A must read for first time buyers of Pinball and Arcade Machines
Buying, Selling, and Owning Pinball & Arcade Machines for Beginners
The first thing most people ask is what’s the price, how much will it cost. Realize however that cost and price are not the same. Price is a number, and very easy to understand. Cost is time, effort, stress, and everything else related to the purchase and ownership of what you are buying, and is often not considered. The combination of price and cost are what determines value, and this is what you have to decide, what is the items value to you.
The following information is designed to provide the novice Buyer with some insight into the basic perils and helpful tips seasoned Collectors and Arcade Dealers are all intimately familiar with, and allow the new Buyer to make more informed decisions in the early stages of Collecting.
Whether you only ever own one single favourite game, trade games in from time to time, or become one of many prolific Collectors that accumulate what’s left of the literally millions of Pinball machines and classic Arcade games produced every decade throughout the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, these basic truths will help illuminate your path in your quest to relive the youth of our generation through these marvellous machinations.
Pricing is highly subjective and is affected by many factors, rendering it incredibly difficult to assign a “fair” price to these items.
As a resource for the insurance industry, Pinball Medics Ltd. are asked to assign a monetary value to these machines throughout Ontario, Quebec, and across Canada. The main factors we consider resemble those in the classic automobile market. Availability, mechanical and electronic complexity and their associated perils, cosmetic condition, vintage, and desirability are the primary determining factors in forming a valuation with both these commodities.
The cosmetic, electronic and mechanical condition of the machine are the most critical factors in determining it’s price. A pristine example will sell for an exponentially higher amount than one in poor condition.
Condition can be described, and the more detail you have the better. A lot can be seen even with online photographs, however some damage can be hidden and/or not noticeable in pictures. Such conditions include water damage and mould, fire or smoke damage, rodent or insect infestation, odours, general wear and tear, and of course serious and potentially costly electronic, cosmetic, or mechanical repairs that are not disclosed, or that may arise in transit or storage.
If you are purchasing a machine you can’t see in person, ask for extensive photographic evidence of it’s condition, including pictures taken from the front and both sides, a screen closeup if it’s a video game, and both sides of playfields, backglasses and boards with Pinball machines.
Ensure the pictures sent to you are of the actual machine for sale. Many fraudulent Sellers have been known to advertise photos taken from public online images or other sources.
Look for and be aware of alterations and differences between the game you’re interested in and a standard version. Some alterations devalue a game, while others are upgrades and will actually boost the selling price.
For example, some machines are from a foreign market, and may be set up for 220V, have different software and language inter-phases, have different coin doors, or a variety of other alterations which all impact price negatively.
Pinball, video game, and other arcade machines often had 4 or more small holes drilled in them to install brackets for a security bar in front of the coin door. When the machine is sold, the security bar is removed and either the brackets are left on, they get removed and the 3/8″ holes filed with bolts, or the 4 holes are simply left empty. This will not measurably affect the price of the machine most of the time, but some Collectors will not want such a machine, or will pay less for it.
Arcade video games come in a variety of cabinets, configurations, or trim levels. Standard upright cabinets, cabaret cabinets, jumbo or sit-down cockpit units, and cocktail tables all differ, and the price for one cabinet format is not necessarily applicable to another.
With Arcade video games, a Seller or typically a previous Operator owner, will have removed or painted over the side art of the machine. Missing side art is an indication that the machine is a conversion, and not a dedicated original, and it is again devalued dramatically as a result. Some early conversions into to some cabinets, for example a Jr. Pacman in an original Pacman cabinet, would be worth more than a classic cabinet converted to a lesser title however, but there are not many such examples. The control panel, bezel, and marquee are typically changed during conversion, and the wiring harness will have been completely altered.
To restore a previously converted machine is a very costly, complicated and time consuming process, and is the reason only hard core Collectors will generally attempt such a feat, and generally only for rare specimens. Even Retail Arcade Dealers will seldom invest the time or money required, as despite their ability to source parts and the availability of their skilled Technicians, they would have to charge even more than full retail price to show a profit. Such an undertaking must be approached with the understanding that more will be spent than the item can be sold for, but through the positive experience of restoring a classic, and the satisfaction you have in ownership, there may still be sufficient value in the project for you.
Pinball machines also now come in a variety of models and trim levels, which can increase the value of a fully loaded title considerably. Similarly, aftermarket Pinball machine upgrades can also increase a games value. There are many products including LED lighting, LED or colour displays, aftermarket upgraded system boards, reproduction playfields and backglasses, and much more, which all add to the machines market price.
As with all commodities, supply and demand is a key component in determining what one can expect to pay for a given item. Scarcity alone however is not necessarily a true indicator of great value when not matched by demand. Some very rare items have low values as they are not wanted, yet many relatively common items are very popular and demand can exceed even an abundant supply.
Regional pricing based on a given area’s cost of living, relative economic strength, population density and/or proximity to larger markets will affect prices. Prices in Montreal or Toronto will be considerably higher than in Thunder Bay for example.
The Buyer will affect the price themselves, often as a result of their passion for a particular machine, how many examples are available, as well as the Buyer’s budget, among other things, particularly when a Seller detects and understands these conditions in a Buyer.
Conversely, Seller desire or need to sell is just as important a factor. Some Sellers are selling only for far more than a similar replacement would cost them, or to avoid lengthy and costly repair issues they may or may not disclose to Buyers. Perhaps they are in need of cash flow to pay taxes or other bills, or need liquid funds and storage space to facilitate a deal for more machines themselves, and are willing to sell at a significant discount for a Buyer with cash in hand and a trailer in tow.
It is within a Seller’s rights to ask any price for their merchandise, and they should not be criticized for what they ask. While the market will determine the actual cash or trade value of a game, the onus is on the Buyer to research the fair market price for an item, and determine it’s value to them.
Bear in mind that value is what a game is worth to you. If a Seller is asking twice as much for a game than it’s sold for historically, but it is rare or the only available specimen, and the likely reality is another will never be available, it may make sense to pay retail price or possibly more.
You can also choose to wait for a better deal, buy nothing, or something else. It comes down to what you want, and what you can afford.
Dealers, Collectors, Operators, and Auctions:
Retail Arcade Dealers have higher prices, and will generally charge a considerable premium when compared to private Sellers. Unlike Home Depot and Walt-Mart however, Dealers typically have extremely high inventory costs. Large retailers turn over their inventory on average 12 times per year, receiving payment for inventory even before paying suppliers, while Dealers have inventory turn overs of once a year or less. They must recondition, advertise, and store the machine until it sells. If Home Depot receives defective inventory, it is simply replaced by the manufacturer, at no charge. Dealers purchase machines on option, in need of often unknown or undisclosed repair or restoration, and often have machines that develop problems while in inventory, often for years. Dealers must repair these issues on their own time and at their sole expense.
What a Customer is getting for their premium is a working, restored machine that is currently and easily obtainable, locally as well as to out of town and international Buyers, and the likelihood of honest disclosure of condition from the Dealer whose reputation is at stake. The Dealer should also carry liability Insurance and Worker compensation coverage for their staff, and provide professional moving and installation of your game, protecting your new investment and the condition of your home.
The Dealer also provides hand-holding that experienced Collectors and bargain hunters do not need, and the possibility of after sales service, often at preferred rates and availability than to non-clients, as well as trade-in and buy-back options.
The integrity, efficiency, and quality different Dealers offer varies tremendously as with any service provider, and is not always better (and can in some cases be worse) than that found among experienced and skilled hobbyists, whose levels of expertise, attention to detail, and integrity vary to the same degree. Dealers can be negotiated with, but are running a business, and often a barely profitable one. Any offer can be made, which they may choose to accept or decline.
Experienced Collectors able to do repairs themselves are more price sensitive than non-collecting retail clients who just want a machine for their own home or business. Many of these experienced Buyers buy only a minority of their purchases from Dealers, as they are able to conduct due diligence on machines they find for sale and to repair any problems they encounter. While experienced Collectors tend to be more price sensitive than retail Buyers, it is even more so with Arcade Dealers and Operators, who have to consider inventory costs and profit margins.
Online Auctions can result in bargains, but just as often result in problems. Buying from eBay Auctions subjects you to a number of risks, but the largest tends to be disappointment in condition. Machines look better in pictures than in person, and there is no way to ensure the functionality of the game before or after it is shipped.
Buying directly from Operators of Amusement equipment, or buying from the in-person Auctions they typically sell their unwanted gear at, adds a whole new selection of risks. In this case, Sellers are anonymous, and often use these traditional auctions to get rid of their problems. You can find pinball machines with missing parts that are not obvious until you work on the game. Video games can be have electronic issues that only present after an hour of use. Water damage and mould and their associated odours are not noticeable in a 50,000 square foot open warehouse, with hundreds of other machines, and people.
Classic arcade gear and Pinball machines in particular are often thirty or forty years old. The have capacitors on circuit board that can dry up, worn or damaged moving parts, and a veritable cornucopia selection of ailments and conditions that will ultimately develop.
Many machines have intermittent problems. When evaluating machines with these problems, keep in mind that problems don’t go away by themselves, and will ultimately worsen and result in complete breakdown, at which point you must fix the machine or pay someone to fix it for you.
If you buy a classic or even brand new Pinball machine, understand at some point it will require repair, regardless of how little or how much you use it. A mint restored 1957 Chevy is not an ideal daily driver, and just like cars, even the brand new ones require regular service.
When it comes to Pinball machines, to many the Holy Grail of Arcade collectibles, due to the incredibly complex nature of these machinations, besides the standard factors related to cabinet condition and basic functionality, Pinball machines are plagued with additional potential issues. Computers, driver boards, sound boards, displays, massively complex wiring harnesses, incredibly complex mechanical arrays, commercially routed cosmetic finishes, all manner of gadgets and gizmos, glass, steel and wood to name a few. All must work perfectly in concert in order for these noble beasts to perform as they are intended.
Even if the displays work, are they weak, or missing segments?
Are any playfield components missing or incorrectly installed?
Has the wiring harness or playfield been “hacked” or otherwise damaged?
Is there extensive unsightly playfield wear? Do the flippers, pop bumpers, drop targets, switches and ramps all work well?
If not it will make it impossible for a ball to reach some areas of the playfield during normal play and obtain all the game objectives.
How is the backglass art?
Many game specific parts can be very costly, and sometimes unobtainable, and it will make the game difficult to sell without them.
Most machines are sold “as is” or on a “working on arrival” basis. Some Dealers will offer a limited warranty on machines, whereas private sales are typically tail-light warranty only. If your machine breaks, it’s value drops dramatically, and there are not many available repair Technicians or parts suppliers in most markets.
Some Sellers, generally Dealers, will help you with future repairs on your purchase for a fee, and may even provide in-home service if you are in their local service area. Some are not able to help at all. If you are not inclined to work on your own antique electronics, make certain to establish this before you buy, bearing in mind, just like your car, it’s not if it will require service, it’s simply a matter of when.
Unless you are buying from a Dealer or well known and reputable Technician, be very wary of implied warranties on games. Many Sellers advertise their games as “shopped”. One not familiar with Pinball lingo would likely interpret this to mean it’s been serviced, tuned up, or reconditioned. In reality it means it has been wiped down, the rubber rings replaced, and burnt bulbs changed. It is the equivalent of vacuuming, washing and changing the oil on your car before selling it, and has no bearing on the condition, functionality, or reliability of the game.
If a machine is advertised as “professionally” serviced, ask who performed the service and call them for honest feedback on the game. There are not many Arcade Technicians, and they will be well known if they are reputable.
A game can be made to start and play. A game can be dialed in and made to play well. And a game may be reconditioned to withstand long term use in a commercial environment as it was designed. Only a reconditioned game that has been stress tested, or a genuine “daily driver” that has been operating and being played for hours a week very regularly and faithfully for years in a collection or in the wild in a street account, can possibly be expected to provide years of faithful service in a home, and even then there are no guarantees.
All of these factors must be considered when purchasing a machine, and will represent a significant affect on the value to you, not to mention the price of the game. A broken pinball machine is like a boat anchor. Not much fun just to look at, and even harder to sell.
Be on the lookout for fraudulent repair offers. Many would be Pinball “curb-siders” or “flippers” pose as repair Technicians on kijiji and Craiglist, with the goal of relieving you of your game. They will explain that your game is damaged beyond repair and offer you well below it’s value, to turn around and sell on kijiji, often the very next day.
If they fail to convince you to part with your machine, they may charge exorbitant prices for sub-standard repairs, and possibly damage your game far more seriously than it was before they “fixed” it , whether through lack of knowledge or even intentionally.
A game that has failed through regular use is generally fairly easy for an experienced Technician to diagnose and repair. A game that has been altered by a novice Technician can be very difficult to troubleshoot. It’s easy to see a broken wire, but much more difficult to spot a wire connected to the wrong lead. We often take in games that have been worked on by owners and amateur repair Technicians on trade as they are not worth what it would cost the owner for us to repair them.
Average prices will drop in times of economic downturn. Lower and mid-priced machines tend to suffer the most, while rare, unique, and collectible items tend to retain their value more consistently.
Long term trend wise in this segment, we have been experiencing a sustained Sellers market. This has been the situation for some time, and shows no signs of slowing as prices have been climbing exponentially while the Golden Era’s youth reach the age where their mortgage is paid, their children’s education is paid for, and they have extra space in their homes and disposable income.
We have seen prices on the 1990’s titles go through the roof as the following generation now enters their prime income years, and with Pinball in particular, what’s old is new again. We ‘re seeing fantastic new games from Stern pinball which are selling as never before to the home market as well as Amusement Operators, and they are retaining or even increasing in value after having paid for themselves on route in many of the “Barcades” which are materializing everywhere in the world to great acclaim.
Sometimes, based on any combination of several of these factors, trades are a way to avoid loss or huge cash outlays when wanting to buy or sell a game, whether with a friend, fellow Collector, or Dealer. Collectors will often drive significant distances for the game they want, and your remote location may not be a deal breaker if you both get something you want. Dealers may have networks that extend to your area as well and can also be a source of trade options.
Many Arcade Dealers have clients waiting for certain machines, and will make generous trade offers from their inventory at par to facilitate getting the game to someone desperately seeking it and making a sale at full retail price as a result. Dealers may also have multiple examples of the same title and be willing to trade these at par to broaden their inventory.
Delivery & Logistics:
Pinball and Arcade machines are huge, heavy, awkward, and fragile.
Most full size Pinball and Arcade machines will fit through standard 32 inch doorways, however some older homes have smaller doors, so always measure before committing to a purchase.
Some sit-down drivers and cockpit style games can also be fitted through standard doorways if they come in multiple sections, but there are some games that can not fit through standard doorways at all.
If you want your game in a basement, curved staircases can limit what machines you can fit down your stairwell, and may require specialized equipment and/or professional help.
Ensure you have the correct dimensions of the machine, any doorways, and stairwells, and be prepared to removed doors and even door trim. Dollies, basic tools, moving blankets, ratchet straps, and floor protection are all recommended.
If no pick-up or delivery option is available and shipping is required, traceable and insurable shipping options should be selected at all times. Insurance companies do not always pay out claims even when the Seller has properly prepared the item. Be sure the carrier is aware of the product you are shipping, has experience with Arcade gear, and is willing to insure it for it’s full value. Many Shippers may limit their liability to $500 or less, even with upgraded paid insurance.
Leg levellers on the bottom of machines are usually very inexpensive to replace, though some Sellers won’t take the time to ensure they are in good condition. With missing, bent, or damaged levellers, a machine is much more likely to scratch floors and rip carpet. Felt bottomed casters or a small rug are recommended on hardwood flooring at all times.
Any kijiji or Craiglist ad in which a Seller says something like “only $1000, they sell for $5000 on eBay“, is very suspicious. Why would a Seller ask $1000 for something they know they can easily get $5000 for?
Be equally suspicious of any highly discounted items. Arcade machines are not an efficiently traded commodity for a variety of reasons, including the fact that there are very seldom two of the same machine in identical condition anywhere. As such, it is easy for Sellers to post any “normal” price. The “40% discount” could often in fact be more accurately advertised as “twice as much as it’s actually worth”.
As mentioned in the repair section, always be wary of repair offers on kijiji and Craiglist that do not have the person or companies full contact information. Pinball “curb-siders” pose as Technicians to con you out of your game they will try to claim is damaged beyond repair.
If a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is. There are countless Collectors, “curb-siders”, speculators, and Dealers constantly searching the internet and kijiji in particular for Pinball machines. In the City of Ottawa, approximately 85% of posted ads on kijiji for Pinball machines are people looking to buy them.
If a machine is listed for sale locally and is not selling within a day, it’s because all these informed and often desperate buyers mentioned above know it’s not worth what’s being asked, as it’s either overpriced, a game or Seller known to be problematic, or is not as described and has been passed on by every would be Buyer to see or try the game.
If a Seller does not offer you the opportunity to play the game, be suspicious. If he claims it has a “small issue” he will fix after delivery, do not under any circumstances accept it and insist that the machine be repaired prior to any payment beyond a deposit.
Do not deliver a machine to a Buyer without arranging and securing payment. Personal cheques and promises of EFT’s are not acceptable, and unless you are dealing with someone you know or a Dealer, EFT or PayPal in advance or cash on delivery are the only safe forms of payment.
Most of this advice applies just as well to used automobile, real estate, or major appliance purchases as it does to Arcade machines, and is common sense and good business practice for those considering any major purchase.
Remember to always ask for references and make sure you know who you are dealing with.
If you are dealing with a business, a Google Search should turn up any red flags.
Do your own price comparisons.
Google search for the machine you are interested in.
Search eBay listings focusing on completed listings that reflect actual sales, not just asking prices.
Search Collector forums like MAACA, pinballrevolution, and Pinside.
Watch Clay Repair videos
Of course if you can get the help of an experienced friend who has been collecting machines, their help will be invaluable.
If you have any suggestions or questions you would like answered here and added to this page, please let us know by email at firstname.lastname@example.org as we will be expanding this section continuously.