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Buying a Pinball Machine

Many people wonder where they can get a pinball machine… well, there are many avenues to reach your goal!

Before even considering buying a pinball machine, you should realize that you are buying commercially-used equipment and they can and do break or malfunction and require periodic maintenance to keep on performing properly.  These are mechanical devices typically owned by professional vending companies that have a staff of technicians to maintain them and keep them running.  Even games that are purchased brand new can have problems right out-of-the-box.  Unless you can do repair work yourself, they can be very expensive to fix.  Heck, they can be expensive to fix even if you DO know how to fix them!

Amusement retailers.  If you are new to pinball and don’t know a solenoid from a flasher, this is the route that I suggest you take.  You will definitely pay the highest price for a game, but in the long run, especially if you only plan on having one or two games around and not make it into an addiction, you’ll have fewer headaches.  A reputable retailer will provide you with a fully restored or at least fully shopped machine.  Everything will be working and the game will look and play great.  They will (or should) also give you at least a 30 day or longer warranty on the game.  After restoration, any weak spots will generally show within 30 days anyway, as the game will get heavily played when you first get it because it is a cool new toy.

A retailer will also offer home delivery.  Did you know that pinball machines weight about 300 pounds?  Maneuvering a machine down a tight set of stairs is a real challenge and retailers do it all the time.  Don’t damage your new game or your home trying to get your 300 pound toy through the family room and into the finished basement that you thought didn’t need an outside entrance.

Retailers are always willing to come service a game that they sold you or at least refer you to a reputable repair person (like me!).  It may not be free service, but at least you’ll have someone to call.  There are very few independent repair people that are willing to make house calls.  Most of the larger retailers will absolutely not service a game that they did not originally sell.  They are already too busy servicing their own customers and restoring games.  Home service is often viewed as more of a hassle than a profit center for a retailer, so the less of it they have to do, the better.  That in itself is the best reason for the retailer to make sure that a game is as reliable as possible before delivering it to your home.  There definitely are certain weak points in just about every generation of pinball machine electronics and a retailer that is giving you a full warranty will take the necessary steps to remedy known flaws in the factory designs to make a game last a lifetime instead of doing a quick-fix just to get the game operational.  Many retailers offer trade-in programs too!

Basement dealers.  There are many people that sell games out of their garages or basements on a regular basis.  With the advent of eBay, these dealers have sprung up overnight.  There are good and bad dealers and sometimes it’s a crap shoot.  Some will give a great warranty and have loads of references and others may give no warranty and be here one day and gone the next.  You should definitely expect to pay less from a basement dealer because they have no overhead.  Some will deliver and others will not.  They may or may not perform all of the reliability modifications needed on a game.  I know of good basement dealers who operate just as professionally as large retailers and not-so-good basement dealers who will rig a game to work just long enough to get it out the door.

Private sellers.  These are the folks that sell a few games in varying conditions out of their garage every year.  Many will sell through local classifieds, the  internet classifieds, or on eBay.  They usually sell to other hobbyists and collectors who know at least a little bit about the machines they are buying.  The games can be non-working project games or parts machines to fully functioning and beautiful games.  Some people buy games through auctions and other channels and resell them as-is to make a little side money to help cover the costs of their pinball hobby.  Some will get non-working games fully working before resale.  Some will fully shop and/or restore games before resale for a much higher price.  It all depends on the game in question.

If you are going to buy from a private seller, make sure you go over the game and play it for quite a while before you take it home, because once you get home, if it doesn’t work, it’s your problem, not the sellers.  They have no way to tell if you damaged the game while transporting it or plugging a wiring harness into the wrong spot.  There are good and bad private sellers.  Some will be willing to help you after the sale and some will not.

Homeowner sellers.  This is the person that has had an old game in their home for quite a while and just wants to get rid of it, so maybe they place an ad in the local classifieds.  The game may be working or not and obviously you will get no warranty nor delivery.  They also usually do not know what the game is really worth and may be charging too much or too little for the game.  Unfortunately, mostly it’s the former, rather than the latter of the two situations.  This is one of the drawbacks of the “information age” that we live in today.  Someone can have a clunker machine, but see a nice working machine sell on eBay or on an internet retailer’s web site and expect you to pay them $1200 for their $200 game.

Auctions.  If you are new to pinball, I do not, repeat NOT recommend buying a game at a coin-op or amusement auction.  You need to know what to look for in a game and what the value of the game is before even considering buying from an auction.  Homeowners always tend to overpay for games at an auction, sometimes up to $1000 above what a game is really worth just because they have no clue of what to look for or what a game is worth!  I have seen people buy games for $1600 that had warped playfields with major pieces missing off of the game when all of the sensible bidders backed off at $500.

Also, you did know that you are bidding against the owner of the machine at the auction didn’t you?  Yes, it’s true, most auctions will allow the seller of the game to bid on their own equipment to drive the price higher.  It’s a “legitimate” practice called a buy-back that is done all the time to protect the seller from having to sell a game too cheaply and if the seller has a sucker on the line, they’ll ride the price right through the roof.  If you are unfamiliar with how a game should look or operate, don’t buy it.  I always tend to get a glut of calls after an auction weekend from homeowners that thought they were getting a “deal”.

Most of the time, the games are locked at the auction.  You can play them, but can’t look inside to check the general condition of the game.  I have seen games with hacked wiring harnesses, tin-foil and nails jammed in the fuse holders, missing circuit boards or a totally rusted-out bottom side of the playfield and the list goes on and on.  Some game features are not activated until you get deeper into a game, so just because a game is playing doesn’t mean it is fully working.

I had a customer that bought an auction game call me up and say they found out their game should be moving a certain motorized part on the playfield and it wasn’t working.  I showed up and lifted the playfield and found that the whole motor assembly was missing from the game!  It’s a $200 part to replace and now they’ll have to pay me to come back again along with paying to install the new part, if it is even available.  You did know that the manufacturers of almost every machine at an auction are out of business didn’t you?  Sometimes parts are NLA or no longer available.  The person wound up selling me their game for far less than they paid for it at the auction.

Auctions are typically the end of the line for games that have been “on-location” for many years and have had a very hard life.  If you do buy one at an auction, are you prepared to break a machine down and transport it?  Hope you have some good friends and a big truck as they weigh about 300 pounds and must be removed within a few hours!  Bring your own extension cord if you plan on attending an auction.

eBay.  With the advent of eBay, basically anyone with a free garage bay has become a pinball machine dealer.  Many people buy games at an auction that are half-working and simply flip them onto eBay to make a quick few hundred dollars.  When the game shows up and doesn't work, they often claim ignorance.  My policy for eBay is that if it is not a local seller where I can go and look at the game, I wouldn’t even consider buying it.  Verbal descriptions of a game are very subjective and some people will say a game is MINT when it is in-fact, very UN-mint.  Auction photos are often taken from too far away or do not represent enough detail to give you a true idea of the games condition.  It is also very easy to shoot only the best parts of a game and crop-out any flaws with photo editing software.  Some games look great on eBay and are a nightmare when you get them delivered.  Some underhanded sellers will actually send you a game that is totally different from the one that was pictured in the auction!

If a game does not work after shipping, the seller can claim that it was damaged in shipment.  Who knows if it even worked before it was shipped?  Games can also get damaged in shipping.  I know, you insured it, but now try to collect on that insurance.  A carrier can say that it was packaged incorrectly and deny the claim.  A carrier can also say that the game was shipped under the wrong classification and deny the claim.  To get the best shipping rate, the seller ships it classified as “used industrial equipment” ($100 shipping charge), but the carrier says it should have been classified as a “sensitive electronic device” ($400+ shipping charge!) so it would have been handled differently if classified properly.  Some people actually do have good experiences buying games on eBay, but be aware of the pitfalls!