Come on in pull up a chair and have a cup of coffee. The whole gang is here ready to listen. This is where all the non-modeling articles wind up. Here you can find subjects ranging from the zen of garden railroading to philosophical discussions on field mower brands…all with a large dose of silliness of course.
Ten Things Every Garden Railroader Should Know About Buying From On-line Auction/ Resale Sites
We are all painfully aware of the demise of brick and mortar hobby shops. The internet killed the mom and pop store so what is a hobbyist to do? If you can’t beat’em then join’em. Unfortunately those on-line options are not without pitfalls. Buying from the factory will usually be at the MSRP. YIKES! Even an online discounter could be more than the budget can stand. The last option is the secondary market known as the online auction or resale site. If you have ventured into this area you are most likely aware that it is fraught with perils ranging from the mildly deceitful to the outright dishonest.
Over the last twenty years I have bought from Craig’s list, Amazon, Big Red Toy Box, Trainz and of course E-bay with very good success…. most of the time. I have learned, sometimes at great cost, how to avoid getting ripped off. Here are ten things you should check before hitting the buy/bid button. I will use E-bay as the example since it is the largest and most commonly known but the same rules apply to all such sites in general.
1. Know what you are buying. Go shopping with the knowledge of what you want, who made it and what is the current market price.
Adding a new piece of rolling stock, structure or some electronics to your collection is fun but charging into a general search of all 23,000 large-scale listings on E-bay is like going to the grocery store hungry. You might jump on what appears to be a great deal without checking it out. Choose what you are going to buy before going on line. If you are going to browse then save the things you are interested in your watch list. Go back after you are done searching and look at each item in detail. Garden railroading is for the most part a slow moving market. You are not likely to miss a great deal by just minutes. This cool down period may give you a chance to spot something fishy.
Knowing who manufactured an item will insure that you get the correct item that you want. Many of us own Bachmann products and are quite happy with them. The problem is there are so many changes and upgrades that look alike and use the same stock number it is easy to pay top dollar for a low end version. Wheel type is one of the most common changes. Early Bighauler items came with plastic wheels while all metal wheels are now the standard. This is a $20 difference in value.
There is no use buying from an auction seller if the price is higher than the manufacturer or authorized distributor. Go to the company website and see what the MSRP is. It will be the highest price you will find. Most companies support their dealers by not undercutting them. Next, search the authorized dealers which are usually linked from the manufacturer’s website. Finally check the discount and liquidation sites. Train-world is one of the best sources. You should now have an idea of the new, mint in box “MIB”, market value for your item. Don’t forget to check shipping charges. Most dealers will be very reasonable because they get bulk discounts and flat rates.
Doing the research makes everything listed below work. If you know what you are wanting to buy then the garage sale grannies and synthetic snake oil salesmen with their claims of an ultra rare, gold plated, only made 100 of them, HO Tyco piece-O-crap listed in the wrong section may make you shake your head over “what are they trying to pull” but it won’t cost you any money.
2. Search the smallest number of “key words” to find your item. If your search parameters are too specific you may not find all of the items that match what you want or you may not find anything at all. A seller may not call their item “Bachmann boxcar D&RGW #3456”. E-bay only lists results that contain all of your key search words. In order to find that new boxcar just enter the word “boxcar” and hit the search button. On the left side of the search page you will see a breakdown of all the sub-categories whose title includes the word boxcar. If you have not already narrowed your search to the G scale sub-category, now is the time to do so. A search this broad should get the choices down to 300 or fewer results. If there are still too many results then add a second word. Use something that the average person would know. In this example try “Bachmann” or “MIB”. Avoid terms that only railroad nerds will know such as “Murphy Roof” or “Outside Braced”. Go through all of the results and save any that look promising to your watch list.
3. Check the price. Go to your summary page and delete any item that is higher than the price + shipping for a new item from a reputable dealer. Why would anyone place an item on auction for more than a regular dealer? Because they know people will buy it without doing any research. This is not to say they are dishonest. They may not get the discounts that a large retailer does or they may have more overhead costs. Even a basement business selling on-line has expenses. E-bay / Pay-pal fees are now in the 15% range and those apply to money collected for shipping as well as purchase price. Then of course they could be a scumbag crook preying on the unprepared.
4. Check the shipping charges. Only the highest volume sellers get discounts on shipping. With rate hikes from the post office the total of price + shipping can make buying from a dealer more attractive. Shipping is also one of the ways you can gauge the honesty of your seller. It is common for unscrupulous sellers to list an item as “Buy It Now” at a ridiculously low price but have outrageous shipping. They hope you will see that $1 boxcar and hit the button before it gets away not realizing they have listed flat rate shipping as $75.
5. Check the description of the item. By E-bay terms of service a seller can put anything they want in the title, they are however bound by the description. This is not always deceitful but helps the search engine find your items. Titles may sound like gibberish as the seller strings together what he hopes are the most common key words and related terms. The description however, should include a clear statement of what is being sold. Look for the scale; 1/32, 1/29, 1/22.5 etc… If the seller has listed the item as “G” scale with no other information they may be purposely avoiding the point. This is especially true of figures and vehicles. If the item is listed as “new” see if the original packaging is included or if it is “MIB”. A missing or incomplete description on a “used” item is a red flag.
6. Compare the description to the picture. No picture or bad picture. Hit delete. If they do not have time to post a good photo they do not have time to fix a problem with your purchase. E-bay recently changed its listing fees to allow sellers to upload a total of six pictures at no extra charge. A lot of sellers will often say “see picture for details”. It may save time when listing multiple items but it works in your favor as the burden of accurately describing an item is on the seller. You cannot for example know that an engine has a burned up motor by looking at a picture. Be on the lookout for “weasel” pictures. These may show all sorts of things in the photo such as detail items that are not included according to the description.
7. Ask the seller any questions you may have. Just below the description is a block that says “ask seller a question”. You should get an answer within 24 hours. If you do not, or the answer is vague or misleading then walk away. Poor communication is a sign of incompetence or deceit. If they do not have time to answer your question they do not have time to fix your problem.
8. Check the seller’s feedback. Next to the sellers name is a number. It is how many unique feedbacks they have received since they started selling on E-bay. Click on the number and you will be redirected to a listing of their most current feedback. It goes back 12 months. You can click the neutral or negative number to get a condensed list of those two categories. Negative feedback does not mean they are bad sellers. If you do enough business you are going to get some battle scars. Lots of sales means lots of feedbacks and could mean lots of negatives even for a good seller. Every feedback provides a small space for comments. Look for patterns in those comments such as, “item not as described, did not receive item, or did not reply to e-mails”. These are all serious issues and a group of them indicates a problem. The seller can post a response on negative feedbacks. Blaming the buyer for not reading the description is fairly common and often true. Do a double check on the item description to make sure you know what is being sold.
9. Always use Pay-pal. Do not send cash, checks or money orders. Do not give your credit card number to anyone (but you can use it through Pay-pal). Pay-pal costs the buyer nothing. All fees are deducted from the sellers account. Both E-bay and Pay-pal have a policy for reimbursement if you are defrauded. They are both simple and relatively quick. The one from Pay-pal will cover any purchase you make on-line from any company that uses their service not just E-bay, as long as you made the purchase through Pay-pal. This means that even if you get a box of busted crap and the seller cancels their account and moves to outer-Mongolia to hide under a rock you will still get your money back. Don’t have a Pay-pal account? It’s free for buyers. Join the 21st century, install electric lights and indoor plumbing and get yourself a Pay-pal account.
10. Get a tracking number and insurance for your shipment. All major shippers offer tracking and $50 – $100 in insurance for free, depending on the service provided. There is no excuse for a seller failing to provide a tracking number. It is their proof to E-bay that they mailed your package and will show up on your summary page next to the item you purchased. Click on it to get a hot link to the carrier’s page. It will show where your item is at. E-bay encourages sellers to ship items and post tracking numbers within 3 business days but allows up to 5 before they get involved. Still some sellers do not post them. If you do not receive your item and no tracking number has been provided within ten business days hit the complaint button next to the item on your summary page. E-bay will normally ask you to wait two weeks before they force a resolution from the seller.
Don’t be afraid of an overseas seller; remember E-bay covers your purchases. I have had good luck with sellers in England, Germany and Australia. Sellers in China and Taiwan use airmail packets for small items which are very affordable. Allow extra time for delivery from these locations. The only country I have had problems with is Canada. Their customs procedures are slow and often lose packages. If you are buying large expensive items from overseas insist on Fed-Ex.
The best way to resolve a problem with on-line auction and resale sites is to avoid one in the first place. Remember that seller’s are morons trying to make a buck. You can’t change that but you can be a smart buyer. I hope this will help all of you navigate your way in the changing retail market of our hobby and find the items you need.
Introducing: the Dread-Knot Project
As you can see from the picture below winter has finally arrived and I can say with absolute certainty that operations on the Cibola line are closed until next spring. There are places on my layout that will not thaw until April. I guess it is time to turn to my work bench and get some of those rolling stock and scenery projects done, but where to start? I have lots of kits on hand and plenty of things on my wish list. Should I start something new or finish something that has been sitting on the shelf for a while? I decided to go with the latter and that is where I got into trouble.
Here is a rare view of my well organized train closet. It is so backlogged I had to hire an assistant to track everything.
As I perused the train closet I found half built tank cars, partially assembled figures waiting for a headectomy or arm swap and plenty of Hubley kits in various states of disarray. Little did I realize the danger of such a casual approach as lurking high on the top shelf was my nemesis… engine 37. (Insert pause with dramatic musical score here…duh, duh, dum….) A cold chill ran down my spine as the memories of the little 2-8-0 came flooding back. It had been my first installation of a battery / RC system. I had not touched it since last year when I accepted that the job was not up to standards and had to be completely redone. It had set all summer neglected and forlorn waiting for some detail work as well as paint and lettering.
As I carefully pulled it down so as not to dump the loose parts piled on top of the tender I realized that it was a project in its own category. Not a mere common shelf sitter but something more powerful and daunting. Just getting it to the work bench was overwhelming. Did this small model really weigh over one hundred pounds? Such was my angst that I could not even bring myself to pick up a screwdriver. What kind of beast was this? Why was it so hard to get started? I struggled for a word to describe this type of project but my vocabulary failed me. It needed that name. Some term that when used in conjunction with the word finished would let other garden railroaders know that a great triumph over despair and procrastination had been achieved. Without that term there would be only benign acknowledgment, ho-hum, “oh you got another engine completed”, but with it, all hearing the announcement would congratulate me in hushed and reverent tones fully grasping the weight of the accomplishment.
Days went by. I searched the dictionary and a thesaurus, I trolled Wikipedia, I contacted the greatest philosophical minds in the world, consulted with religious leaders and even resorted to asking the “magic 8 ball”, but the answer eluded me. My quest finally ended the night of the NMGRR Christmas potluck. Having feasted on BBQ pork, posole, cornbread and pecan pie I made the rounds socializing with all of the club members. Finally in a dimly lit, smoke filled back room I found the group I needed, it was none other than the NMGRR “Brain-trust”. Without hesitation I poured out my quandary and then waited for the gears to turn. To say the least it was one of the most transcending moments of my hobby life. All present immediately grasped the situation as they too had dealt with such projects themselves.
The quick reply I had hoped for did not materialize. Some members averted their gaze, others vapor locked deep in thought, the smell of burnt electrical components and wood smoke filled the air but nobody had an answer. Even the most learned and esteemed members drew a blank. I was on the verge of accepting defeat when a low voice cut through the din of silence…”how about a dreadnought project”? It was Lonnie Brandenburg, veteran of many a difficult project and experienced kit-basher. Glances were exchanged. Heads nodded approval. Eyes brightened. The mood lifted and soon concurrence was reached. Dreadnought: meaning to fear nothing, unstoppable, something that is overwhelming and oppressive. It was the perfect term for which I had been searching.
Over the next few days the term migrated into; Dread-knot, as it was a project that the builder dreaded to start working on and tied their stomach in a knot from the stress. I was ecstatic at such a descriptive euphemism. I flung open the door on the train closet and counted up the number of dread-knot projects on hand. One, two…five…20, I never realized I had so many! Then I stopped and rethought my revelation. They could not all be dread-knots. Criteria would have to be set forth or the term would become meaningless with overuse. I decided on a few general guidelines, leaving the details open for interpretation by each modeler based on their own feelings.
A Dread-Knot project is one which:
- Has been started, with major work completed before the enthuse-o-meter ran out (Meaning I have hacked it up to the point where no reasonable amount of cost could be recovered by selling it on E-bay)
- Has been left unfinished for a significant amount of time, (I chose a minimum of two years)
- Requires tasks that are time consuming, frustrating and technically difficult to reach completion (So pretty much everything except opening the box)
- Upon completion it will add a unique point of interest to the layout, (I must insure that the mental agony of not having it done is maximized)
Using these guidelines I reevaluated my project list. The count was now down to three; engine 37, engine 70 and Ohmygawd trestle. I resolved to finish at least one of these before starting any new projects. Engine 37 is now dismantled on my work bench, old lettering removed, new smokestack glued and curing and the wood load for the tender under construction. When it is complete I will be certain to share the joyous news. I will expect the appropriate response from all of you as I look forward to doing the same in return for your endeavors. May we all triumph over our dread-knot projects and revel in their defeat.