We've had people ask us before how we go about buying a machine second hand. It's part practice and part intuition, but we'll share with you our bits of knowledge so that if you find a gem in the rough, you can go home a happy stitcher with a machine on the cheap!
It's kind of hard to decide whether or not you should jump on a thrift store or yard sale machine purchase, because sometimes a repair can cost upwards of $60-$100 (even for a simple tune-up) and that's assuming nothing is missing that you'll have to purchase on top of a repair. We do love a deal, and have purchased a few machines of our own from a thrift store using a few helpful hints in our decision to save us from wasting our time on a money pit (great movie, by the way).
1. Determine the original (new) cost of the machine.
This is where our smart phones comes in handy, because if it's a price difference of $30 you might as well buy it new. A new machine will often come with a standard warranty, and the full assortment of accessories (extra feet, etc.), and those can cost a bit to replace. So, our first rule of thumb is to make sure the discount is worth what might be missing or unknown.
2. Check for spare parts.
Make a mental list of everything that would typically come with the machine, and decide what could be done without - if you're using it immediately for basic sewing, you'll need the foot pedal, electric cord, and a functioning presser foot setup with your basic all purpose foot. If it's missing extra bobbins, etc. these are easy to find and cheap to replace. Even power cords are very inexpensive, and often function across companies so you might have what you need at home.
We found an Esante embroidery machine at the thrift store missing the "ankle" (or shank - what the feet snap into), presser feet, power cord, and embroidery unit attachment. The machine was only $12 so we began to assess the money we'd have to spend to make it functional. The embroidery unit may be very pricey to recover, but we didn't need to use the machine for embroidery so we didn't worry about that. The basic machine is great, and the shank could be purchased for about $10. Presser feet (we only need the basic one) run about $10, and power cord another $10. In total that's about $40 total to get a great machine back up & running, with a gamble of only $12 to begin with. These embroidery machines run over $1000, and while we weren't going to use it for embroidery, we knew that mechanisms inside were well-built and more than what we need in power for a well functioning general-use machine. We happened to have a spare universal power cord from an old printer that worked, too, so it saved us another $10! All in all, a worthy gamble.
3. Turn it on!
A machine might look perfectly well-maintained but not even power on! This is a more serious repair than a simple mechanical part, if the electrical system in the machine is out. As a general rule of thumb, we'd never buy a machine that wouldn't even turn on.
4. Smell that thing!
This one's weird, but important. Older machines have electrical problems, and you can often smell an issue with the electrical parts of a machine. If, while running, the machine emits a smell of electricity (think: sort of metallic, burning smell), this is not a good sign! You don't want to run the risk of it lighting on fire and causing serious damage to your home or work space. I don't like to mess with electricity - not worth the savings in my opinion!
5. Listen to it!
While running, listen to how smoothly the machine is running. Ideally, you'll want to avoid taking it to a repair person immediately (that's the point of saving money!) so use your eyes & ears to make sure things at least appear normal. You won't really be able to test it there, but machines are generally very vocal when something isn't right. Does it crank loudly, have a grinding sound when it's running? Might not be worth your savings unless everything else checks out and the savings are $100 or more.
6. Inspect the dust situation
Consider how well the machine seems to have been maintained and stored. Dust on a machine can rust and be deadly to machine parts, much more so than just general age. If there is less of a price gap but the machine appears to have been well maintained and it has the basic parts, it's easier to go for the purchase.
7. Consider the age
The older the machine, the more potential for problems. I try to steer clear of very old machines that seem in disrepair unless I'm planning to accept it might only function for decoration. Parts can be harder to find, and repairs might become very expensive. However, they're all mechanics so you don't have to worry about a computer-related repair that is typically impossible on a newer machine. It's something to consider and a risk to weigh out!
Do you have more suggestions you've found helpful while deciding on a second hand machine? Let us know in the comments below, we'd love your input!