Into the bay: Tips for buying used test equipment on eBay
Brad Thompson, Contributing Technical Editor firstname.lastname@example.org- November 1, 2006
Regular readers may recall that several years ago I wondered where the under-$1000 spectrum analyzer (SA) was hiding (“Commentary,” October 2001). In another column, I discussed a newly announced under-$1000 SA and explored the logistics of purchasing instruments manufactured offshore (“Test Voices,” October 2005). Unfortunately, I haven't yet won a lottery, and purchasing a new name-brand SA from a manufacturer exceeds my financial means. After exploring used-instrument and off-lease dealers' offerings—still above my price range—I took a deep breath and double-clicked on the eBay icon. I'll tell you what I've found so far.
First, a search on “spectrum analyzer” returns many listings of dead and working instruments (and pieces thereof), interconnecting cables, and manuals (printed originals and CD-ROM copies). You can narrow the selection by searching for specific models and manufacturers.
Pick an instrument listing and read the description. Look at the pictures that should accompany the listing— are the photos consistent with any obvious physical defects (e.g., a broken handle or dented cover) noted in the description? Check areas around the front-panel controls for heavy wear. Are rear-panel air filters present and clean? While cleanliness may appear cosmetic, at least the seller cared enough to improve an instrument's outer appearance. Look for calibration-sticker dates.
Don't hesitate to ask whether higher-resolution photos are available, and always devise a question to ask the seller. If you get no response, look for another seller. Read “Feedback” ratings with skepticism—eBay's 80-character limit doesn't provide much useful information, but a careful reading of negative ratings and responses reveals how a seller handled past disputes. Be suspicious of sellers with monikers such as “Sleazoid” or “Nastyman” that offer backscratchers and adult videos along with test equipment.
If sharply defined photos show an instrument with power applied, look for front-panel error indicators, blurred CRT displays, and missing rear-panel interconnecting cables. Most auction photos show what's promised in the description, so ask about any discrepancies.
Above all, remember the two laws of auctions: Let the buyers beware, and don't scratch your head during bidding.