It’s late, and the house is quiet except for the sound of you shopping online for guitars. For some of us, daily checks of our local Craigslist or Facebook Marketplace tap into our inner hunter-gatherer—except we’re looking for guitars we may or may not need, instead of berries and woolly mammoths. Buying from a private seller can be a great way to get a guitar at a good price or even a steal. But if you don’t know what to look for or what questions to ask, you could end up with an instrument with issues that will make it expensive to repair or difficult to resell.
While finding a cool guitar online can be rewarding, it can be difficult to resolve any issues after the sale. I once bought a Santa Cruz Guitar Company dreadnought on eBay that appeared to be in excellent condition. It wasn’t until after the shipment arrived and I opened the case I learned, owing to a foul smell, that the previous owner was obviously a heavy cigarette smoker—a deal breaker for me. Buying can be risky because private sellers tend not to offer the same policies as professional dealers, such as a 48-hour approval period or even a return policy. Because of this, it’s the buyer’s responsibility to ask questions ahead of time.
If your exchanges with the seller don’t feel right, know that it’s OK to walk away—there’s probably another guitar just a few clicks away that meets your needs. And watch out for sellers who can’t answer questions about the guitar’s origins or any work that may have been done. But armed with some caution and knowledge of what to look for, you could end up with a treasured guitar.
DO THE HOMEWORK
Decent photos of a guitar are a must when buying online. Beyond eye candy, these images can tell you many things about an instrument’s condition. Even beginners can learn a lot by examining the photographs in a listing. If you’re unsure about the specifics in the listing, check out some websites and professional shops that offer definitions. Then, see if those terms match the seller’s description. If they don’t, you may have some leveraging power for adjusting the price. It’s also generally a good idea to avoid ads that use a manufacturer’s photos instead of the actual photos. But if the description and price really grab you, just ask for pictures of the exact item for sale—and take it as a big red flag if the seller is unresponsive to that request.
Doing a little research, either online or through a price guide such as the Blue Book of Acoustic Guitars or the Official Vintage Guitar Price Guide, can help you determine if you’re paying a fair price or not. Regardless of where the guitar is offered, many sellers appear to be setting asking prices based on those listed on the online marketplace Reverb.com. Note that the asking price is often higher than the actual selling price, so it can pay off to do your homework. Sites like eBay and Reverb allow you to sort for recently sold items, which can provide accurate information on a particular guitar’s current market value. But remember to compare apples to apples, because condition is everything when buying used.
WORK OUT THE DETAILS
Once you’re ready to pull the trigger, you’ll need to agree with the seller on the details of the exchange. The best practices for in-person deals will differ slightly from a sale that requires shipping, but both demand a few simple precautions you can take to make sure that your sale is safe.
For online sales that may require the use of a payment service like PayPal, some venues suggest that buyers use the service’s buyer protections. On acousticguitarforum.com the classifieds section recommends that buyers avoid scams by selecting PayPal’s Goods and Services (about 1.5–1.8 percent for a typical guitar sale) for payments instead of the free Friends and Family option. Be sure to check with your preferred payment service, as some other services, like Venmo, do not offer such protections.
Craigslist focuses on local in-person cash sales and doesn’t offer shipping solutions or buyer protections like eBay or Reverb. Buying gear here can feel a little more like the Wild West. But it doesn’t have to be risky. Craigslist’s own guidelines recommend avoiding any transaction with a party that is unable or refuses to meet in person. They claim that following this rule will “avoid 99 percent of scam attempts.” A well-trafficked and convenient public place like a café or grocery store parking lot can be an excellent place to complete your deal, potentially providing more safety over meeting at the buyer’s home.
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CLOSE THE DEAL
Once you have the guitar in hand, it’s time to give it a thorough inspection. Begin by making sure that it is the same instrument that appeared in the ad and that its condition was accurately represented. Do the serial numbers match? Is there damage that wasn’t disclosed or visible? Many experienced guitar shoppers will immediately look at the neck, as its condition can tell you much about a guitar’s health. Look for signs of warpage along the fretboard, especially where it meets the body, or high action at the 12th fret, which can indicate the need for a neck reset.
If your purchase requires shipping, the seller might have established a shipping cost, but you may be able to negotiate if you have a preferred shipper. Clear communication and a friendly tone will go far in managing expectations during the sale and might be more important here than at any other stage. Keep in mind that you might be rated as a buyer on Reverb or eBay!
Once the deal is closed, you’re ready to make the guitar yours with a cleaning, a fresh set of strings, and any minor adjustments that might be needed, like cleaning and lubricating the tuners or adjusting the truss rod. After that, you can kick back and start picking, knowing that you got a great guitar for a great price.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2021 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine.