The Rules of Acquisition (eBay Edition) 

Buying on eBay is an exercise in probability—that is, at some point, you are probably going to buy a dud. We’ve all been theremint” lens with noticeable fungus, a supposedly working camera with a frozen film advance, and the ultimate sales pitch “I don’t know much about cameras, but…”

One can find incredible deals on eBay. Some are so unbelievable that one hesitates to buy. I once got a set containing a Maxxum 7, Maxxum 7000, five 1985 Maxxum lenses, and a pack of batteries for much less than a Maxxum 7 alone costs. Incredible, no? It’s almost like gambling—you can win big or get burned. And this is why eBay is so addictive—it is the very essence of variable-ratio reinforcement.

A similar thing happened when I got a beautiful Maxxum 7000 set with a 50mm 1.4 lens for less than the lens usually costs. I expected to receive garbage each time, but each set was in beautiful condition. Experience the “incredible deal” a couple of times, and you will be hooked. Of course, it works the other way too. There are plenty of duds to be had as well.

I once bid on a dud masquerading as an incredible deal. The auction was for a Nikon N65 with three Nikon D lenses and a bag. I wrote the seller and asked the usual questions (any fungus, oil, haze, battery corrosion?) and was assured that all items were in good working order. Being antsy, I asked for more pics, and the seller, now indignant, insisted all items were in excellent condition. When the bag arrived, it was so filled with fungus that it looked and smelled like an old, dank basement. Alas, a first-class dud.

After four years of buying on eBay, I realize two things: 1) there are three basic categories of sellers, and 2) eBay photography listings obey a clear set of rules.

The first category, experienced sellers, includes stores, collectors, and repair shops. They offer 14-30 day returns and warranties—I have never been disappointed by a purchase from this group.

Everyday people, the second category, consists of those who use photography gear and decide to sell it at some point. This group tends to be honest and helpful and often has return policies.

The I-don’t-know-much-about-cameras (IDKMAC) folks are the third category. IDKMAC sellers offer items gathered from estates, attics, basements, garages, dumpsters, or wherever. They tend not to accept returns, and item descriptions range from brief and uselessly obvious—“Minolta camera”— to long-winded and uselessly obvious, with scant mention of the gear being sold. Something along the lines of:

“I buy and sell from estates. I am an honest seller and offer quality items. I try to describe every item accurately. Ask questions before buying. Shop with confidence. No returns

minolta camera.”

The rules apply mainly to IDKMAC folks because their descriptions usually have the most words and the least amount of helpful information. Here are my rules for reviewing IDKMAC listings. Apply these rules, and you may avoid buying a dud while hunting for the elusive “incredible deal.” (Apologies to the Grand Nagus…)

1. The Rule of Ownership-Boredom: (Bored owners often sell hard-to-find items at bargain prices)
No matter how rare or sought after a given item is, it will appear on eBay at 50-75% or less of its usual price because somebody is simply tired of owning it.

I often see cameras and lenses sold for much less than they are worth. The description often says, “I’ve had this for 15 years and rarely use it.” The price is set for quick sale. My set with the Maxxum 7 and 7000 was an ownership-boredom sale.

2. The of Rule Reluctant Bidder: (Bidders often ignore a seemingly hard-to-win auction)
For some reason, 99% of bidders will, randomly and inexplicably, watch but fail to bid on a gem with a low starting price.

I am guilty of this. I watched an X-700 auction with a starting bid of 36.00 and multiple watchers. Having tired of bidding on popular items only to get sniped at the last minute, I watched to see how high the bid would go. The camera went for 36.00!!! Only one person bid (not me). I was sick to my stomach.

Another time, I put in a bid for an MD Rokkor-X 50mm 1.4 lens. The bid started at 9.00, and three people had bid before I jumped in with three days left on the auction. I bid 23.00, then decided there was no way I could win and forgot about it. Three days later, I got an email telling me it was time to pay for my purchase. Then, I panicked, thinking I had missed a serious defect others had noticed, which is why they had bowed out of the auction. Nope. The lens was perfect.

3. The Rule of Spooky Disentanglement with Distance (The camera works for the seller, but not for you)
These listings always say, “Tested, looks good, works.” If you write to the seller, they never respond. You foolishly buy the camera, and it doesn’t work. Then the next two weeks are spent arguing about a return because the seller insists the camera works. The quantum entanglement required for correct function happens only within the immediate presence of the seller. Farther away, and it becomes a dud.

I went through this with a Hi-Matic. It had a small amount of fungus, and the rangefinder focus was off, so all my images were blurred. I returned the camera. A week later, I got a terse note from the seller saying the camera was in perfect working condition and there was no fungus.

4. The Rule of Ignorance as a Legal Defense.  (IDKMAC)
The sellers state up-front they know nothing about cameras, then wax poetic over how lovely the item is—in great detail. They never admit to testing any functionality. They never accept returns. Caveat Emptor!

I bought a 28-85mm f3.5-4.5 lens that was loaded with haze. I had asked about testing the lens, and was told there were no problems. When I insisted on a refund, the seller replied that she had made it clear that she knew nothing about lenses and refused a refund. eBay issued a refund a week later.

5. The Rule of the Honest Seller (You can trust these sellers; they are honest to a fault)
The listing is long, with plenty of detail. All testing is described in a clear, specific manner. Ask a question, and they reply with a narrative and photos. Even if the listing says “no returns,” the seller will agree to a return if the item does not work. Ninety percent of my eBay buys are from honest sellers.

6. The Rule of Protective Suspended Animation over Malfunction (Items in storage do not age)
These listings are easy to spot. They always say something like—“Beautiful item in excellent condition, worked perfectly when I used it last in 1995. No returns.”

I avoid these.

7. The Rule of the “La Vie En Rose” Effect (Beauty is in the eyes of the seller)
This is the old “mint” or “Like New” con. The seller lists the item as like new/mint and then describes its wonders glowingly. Pictures are taken from the least informative angle. You open the box—rust, fungus, scratches, dents, gouges—you get the picture.

The second camera I bought, a Maxxum 70 described as working fine, had wires coming out of the hot shoe, which was lifted and tilted away from the camera body. It was impossible to miss. The seller issued a refund within 10 minutes of my requesting a return and told me to dispose of the camera. Shameless.

8. The Rule of Age-Induced Value (This is old, so it must be worth something)
The older the item, the higher the price. Despite the amount of dirt, fungus, or dents, sellers proudly offer questionably working items that they insist are perfect “collector’s” items. Missing parts? The price is set even higher.    I guess these sellers have heard about the resurgence of film and decided to cash in—hard pass.

So, these are the rules I’ve discovered.  No doubt, there are more.  Please share yours!


  1. Thanks for this run-down, Jerome!

    I’m going to add a few of mine:
    The Condescending Seller with an Error: I took a chance on an “untested” Olympus XA because they offered returns, even though the camera was parts. When the camera arrived and didn’t work, I initiated a return. The seller was only going to give me half of the fee because I “forced” a return by saying the camera was not working, and then told me I should obviously stay away from parts cameras because I didn’t know what I was doing. When I sent a screenshot of the listing with the “30 day returns”‘ highlighted, silence. I returned the camera and got my money back, but the seller made sure to leave a comment again about how I shouldn’t buy parts cameras, never owning up to the fact that they set the listing to “returns accepted” and if they didn’t want returns on a parts camera, all they had to do was set it to “no returns.”

    The Hot-Potato(e): The second XA I bought was listing in “working condition”. When I received it, the red shutter button fell off, and battery testing proved that it was semi-functional but not in working condition. I initiated the return, and almost instantly the seller refunded me pretty much all my cash without even having to send it back. These are the sellers who are like the estate buyers you list above who are just playing a game–try to sell as much untested stuff as you can and hope to make some cash, and if anyone complains, take the loss.

    And also worth reminding folks: If a seller sells a camera in “used” condition and it does not work, they have to take a return even if they say “no returns”. The whole point of the used condition category is to say that the item should work as advertised. If a seller lists a camera or other item as “parts/not working”, there is no recourse if it truly doesn’t work. But if a seller lists the item as parts and offers returns, well, they have to take that camera back!

    1. Author

      Good additions! The logic of some sellers amazes me. They twist words every way then complain when you call them on something. AS for rudeness… I bought lens at auction, and the seller did not ship for a long time. So, after a while, I wrote and asked when the item would be shipped. His answer, “Dude, practice patience.” I would have canceled the order, except it was for an MD 24mm f2.8 lens that no one bid on but me–got it dirt cheap.

        1. Author

          Yep! The upside is the lens was in better condition than the photos.

          1. I think one of the reddest red flags is when a seller refuses to buy a battery and insert it in the camera. But that takes calories and a few $$s. Sigh….

          2. Author

            Yeah. I avoid them like the plague.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *