Saturday, August 22, 2015

Buying and Selling (I)

When I first bought my Toyota Landcruiser in 2006 or thereabouts, I didn't know that much about them, at least at the detail level. Nevertheless, I did what research I could and had at least a little knowledge going in, which, as they say, can be a dangerous thing. It surely was in my case.

I had visited Australia long ago, and while I spent most of my time there along the east coast, still had the impression in my head that the country was mostly a desert. From that impression, and due to the availability of a certain model of diesel-engined Toyota Landcruiser in that market, I felt that a truck from that part of the world wasn't likely to be a rust bucket. Problem with my shallow analysis was that most Australians do not live in the dry interior of the continent, but rather along the coasts. And if a Landcruiser owner lives along the coast, it is highly likely that he/she will have taken their truck along the beach more than a few times. The salt water and sand spray mixture sure does its magic on the sheet metal of those trucks, as one could well imagine if one considered it for a moment.

Despite that misapprehension, I knew enough to ask the seller of the truck, quite directly, if it had been on the beach, and whether it had had much bondo in the body. The seller, in one of his characteristically terse replies, said "no beach, no bondo".

Well, when the truck arrived on Vancouver Island I was some $11,000 in. And upon inspection, it did actually run (the motor turned out to be a basket case in the end), however the floors of the truck seemed to be composed of at least as much roofing patching compound as sheet metal. Not what I wanted to see, and funny enough not something the seller had mentioned in his description of the vehicle. Months later, when I had the truck completely apart, and was turning the body tub over, a cascade of white sand came out from the crevices....

"No beach, no bondo" - heheh, it's almost humorous now to consider the bald-faced nature of that lie. I felt was doing my due-diligence and asking the right sort of questions, but sometimes people just outright lie to you, all for a bit of money. That truck was, in the end, shot from stem to stern and needed extensive rebuild. Not what I imagined when I bought it. I poured a huge amount of money and time into that truck, and it did get me across the continent, with a ton (all my worldly possessions) loaded up. We have some history for sure, most of it positive. I think they are great trucks in general, just wish I'd picked a different one to start with.

I've owned a lot of different older and 'interesting' vehicles in my time, unfortunately some of them of British manufacture from the 1970's, if you know what i mean, and I have been mislead by sellers in many instances, if not all. A pretty girl once, without saying much, easily relieved me of $4000 for a mid-70's Volkswagen Westfalia van which I later named 'the anti-Christ' for its propensity to break down randomly and mysteriously and fall apart. It was good off road, and could carry a decent payload, I'll give it that.

Indeed, it is such a common occurrence in my experience of buying used vehicles that I more or less take it for granted that the seller is lying to some degree in some respect to what they are selling. Maybe it is worst with vehicle sales, though I imagine yacht sales must be kinda similar. This reality hasn't lead me to become hardened and cynical about the process of buying cars or trucks, or made me suspicious of people -  I guess I go in knowing what I know, and have a vague sense of what I don't know, and hope that whatever lays in those unknowns does not come to bite me too hard later on.

When it came time to sell the truck, I was at that classic point - and some readers may be familiar with it, if they are as hopeless at this process as I am - where the vast amount of money invested in building up and restoring the vehicle is not exactly met by what the market will generally pay for the vehicle. And there comes a point where further money simply isn't going to go into the vehicle from my end, no way and no how, and it has to be moved down the line to someone else who will make of the situation what they can. Fresh eyes, fresh dreams, fresh pocketbook.

In the case of my Landcruiser, it was a truck which formed part of a vision about about how my life would unfold. My life however unfolded differently in terms of lifestyle and living situation, and I found myself with a truck I rarely used, which sat and slowly rusted for the most part. It was interesting to own a vehicle which elicited stares and enthusiastic 'thumbs up' signs from passersby, however having 'a real head-turner' was never much of a motivation for me.

Now, my way of doing things when I am the seller is not to pay forward what the previous seller offered to me on the honesty front; rather I do the exact opposite. I will scrupulously describe the vehicle's faults, and will make no effort to whitewash or omit mention of things which are wrong with the vehicle but are not obvious to view. I do this because it is how I would have liked to have been treated when I was the buyer, and for no other reason. I wouldn't want to feel at the end of the transaction that I had hoodwinked anybody. I've been told by people close to me that I am being "too honest" in that respect, but I think that the only way I can right a wrong is by not repeating the same behavior to the next guy. It's a form of idealism on my part, I'll grant you that.

Old Landcruiser trucks, funny enough, attract a similar sort of person as those attracted to Japanese carpentry, or timber framing or other 'olde world' crafts - with the romance lenses planted firmly in front of their eyes. The truck represents something larger, makes a statement about a noble way of life, rugged independence, simplicity and utility, or something like that. I've suffered myself from those tinted lenses many a time. I get it, and am not here to condemn it. Maybe better to have a rosy view from time to time that a bleak one all of the time.

I had tried to sell the truck a few times and had buyers come close, but deals were never closed. I took it off the market and reconsidered options, eventually returning to the same conclusion: the truck had to be sold. I still felt a bit reluctant however. Finally I just got to that point where I - and my wife - were just getting fed up with thinking about the "what are we going to do with the truck?" issue, and put the 'bucket of bolts' back up for sale at what seemed to me a ridiculously low price. Sure enough, I got a flurry of inquiries, and people talking about "running out to get a plane ticket" to come out and see the truck, and little by little these apparently interested buyers fell by the wayside. Some were suspicious that my price was too low. Those that did inquire more seriously were met by my dispassionate account of the truck, pros and cons. Maybe they wanted to be sold a shining vision of a city by the seas, and were put off by the unvarnished nature of my account. I still felt that the truck was an incredible deal - at $12,500 - and yet I still couldn't sell it.

This went on and on and then, in a last-ditch sort of effort, in a 'fuck it' moment, I dropped the price to $10,000.

Again, a flurry of excitement and activity ensued, and I had many long phone calls with various prospective buyers. Soon afterwards, I had the truck sold, received a deposit...then the buyer lost his job. The deal fell through. Then another guy was dead serious, thought about it over the weekend, and changed his mind. Then a fellow from Olympia WA  who could scrape together $9200 was really really keen. He wrote me many emails. He had a dream about coming out and driving the truck back to Washington with his son. I suggested that a drive in a truck which rides like an oxcart when unloaded, is kinda loud, get's warm inside from the drivetrain heat, and has no a/c, driving across the country in the hottest month may not be the pleasure trip he was imagining, but of course it was his choice to do whatever he wanted.

Then it looked like the first buyer might have found a new job, but it wasn't starting for a couple of weeks, and.... finally the second buyer who had changed his mind then changed his mind again and actually flew out from Tennessee and bought the truck. He also came with his son and they made the drive back to TN in 16 hours. When he arrived he wrote me and thanked me for being an honest seller and that the truck performed as I said it would. He seemed happy and that gave me a measure of satisfaction. I can't control what other people do, but I can control what I do. I'm glad he is going to enjoy playing around with the truck and hope he will make good use of it. I was relieved to have moved on frankly, and a little sad to see the truck go of course.

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 I've had similar experiences buying woodworking machinery as I have vehicles. A lot of sellers will lie or misrepresent. There seems to be three species of lie:


  1. The outright, knowing falsehood
  2. The lie by omission
  3. The lie by evasion

And just because people may lie in these instances doesn't make them 'liars' as such - though there have been times in the past where I've asserted just that - simply put, for some reason or another they can't bring themselves to be fully honest when they are selling something. It's a curious thing.

Sure, 'buyer beware' applies, and some would grunt out, as some sort of guiding principle, "there's a sucker born every minute", or, "a fool and his money are soon parted", etc... But I guess the person who came up with that expression in the first place, and those who use it, would have to admit that they too are a sucker, since they were born at some point. I don't really want to look at people in such a light.

I've found people will lie equally as much in person as they will at a distance. When I bought that Delta Rockwell drill press a couple of years back, the seller lives only about half an hour's drive from me. When I came to inspect the machine, I discovered he was a professional machinist by day who also had a home workshop crammed with machinery. It was a neat and tidy place, well organized, and he seemed like a decent friendly fellow. He obviously knew a fair bit about machining and machinery, and I took this to mean that he looked after his equipment well. It seemed a fair assumption at least from what I could observe. When he demonstrated the drill press, he had it set on a really low rpm, however I didn't think much of it as he was a metal guy and metalworking equipment often operates on low rpm, at least compared to a lot of woodworking machines. The seller mentioned that the machine could "probably use new bearings" however he didn't seem too interested in doing the work of replacing the bearings when I asked him about it.

It was only when I got the machine home and moved the belt to a higher speed setting on the stepped pulleys that I discovered the spindle had a fair amount of run out. The run out wasn't apparent at all at 80 rpm, but was very clear at 1200 rpm. The machine probably would have blown itself up if run on the highest possible speeds. I realized I had been fooled by the seller, and not accidentally either. He surely knew about the runout - he'd in fact mentioned it at one point, though immediately downplayed the issue. I called him and mentioned my discovery and he started the usual defensive waffling and equivocating, so no point going further.

Next time I shop for a similar machine, I would know to bring an indicator and check the spindle run out. That's how we learn lessons in that school of hard knocks I guess. It was a $450 purchase, and a couple of weeks back I sold that drill press, as a 'parts machine' being clear with the buyer that the spindle was bent and runout was unacceptable, for $200. So, fair enough, the machine didn't really owe me much if we look at the 3-year ownership as akin to a rental, save for the fact that the service it provided consisted of non-round holes. Grr. My experiences with sourcing parts for the machine also provided me with another lesson: avoid Delta and its products at all costs. I think piece of info alone made it well worth it in fact.

When you are buying a thing you bring your knowledge into it, which may be a little or a lot, depending. If you've had sufficient experience with a particular product before, then you will know exactly what to look at when buying another one, especially if you've had it apart to any degree. You never really know a machine until you take it apart - that's what they say and it is absolutely true. With experience, you'll know to check the weak spots more carefully, can judge whether the machine is complete and operating well, what the scene is like for spare parts, and whether it is fairly priced. If you are not familiar with the exact model, perhaps you are familiar with that class of machine, be it a jointer, or a bandsaw, edge sander, what have you, and have a good idea what to look at, save for those details which are unique to the machine in question. Or, worst case, you have next to no experience with a type of machine, or machinery in general, and will find yourself very much at a disadvantage. All you have to consider then is the general appearance, kinda like looking under the hood of a modern car if you're not an auto mechanic: it just looks like a mass of wires and piping and covers and your eye doesn't know where to look really.

That leaves you then with the vibe you get from the seller. Are they telling you the truth? It's certainly not the best position to be in as a buyer.

I mean, if you don't have an experienced friend to bring in tow to look things over, or at least someone you can talk to on a phone or send pictures to while you're there looking, the options for obtaining knowledge beforehand about what you are looking to buy are otherwise going to come from two places, the internet and the seller's advertisement. We all know what it is like looking on the internet for opinions about pretty much any product. A lot of reviews out there are conflicting and confusing, and for every passionate advocate there seems to be a vehement detractor. You can spend hours researching and at the end be more confused than ever. This is all the more the case when the product in question has been purchased by a lot of people, like, say, a toaster oven or washing machine.

What I've found is a good sign when you're in the position of not knowing much about a machine is how willing the seller is to answer your questions and whether they do so to any degree of depth and candor. Do they point out any negatives, or is it all, apparently, shining and wonderful? Sorry to say for all those guys out there who were brought up on the role model of the 'strong silent type', I find people who are terse in their replies to be a sign that they are probably hiding something. Not always of course, but it's a red flag for me.

My experience recently in purchasing that Zimmermann pattern milling machine was a good one. Even though the sellers had limited English (and I have zero German short of a few words and phrases), we were able to communicate well. They answered all of my questions clearly. I asked them to take a video to prove that everything on the machine worked, along with another video of the spindle run out measured with an indicator. They complied even though they were a little challenged by the process of taking and uploading a video. When I asked them about an electrical wire going nowhere that was visible in one of the pictures, they told me that a lamp was supposed to be mounted there and was missing. I figured that was an easy and minor thing to omit in a description of a large somewhat complicated machine, so I didn't assume they were trying to hide something. In the end, I thought they were great to deal with. I guess I'll know for sure once I have received the machine.

There are still unknowns with this machine, and I'm sure I will learn about them in due time. I've considered the worst case (that the machine will need a full strip down and rebuild) and decided that, for the price, the risk is acceptable.

Of course, it is always best to look at an item in person, but as noted above with the anecdote about the drill press purchase, you can be fooled by seeing a thing right in front of you quite easily, depending upon the sellers propensity for sleight of hand maneuvers. And with the Zimmermann, I strongly suspect that there aren't even any examples of the same machine in the United States to look at, let alone any which are for sale or close enough to look at. A machine in Germany and one in Los Angeles are both long plane flights away, right? So, there's a risk involved no matter what, a certain point where you are taking a chance.

It's just the same really when buying a new item. It may be a lemon from the production line, or maybe everything coming off that production line, despite appearances, is a lemon. It may be from a company that will do next to nothing to support the product once they have sold it to you. It may be from a company that once had an outstanding reputation for great products and after-sales service who was recently acquired by a hedge fund and they are being shredded to the bone for profit taking and product quality has just gone downhill. That new toy you bought for your kids might have lead paint covering it, or the infant formula have melamine mixed in. You think you can trust the entities which inspect and certify things, but sometimes they are compromised and not serving the best interests of the public. There are usually going to be things you don't know whenever you buy something. Risk aversion, I think, is what leads most folks to stick with 'trusted brands', eat at chain restaurants, and so forth.

Anyhow, I've rattled on long enough for one posting. I recently went through another interesting buying process with another woodworking machine, and I'll leave that account for the next post. Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

6 comments:

  1. Thank you for the very interesting post, I've been looking at used woodworking equipment in my local market. It is amazing how many people are selling hard used poorly built tools that honestly believe through ignorance that they have a great tool. The only good experience I've had buying used tools has been hand tools from Japan, working through a reputable broker that wouldn't have a business without repeat satisfied customers.
    For a while I thought I could "get into" machine tool reconditioning. Hand scraping is one thing, but there's no putting lipstick on a pig, you have to start with a properly built machine. I've really enjoyed reading back through some of your previous posts about the machines you've worked with over the years, truly enlightening knowledge for someone like me coming from a largely hand tool perspective.

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    Replies
    1. Gabe,

      well made tools, whether powered or otherwise, are a joy to own and can give great results when properly tuned. I've got the Connelly book on scraping, and it seems straightforward enough, with practice of course. I think if you come from a background of using hand tools like chisels and plane, then hand scraping cast iron is no great mystery. Half the battle is having the right sort of reference plates and straightedges to do the job right.

      ~C

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  2. I must be extremely blessed. My only major power tool purchase was a vintage Delta Super 10 table saw. The man selling it was really nice, he had multiple other saws and his wife was making him sell some of his tools in a garge sale. He tested it for me without me asking, although his techniques were a little scary. He sold it to me for $40, then gave me a Stanley pre-war #4 for $5, complete with original japanning, and as sharp and rustless as the day his father gave it to him. He refused to take more money; I told him he could get much more than $5, but he was bent on giving it to me.

    The saw is almost perfect. There was no rust, some white paint though. The only fault is the fence tends to lock in diagonally, so it takes care to do any rip cuts.

    Now, flea markets, eBay, and even Woodworking society auctions, I have had bad luck with.

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  3. Steve,

    thanks for the comment. It is those moments where a stranger treats us very well that remind us of the generosity and kindness of which man is capable.

    ~C

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  4. On behalf of all Australians, I apologise...

    Derek

    ReplyDelete

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