat up, and even if seeing a listing will remind me of something I might want to get, I am more confident than I’ve been in the past that a better one will be listed eventually. One can spend a lot of money doing this, even if it comes in small increments. I have spent a lot of money, really. So I do hope to turn around some of the redundant stuff I have wound up with, partly to recover a little bit of that cost, and maybe more importantly to recover the space. I may have a new set of observations at some point once I enter the eBay arena as a seller. I’m sure it’s a fairly different experience. Also, how to price something that I got untested, and then cleaned up, fixed, and tested is not clear to me yet. We’ll see. It’ll still probably be a while before I dive into that project, since it requires the time to ensure that I have done the clean-up and testing to two machines before I’m willing to leave myself with just one of them left. And, actually, there’s not a lot of evidence to support the idea that the market for tested and clean machines is much better than for untested fixer-uppers, so it might well be not much of what I have gets sold for more than what I paid for it when the original shipping to me is factored in. But even then, I can tell myself that I’ve had the fun of fixing and documenting the whatever-it-is I suppose.