The vast majority of people, Technoids included, seem to be perpetually strapped for cash. Couple this with the fact that any field of electronics, be it computers, ham radio, or electronics in general, can be hideously expensive to maintain and you have the result that a lot of people are scared off from even looking at such a hobby.
To this attitude, I can only say one thing.
I'm no different (in the 'strapped for cash') category than most other folks. People I've invited over often ask me, once they've seen some of the gear and tools in my lab, 'How in the world did you afford all this?!'
The answer can be summed up in one word: Scrounging! The art (yes, there is an art to it) of making the rounds of stores and swap meets where used electronics and computer hardware can be found, almost always at prices way below even wholesale.
Some of the examples I've been blessed enough to find are:
(July 1995) A Data I/O
'UniSite' universal device programmer. This unit can program just about
any type of memory or logic chip that is programmable (EPROMs, EEPROMs,
PALs, GALs, PEELs, PLDs, etc), and is still made and supported by Data
I/O (even if support can cost a bloody fortune!). Original
manufacturer's sale price was around $12,500. My initial cost: about
$700, including a memory upgrade I bought new from Data I/O (the
programmer itself initially came from Weird Stuff Warehouse). I later
sold the unit to another scrounger in partial trade for a newer UniSite
that had the 'Mass Storage Module' (a hard drive) in it. Total
re-investment in 2002: About $900 for a unit that originally sold for
(September 2002) A Tektronix
DSA602A Signal Analyzer (essentially a big digital O-scope on
steroids). Bandwidth up to a gigahertz, all kinds of built-in waveform
analysis and math functions. Found on Ebay for about $580, a far cry
from its original $30,000+ price tag, and all it needed was a little
soldering rework on the acquisition board memory banks.
(August 2003) An IFR (now Aeroflex) model 1600CSA RF communications analyzer, or 'service monitor.' An excellent general-purpose instrument for working with radio equipment, both commercial and amateur. It is, essentially, a combination of several pieces of test gear in one box. It includes synthesized RF and audio signal generators, a modulation monitor, DVM, oscilloscope, function generator, RF wattmeter, and other such RF-related niceties. Original manufacturer's price: Over $24,000. My cost, at the Radio Club of Tacoma swap meet: $2,250 (about 1/12th of the original price).
(September 2003) A perfectly workable Tektronix 7603 oscilloscope mainframe for $1.00 (the fellow didn't understand that you needed to install plug-ins for a trace to appear). Found at one of the Bay Area electronic swaps, and originally sold in the 70's for over $4,000. A trip to the Tektronix company surplus store at their Oregon plant later netted me a much newer 7603 frame for $15.00.
(August 2004) A visit to Boeing Surplus netted me some PCMCIA cards from National Instruments (a PCMCIA-GPIB and a 24-bit digital I/O card) for $5 each, along with an Adaptec PCMCIA SCSI card, with its cable, for $10.
I could write a book about the stuff I've found over the years, but I'll leave it at this: The entire 'Underground Economy' is very much alive and well, and it can provide a rich source for some outstanding hardware and software!
This is a blunt way of saying that the surplus market may not be for everyone. Use these guidelines to decide for yourself.
If you're looking for full manufacturer's warranties, and extensive manufacturer-based technical support, then you should expect to pay for them at the retail level. You will rarely find such backing through the swap meet or surplus store circuit, and this is a normal trade-off for paying a much lower purchase price.
If, however, you don't mind doing some detective work where documentation or software may be concerned, if you're not a slave to the delusion that "Latest Is Always Greatest!" or if the thought of repairing your own equipment doesn't scare you or if you just like futzing with oddball electronics, then embrace the Scrounger within you!
There's no denying the fact the rise of Ebay has had
a 'chilling' effect on the quantity, quality and variety, or items
which used to show up almost exclusively at electronics swap meets and
surplus stores. However, the news is not all bad. Far from it! In fact,
anyone who ignores Ebay as a potential resource is going to miss out on
some amazing deals.
Although I'll always prefer live events, I enjoy working the online side as well. An effective scrounging strategy, one that's all but guaranteed to net you nearly anything you need to support your hobby, is one that integrates buying and selling via multiple sources.
This means go to swap meets, yes. But also go to garage sales (especially in technology 'company towns' or hubs such as Beaverton, Oregon, Redmond, Washington, and San Jose, California). You should also keep an eye on Ebay, computer swap meets, and online want-ad forums such as those on Batlabs (primarily for Motorola radio gear and related test equipment) or qrz.com.
Seeking out such places is one big reason why the DuckDuckGo search engine is your friend. Listings of many hamateur events throughout the year, and across the country, can be found at the ARRL's search page.
Keep in mind that no amount of bargains from any
online source can EVER replace the fun and atmosphere of a live event,
nor should they be expected to. Live swaps and garage sales are still
the only venues where you and the seller can be eye-to-eye -- which,
among other things, greatly reduces the possibility of getting cheated
or stuck with a 'white elephant.'
At the risk of annoying some readers, the best advice I can give to anyone who wants to get serious about trading on Ebay is to become an 'auction sniper.' This refers to the practice of firing off a single bid for a given item during the last few seconds of an auction. If the sniper is lucky, they can walk away with the item for much less than it might otherwise have gone for, and the competing bidders have no chance to counter the snipe.
Becoming an auction-sniper is not difficult, but it absolutely requires two things; a reliable Internet connection (preferably
broadband, as in DSL or a cable DSU), and a clock that is accurate to at least Stratum-2
standards. While the ideal source for such is a GPS-locked time server
on your own home network, you can also do just fine with 'sniping
software.' My favorite package for this is Gixen.
Its creator offers both free and (very!) affordable annual subscription
packages. The big advantage to subscribing is it lets you spread your
snipe over at least two different servers, which can 'fail-proof' your
No sniping system is perfect. Anyone, auction snipers included, can and do lose their bids. You only get one chance at an auction when you choose to snipe, so be prepared to bid the absolute maximum you would pay for an item. This will give you at least some measure of protection from regular bidders and other snipers.
Therein lies the very essence of what the 'Spirit of the Swap' is all about: Haggling, or the art of negotiation between the buyer and seller for a mutually agreeable price.
Haggling has been around as long as there have been things to buy, sell, or trade. Those who master the art will rarely be disappointed in any deal that they make. However, keep in mind that it is most definitely an art. It is an art which must be learned well if you don't plan to mortally offend someone or wind up with a 'white elephant' you really didn't need.
The most important points of haggling: Know WHEN it is appropriate, exactly WHAT you are haggling for, and WHERE the top and bottom price points should be. I'll go into detail on these one at a time.
You should not, for example, expect to be able to haggle with the folks at the Icom or Kenwood booth outside of any advertised "show specials," nor can you usually haggle over new equipment in a retail store environment like Ham Radio Outlet. However, electronic surplus stores can be just as haggle-oriented as swap meets. Never be afraid to at least ask if pricing is flexible! The worst the seller can do is say 'No, sorry, can't do it.'
There will be cases where you find the up-front asking price just feels 'right.' If you feel this is the case, do not haggle about it! Simply pay for the item and be on your merry way.
Many swap meet sellers expect YOU, the buyer, to start the haggling process. I've lost count of the number of times I've asked a seller what their price is for a given item, only to get a response of "What's it worth to you?" or "Make me an offer?"
The key is three simple words: Knowledge is Power! Know what the equipment is, what it can do, what its condition is and how much work you'll need to put into it to get it going.
It is of CRITICAL IMPORTANCE to know how much effort you may need to put into what you're haggling for to get it to work in your application. Consider that you may need to obtain manuals or replacement parts to make the item usable: What if the manufacturer is no longer in business, or has been bought out by another company?
Another potential pitfall is accessories. Always look at what accessories an item comes with and how much it will cost to replace such if you need to. As one example, logic analyzers found at swap meets or surplus stores rarely come with their probe pods or input cables. The cost of replacing such accessories may make the analyzer itself a 'White Elephant' at any price.
Availability of replacement parts is another thing to
consider. While manufacturers will make use of generic (off-the-shelf)
parts where they can, you always run the risk of needing some
custom-made IC or other component which was designed and built by that
specific manufacturer, for a specific unit or series of units, in their
own factory. Tektronix and
HP/Agilent/Keysight/Whoever-they-are-this-week are two notables in this
area. You may run into cases where the part you need can only be found
in another 'donor' or 'parts mule' device.
Again... KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!
Determining a fair price is the trickiest part of any haggle. Go too low and you risk offending the seller to the point where they will simply tell you to buzz off. Go too high and you could end up gaining a reputation as a gullible "easy mark" who will pay inflated prices for all kinds of junk.
The Internet and the Web, once again, are your friends! Look for equipment similar to what you're after on Ebay, used equipment dealers and want-ad boards such as the Batlabs Wanted/For Sale listings. Ask around at ham radio clubs, or from other techies you may know. Take that knowledge with you and you stand a good chance of unearthing a Most Worthy Bargain.
One good way to make an offer in such a way that the risk of offending the seller is minimal is to word it something like this:
(Seller): "Go ahead, make me an offer."
(You): "Honestly, I've no idea... Would (insert dollar amount) be too low?"
Such wording neatly conveys your own ignorance, and your willingness to haggle, while also showing respect for the vendor and making an opening for discussion.
If you can't reach agreement, simply thank the seller for their time and move on. Don't get all huffy, or start making noise about the seller being a greedy asshole, or something similar. Never take it personally! Buyers will vote with their collective wallets, and a rude or unreasonable seller is their own worst enemy. Be content with this!
Swap meets and Ebay, however, are prime breeding
grounds for one particular seller type. If you spend any time at all on
circuit, you will encounter them.
The warning signs are multiple and varied: Insane prices. A high-pressure sales pitch that'd make the sneakiest used-car sales type break down in tears of joy. Claims about the item being sold which range from simple misdirection to thundering lies.
These are the few people who are terminally greedy and have a horrible lack of ethics, yet they're so smooth about it you can easily be taken in if you're not on your guard. Even the most experienced scroungers can be tempted if the sleazer is a good enough con artist.
Some of the examples I've seen or heard of in my travels:
At a now-defunct surplus place in San Jose, CA, then known as 'A to Z Electronics,' I found a SCSI disk drive that was, for the time (1996), quite a coup to get. It was in a glass display case up front, near the register, priced at $95.00. It only had one little problem, one that could have been easily missed if one didn't know what to look for.
Specifically: One of the seals protecting the HDA chamber had been removed. The disk platters were clearly visible through the hole.
Upon expressing justifiable concern over this point, the counter person became sullen, and suggested that it was time for us to leave the store. My fellow scrounger and I did so, quickly, and did our best to spread the word among the local scounging community that this was a place not to be trusted.
A few months later, A to Z folded up and closed their doors for good. I can only assume we were not the only ones to spot the problems.
One of my best friends and fellow scroungers encountered a seller at one of the Bay Area's swap meets who had an interesting-looking DLT (Digital Linear Tape) drive. Such drives have their native and compressed capacity clearly labeled on the front panel. In this case, it was 20GB native, and 40 compressed. The seller, however, insisted that it was a 40/80 drive, and became annoyed when evidence to the contrary was presented. Said seller became more agitated when asked if the unit was even functional.
My friend moved on without another word, and warned me (and others) about this particular seller. The drive didn't sell, and the seller received justice in the form of much-reduced business for their other items.
At the same swap meet, a different seller brought out a bunch of fairly useful Tektronix plug-ins for the 7000 series oscilloscopes. However, his prices were not very good, and he was extremely resistant to haggling. Any attempt to do so seemed to bring his blood pressure up, and God help you if you asked him about the functional status of the units. "I don't know anything about them, I just sell them!" he would exclaim, in an annoyed tone.
No one bought anything from him that I know of, and he disappeared within three months.
Not all Sleazers choose swap meet environments. Some prefer a more anonymous venue, which leads me to…
Unfortunately, forums like Ebay afford no such opportunity. In fact, it's rare that you can even talk to your seller (or buyer) on the phone. Kurt McDuffie, one of the Technoid's readers, E-mailed me this story from March of 2004.
"My favorite candidate for eBay's most unscrupulous seller is the guy who was claiming that he couldn't test his Tektronix 7000 series plug-ins because he had no mainframe to test them in, while simultaneously claiming that he couldn't test the 7000 series mainframe he was selling because he had no plug-ins.
"The same seller usually claims that he doesn't have the knowledge or equipment to test his items, so they are sold as-is. EXCEPT, however, when he has a real gem to sell he suddenly sounds like an MSEE with a NIST cal lab to test his gear..."
There is good news, though. Ebay has a number of features that, if properly used, can greatly reduce the chance of being cheated. Look for:
High positive feedback count, but mostly as a buyer: Not always a red flag. I've been doing far more buying than selling on Ebay over the last few years, mainly because Ebay's management has gotten greedy about their fee structure. The sign to be careful of with this pattern is very few feedbacks as a seller AND if said feedback is neutral or negative. Look carefully at the seller's history!
Inconsistency in items sold: This can, in conjunction with the feedback rating mentioned above, be a big red flag. I suggest viewing at least ten items the seller has moved in the recent past and looking at any other auctions they may be running at that moment.
If, for example, they've got some electronic equipment up for grabs, but their past history shows they've been selling mostly cheese straighteners, toys, household widgets or similar non-techie stuff, be careful!!!
Things to Watch Out For at Swap Meets
Swap venues can still be hazardous to your wallet. Watch out for sellers exhibiting these signs:
(1) The Big Push. If you find something you want, and the seller starts pushing it like a used-car sales type, it should set off alarms. Don't let yourself be caught up in the hype! Doing so may be exactly what the seller is counting on to move something that may be damaged or gutted beyond practical repair! Keep a cool head in the face of the hype-storm, let the seller run down, and then ask in-depth questions about the item's condition. If you're not happy with the answers, thank the seller for their time and move on. Period.
(2) Too Much Help: Ask one simple question about any given item, and this type will go off on wild tangents with their answer. They may end up offering you everything BUT the information you asked for and will chatter on endlessly about the history of the equipment in general, the one you're looking at in particular, and anything else that pops into their (probably, caffeinated) brains at that instant.
This behavior is at least a yellow flag. Keep your mental filters and your 'cool' firmly in place.
(3) The Broken Record. Any swap meet has its core of 'regulars' among the sellers. This is usually a Good Thing, if said regulars are bringing out different types of equipment every time they show up. Heck, I'm a regular seller at the annual Mike & Key Radio Club event.
Some, however, bring out the same tired stuff every single time, month after month, year after year, and they never seem to sell a whole lot of it (if any). They are often characterized by a reluctance to haggle, excessive prices and a general lack of knowledge (or, in rare cases, outright lying) about the condition and type of equipment they're trying to move.
Remember this, always. Good equipment and a good deal will ALWAYS sell themselves!
Scrounging is not so much a continuous inflow of goodies as it is a 'flow-through' of such. Equipment and components change over time, and new wants and needs develop on your part. Alternatively, you may simply run out of storage space, or your life-mate/Significant Other may lose patience with what looks like an ever-growing Pile of Stuff with no end in sight.This is a polite way of saying it will eventually be to every good scrounger's benefit to try their hand at selling. Anyone can sell on Ebay with a reasonable degree of success, so I won't focus on that.
This is probably the single most important thing to remember. It sets the tone for the entire trip! If, for example, you're using Ebay pricing as your only reference, you're going to go home disappointed. I absolutely guarantee it!
Never expect to get Ebay prices at a swap meet for what you're selling, period.
A good way to know where to set your prices (both initial and final - I'll get to that) is to actually visit as many electronic swaps as you can get to, including the one you plan to sell at, as a buyer. You should visit at least three of them, ideally separated by no more than 250 miles.
If you have a swap that's a regular monthly event in your area, visit it for at least three consecutive months before you try selling there. Observe both buyers and sellers, and keep close tabs on what kind of prices you see equipment similar to what you want to sell going for. Use what you learn during such as a guideline. Undercut what you find, if you feel comfortable doing so.
I've found a good rule-of-thumb is to price what you're selling at anywhere from half to two-thirds of what it's going for at other sources.
Remember why you're there! You probably came out to clear space at home, and help gain some $$ towards other things you want to buy. Although there have been (and still are) dealers who make their sole living off selling stuff at swap meets, they are rare and real success stories among them more so.
An electronics swap meet - heck, any swap meet - is there to provide people a venue to, in essence, have a centrally-located community garage sale. It is most unwise to take it any more seriously than that.
If I had to put numbers on how often something sells for its initial price vs. how often haggling ensues, I'd say it's about 35/65. In other words, be prepared to haggle more than half the time!
Start with the absolute lowest price you would ever dream of accepting for a given item. Take all factors into account for this decision, such as the usefulness of the item to you, storage space it's taking up, what your Significant Other is going to say if you bring it home unsold, how much effort or $$ you had to put into it prior to selling, and how fond you are of the idea of bringing it home.
Now, mark that figure up by about half. In other words, if your low figure is $20, start by pricing the item at $30, or even $35 if it's particularly desirable, and see what happens. You may end up having to bargain down to your lowest point, but you may also end up getting your initial asking price right off the bat. You Just Never Know!
(Swap meet seller): "Oh, come on! I could get $$$ for it on Ebay!"
(Me): "Then why bring it here?"
Seriously. I have had this 'conversation' with some sellers. Granted, I much prefer having more constructive dialogues, but there are those who believe they can get Ebay-level prices or better at a swap meet.
If you, as a seller, are bound and determined to sell your offering on Ebay for a set price, then please do so. Never expect to get Ebay prices at a swap meet, though. Remember, lots of buyers see such events as an alternative to Ebay. If they wanted to spend at Ebay's levels, they wouldn't be at the swap meet to begin with.
If you've got a lot of small items, like connectors, transistors, resistors, diodes, or other similar parts, AND said parts don't happen to be packaged or sorted neatly, you may do better to toss everything in a bag or box and assign a single price to the entire package.
This can also work well if you have a lot of similar items. You can do, say, "Fifty cents each or twelve for five bucks," or another popular one, "A quarter each or five for a dollar." For things like small hand tools, you could try "A dollar each or six for five bucks." You get the idea. This technique works even better if your small stuff is neatly sorted into bins or bags or whatever you're using.
This is another point which cannot be stressed strongly enough! When someone asks you about the condition or specifications
of something you're selling, respond truthfully, and leave yourself open to further explanations.
In other words, if someone simply asks you "What is it?" you should NOT overwhelm them with the history, technical merits, or other details. Listen to the question itself and frame your answer accordingly. Some examples:
The Item: A serial data analyzer I once sold. It bears a strong resemblance to an old 'suitcase' PC, and is often mistaken for such by those who were born in the late 70's to early 80's.
The Question: "Does it run Windows?"
My answer (after cringing inside): "No, and it's not a computer. That's a serial data analyzer."
The end result is that the unit didn't sell to that person, but it was just as well. They had a gross misconception of what it was, and they wouldn't have know what to do with it if they had bought it. Let's look at another example.
The Item: A mobile RF power amplifier, made by Motorola for use in conjunction with one of their older portable radios (the HT220, to be exact).
The Question: "What frequency does it cover, and does it work?"
My answer: "It's designed for 150-170MHz, tunable. I suspect it could be modified for 2 meters, but I don't really know. As for working or not, I haven't tested it..."
This deal worked out a bit better. My price was cheap
($5 or $10, I don't recall exactly), and the buyer was an experimenter,
so he had few qualms about buying the unit.
My point, though, is that my responses were short, polite, to the point and honest. No prattling about what a Great Deal I was making, no history of RF amps or serial analyzers, no pressure: Just clean, simple, honest responses.
Never fib, never exaggerate, and above all NEVER LIE!!!! Believe me when I say that only the greenest of techies will be taken in by a lie. If they, one of their friends, or a parent (in the case of a minor) finds out about it later, well… suffice to say that word will get around very fast indeed, and you may even find yourself answering some hard questions posed to you by local police.
If you don't know the answer to a given question, simply state as much! A made-up answer, just for the sake of trying to make a sale, will get you in hot water almost as fast as lying. The danger here is whoever you're providing the answer to may have considerably more electronics background than you do. A bogus answer will stand out like a solar flare. Word-of-mouth travels nearly as fast as light, and remember what I said earlier about swap shoppers voting with their wallets.
Just relax, be yourself, and be truthful. You can't go wrong that way, even if your sales are minimal.
Perhaps one of the hardest things for sellers to remember is: A Good Deal Will Always Sell Itself! More importantly, no amount of sales pitch, however slickly worded or delivered, will force a sale if it is simply not meant to be!
So: When someone stops at your space, and starts checking out your wares, don't jump on them right away. Give them a minute to look around. If they look persistent, then step up with something like 'Can I answer any questions for you?'
Rest assured, they will start asking questions if they do find something of interest. If they don't, and they just move on, LEAVE
THEM ALONE! Pleading with them to look around some more, or similar tactics, will serve only to drive them further away.
It's near the end of the day, and you haven't sold everything you came out to sell. Well, guess what? It happens! Even the best sellers, with the most desirable cargo in the world, will sometimes go home with some of what they brought out.
Rule-of-thumb: If it doesn't sell after three consecutive swap events, it's not going to.
No matter if you're buying or selling, it all comes back to those same three words from earlier: 'Knowledge is Power.'
The more you choose to teach yourself about the equipment you're selling or shopping for, the stronger your background knowledge of electronics, the better equipped you'll be to tackle any swap meet or surplus store with impunity. You don't need an engineering degree to come away with a good deal, but you will also be at a nasty disadvantage if you don't at least have some idea of what you're looking for, and what its price points are.
Above all else, remember these critical points:
(1) Be polite! You're trying to reach a mutually agreeable price for something you want. Nothing more! If the seller is a complete jerk, then it is best to simply break things off, thank the seller for their time, and move on. Ignore any insults or comments the seller may hurl after you! An obnoxious seller is their own worst enemy.
(2) Be persistent, but not a pest. If a seller has something you want, but you were unable to reach a bargain point the first time, try again as the day progresses (assuming the item in question doesn't sell to someone else). Don't make a pest of yourself. Check back, say, every hour to hour-and-a-half, right up until the seller is packing to leave or the event closes, whichever comes first. You may get lucky!.
(3) 'People' sense and common sense go hand-in-hand. Use them both! The big advantage swap meets have over Ebay is you can meet your seller face-to-face. Take advantage of this!
(4) Don't fret if you miss out on something! Getting upset will only cloud your ability to spot other deals.
(5) 'Latest' is not always the greatest!
(6) The best way to avoid costly mistakes is to go with a friend or mentor who is already an experienced scrounger, someone who knows the ropes of swaps and surplus stores right along with the equipment. Amateur ('ham') radio or computer clubs are a great place to find such friends. Once you feel comfortable striking off on your own, do it! As you gain skill, you might consider mentoring someone else. Pass on the Scrounging Legacy, Grasshopper!
(7) The risks and rewards of scrounging can be equally great. Many others besides myself have already been wildly successful at the game, and YOU can do it too! Educate yourself, make good use of both online forums and live events, and you will likely never lack for what you're after.
Quando Omni Flunkus Moritati! (Red Green, aka Steve Smith)
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