Buying (and selling..) Pinball Machines

Buying a Pinball machine.  The act of researching, watching, finding and buying can be quite fun. The hunt is often more satisfying than the catch, in human nature.   It can also be daunting.

In the last 6 months I've had a mixed bag of experiences cycling out games from my game room. The experiences range from misleading sales tactics and downright nearly scam-like behavior on one end, to super smooth transactions with exceeded expectations on the other.    
I've been asked about this and so I wanted to write up some quick information to hopefully aide in your pinball-buying experiences.

Buying New

When buying a New in Box (NIB) game, you have a few options.  Buy from a retail establishment, buy from a distributor or buy from the manufacturer.

When buying from a Retail establishment, if local to you - you get the benefit of playing the game on site before taking it home.  If you live close, this may also extend opportunities for machine service over the life of the game that could be helpful / crucial - depending on how comfortable you are in tinkering with electronics.   Pinball machines break.   When they do, having a local option retail store to call for parts and service is a nice feature.

That said, not everyone has the benefit of a local retail establishment.

In these cases, buyers typically deal with Distributors.   Sometimes distributors might have retail storefronts but often times they do not.  On forums, people generally refer to 'their distributors' in ways similar to the way a person would refer to drug dealers and there are definitely some similarities. Often times distributor sales are 'loose' / gentlemanly agreements, struck by phone, private message, IM, email, text or in person at a show.

"Hey man. you got the stuff?" - "Yeah man, I got what you need. - $5500 for the pro model and it is TIGHT!"

You typically won't get a tremendous amount of technical support from a distributor but they will usually have the appropriate contacts with the manufacturer to get you in front of the right people, relative to your problem.

The pinball buyer - distributor relationship is an oddly passionate one.   Everyone tends to believe their distributor is the best.   That loyalty is often paid in discounts for future purchases.  Buying from distributors is usually slightly less expensive than buying from retail. Average retail pricing for a Stern Pro model is $5500, where through a distributor it might $5200.  Premiums are running $7100 retail and $6700 through distributors, etc.  Pricing varies by game, by popularity of title, by model and by your distributor relationship.

In some cases, you will buy a NIB game directly from the manufacturer, especially in cases of preorders.  JJP (to date, anyway), Heighway, Dutch Pinball are good examples of this.  In these scenarios you will usually pay a deposit down on a game and be given a pay-schedule in which the game will need to be paid-in-full in time to ship.  Benefits of this buying method are that you could potentially save about $1,000 or more from the typical street pricing if you get in early and you may get your game before most retail buyers.   That said, you are also providing an interest-free loan of sorts to the manufacturer and often production and shipping estimates are the stuff of magic versus science.  

Distributors are basically in the same boat.  They will generally buy a bulk allotment of games from the manufacturer with a deposit and payment schedule and then begin marketing their allotments to the community through shows, events, social media, psy-ops and whatever other means that are deemed affective to separate you from your money.

The price you would pay directly from the manufacturer, versus buying from a distributor are usually congruent.    The distributors may have some wiggle-room but they aren't making a killing on games. Estimates are a couple hundred dollars per unit for their investment - which when you think about it - isn't a lot.

Distributors are an interesting bunch.  There are some distributors with Hatfield / McCoy hate relationships with other distributors and there are others that are just passionate folks that love Pinball and enjoy the hobby and thus coexist peacefully with their distributor brethren. 

Here are some distributors I've encountered.  Shop around and go with the distributor you feel comfortable with.  The user-drug dealer relationship is a tenuous one. :)

Trent @ Tilt Amusements -
Michael @ Automated Services -
Melissa @ Cointaker -
Terry @ PinballLife -
Jason @ ClassicGameRooms -
Jack or Jen @ Jersey Jack Pinball -
Pinsider: Doughslingers - 
JJ @ GameExchange -
Joe @ PinballSTAR -

There are others as well but I have had specific interactions with this list of distributors.

When buying a game, ask specific questions that you need answered and be sure pay close attention to the answers. (Specifically, if they are actually answers or deferrals of the questions).    

I have encountered distributors that can be particularly misleading with optimistic-sounding non-answers to simple questions like, "When can I expect to receive my pin?"  One in particular reminds me of Bill Clinton.  Someone that everyone says is a great guy but is a master of dodgy non-answers with a smile.

"Did you have sexual relations with this woman?"
"Well, define sexual relations?"

Buying Used

Most people buy games used.   This is where most of us start out, unless you just have an unusually tall stack of cash to throw away.    Buying used, you usually find the games you are looking for from a number of common sources.

Mr. Pinball Classifieds
local forums, groups, clubs, etc.  
 (eg,,, the village, etc)
.. or used from shows, shops and retail

If you are buying your 1st pinball machine, the number one piece of advice I can give you is - find someone local in your area with more experience and bring them along.  An extra set of experienced eyes can help you to avoid a costly fixer-upper and those extra set of arms will come in handy loading and unloading your new toy in the event everything goes as expected.

It Just Needs a Fuse

There is a joke in this hobby (arcades and pins).  I saw this post recently: it was a pile of melted metal and broken glass on the floor with a for-sale ad, "Arcade Monitor, needs work: Probably just needs a fuse."

You'd be surprised how many of these are actually out there. People listing trashed out, ragged out games that do not work with assurances that "It just needs a fuse."   I fell victim to this a few years ago, buying a pinball machine.   "It just needs a $3 part."    $1200 game + $1600 in parts, I had myself a $2800 game worth at most $1400 to the typical pin buyer.  Oops.

This is where having an experienced local group of pinball enthusiasts come in handy.  Have someone come with you to look at games and be objective about the condition.

Buying Machines Remotely

If you are buying a machine from afar, get lots of pictures and video (lots!) in good light and bad light.  Have them take pictures of the boards in the backbox, of the playfield with power on and off, beneath the playfield, etc.    Look for honest sellers that are upfront about machine shortcomings.

Seek out honest answers with targeted questions like:

"I understand no game is perfect, if you were to keep this machine, what are the three things you would fix or change about it?"
"Tell me about the last repair, what broke, who fixed it and how long ago did this occur?"
"Take pictures of the worst aspects of the machine. The warts. Then, in a separate email, take and send pictures of your favorite (the best) parts of the machine."

Be sure to get pricing and move logistics out of the way and get all questions answered.    If you or the seller make assumptions, these assumptions can lead to unfulfilled expectations and a sour experience.

When paying for a remote-purchase, there is no fool-proof and 100% safeguard for your transaction.  I've used Paypal, wire transfer, bank check, personal check, square payments and cash for deals.  Coincidentally there are scams targeting Paypal, wire transfer, bank checks, personal checks, square payments AND cash.  

If you don't have a good feeling about the seller or buyer, just don't do the transaction.  There are plenty of pins out there 

Price Police

Here in 'murica, people are allowed to ask whatever they want for their belongings.   They aren't obligated to bend to the buyer's will or even base their prices in reality.   I can list a pack of gum for $1,000.  If someone buys it, it was a $1,000 pack of gum.  Most likely, no one will.   

All too often on the internet, for sale-sale posts and classifieds, people have the tendency to hijack for-sale posts with discussions about pricing.   Make no mistake, this is a shitty thing to do.. So, don't.  

If you are selling and get low-balled, respectfully decline the offer.   If you are buying and low-balling compared to the seller's price point, be polite and justify your pricing without insulting the seller or their pin.  

At the end of the day, if someone doesn't want to sell you their pin for what you are willing to pay, drop it.  Don't stalk them across the internet.  This community is too small and this asshole-ry will come back to haunt you.

There are only a few pinball millionaires

If you have dreams of buying pinball machines at a low price, fixing them up and selling them for a profit, I have bad news for you. 

It is not a sustainable business.

The only pinball millionaires today are making pinball machines or are major distributors with large retail frontage.   The fixer uppers / pin flip isn't going to return you windfall profits.  

Let's look at it:

If you bought a Williams Indiana Jones Pinball machine for $3500, which is about half market price for that game.
You "shop it" (deep cleaning) - costs you about $60 in supplies and 16-24 hours of labor
You "LED it" with new LED lights, costs you about $225 in supplies and 4 hours of labor
... then there are the real repairs.   
If nothing else is wrong, you got a pretty good deal.  You have around ~3800 and less than thirty hours invested.  But, pinball machines break and pinball machines that are for sale for a song are usually broken.   

Coils will cost about $6/each, Power boards, $350 for new, $225 to repair, Main boards, $450 for new or $225 for repair.  DMD's cost about $200, playfield glass about $65, playfield-specific parts can be $100-$400 depending on rarity of the title and parts availability.

So, you may have a $3800 game, worth $5500 but you also have about $1200 in risk sitting there.  Your potential profit was only $1700.   And your labor was free, if you did the work yourself...

So, even buying a game at a great price, you might make a little money on the sell but more often than not you won't make anything if you factor in your labor, parts and shipping on those parts.   ..and to reference our example to drive the point home - there are no $3800 Williams Indiana Jones games out there.  Even a Williams Indy in poor condition, sellers typically ask for the market average.

Which brings me to..

figuring out fair pricing

There are numerous sources for pinball and arcade pricing on the internet. Consider these to be more guide than gospel.

Pinside "Archive" / Pricing
The Mr. Pinball Price Guide (book form)

For pricing, condition and title popularity tend to play the biggest role in pricing.
Stern produced 400 Tron LE's and amongst the pinball community the game was a smash hit.  It is common to see a Tron LE* sell for $9,000+

  *the feature matrix between an un-modded pro and an LE may have also contributed to Tron's value inflation.

Typically, a Stern DMD pin in good condition will sell for $3500-$5000, depending on the title and condition.   The most popular titles, Metallica, Star Trek, AC/DC, etc might sell for nearly $6,000 if they are nice examples with the right mods.

Williams / Bally DMD games will usually sell for $2,000-$4000, depending on condition.   A few titles are exceptions and will sell for $6,000-$9,000. (Medieval Madness, Monster Bash, TOTAN, Scared Stiff, etc)

Pinball 2000 sort of fall into their own category.   Pin2k Star Wars Ep1, usually will go for $2000-$2600, depending on condition, while Pin2k Revenge from Mars will usually go for $3000-$4000.

LCD Games like Wizard of Oz, Hobbit, Full Throttle, Alien are typically selling used for $7500-$8500.   Stern is expected to release an LCD title in 2016 but those prices are expected to be aligned more towards Stern's baseline / other SPIKE games.  Probably +/- $600 f

Boutique / limited run games like those from Spooky Pinball will usually sell used for more than their retail (+/- ~$9,000) prices.    Dutch Pinball & Heighway could fall into this category but as their production numbers aren't (as) limited I tend to lump them in the LCD games grouping.

Shipping and logistics

When looking for games, the natural tendency is to favor local ads, something you can drive to within a day.   I will admit that I tend to associate an 'opportunity value' to something local, when looking for a game.  If I can get it today, even if it costs a little more than I expect it should, I tend to favor the instant gratification over the out-of-region buys.

That said, if you open your searches to include out-of-region sources and consider shipping the pin, you will have a better selection to choose from. 

When shipping a pin, you can choose a 'legs on' move, a 'palleted' move and there are some 'other ways'.  

For legs-on move, you put the head down, wrap it in a moving blanket and a mover comes for the game.

The most common provider of this service is:

NAVL / STI  - Contact Michelle @ / 630-352-3312
- I've found average prices are about $475 for this service.

You can pallet a game and ship via a pallet.   To do this, you secure the balls and loose items, take off the legs, wrap it moving blankets, cardboard optional, wrap it in pallet wrap and secure it to a pallet.   The back of the machine will be resting on the pallet, the legs secured and bundled to cabinet bottom with pallet wrap and/or cardboard and tape.   

RL Carriers is a typical conveyance for this method and prices start around $300.
Pinball companies usually by freight in packs from Freight brokers.   Ask around, you may be able to find better pricing than you can find going straight to the shipper.

Another way to ship a palleted game is to use a service like Forward Air.   It is a depot-to-depot shipping service.  The idea is, you locate a local depot and deliver the palleted game to that depot.  Forward Air, then ships the pallet to the depot closest to the destination and the buyer then picks up the game from their depot.  The average price for this service is about $275 cross-country.

There are pinball-specific moving services, run by operators and pinball industry folks. One such offering is Pinballs on the Move.  You basically schedule a buy during one of his routes and if the source and destinations are reasonably within his route, he will pick up your game and deliver it for a reasonable fee. ($275 ish, if my memory serves)

Finally, in the crowdsourced economy you can sometimes find folks willing to move a game. Try Craigslist from the seller's city, you can often find folks out of work, looking for side work and willing to do a regional pin-move.   

Services like Roadie (think of it like uber but for packages) are growing to include pickup-truck sized loads.  Today, you can likely leverage these services for a pinball move - in the future, the freight business will look more like Roadie or even to some extent: uShip than RLCarriers,, etc. 


Sum it all up

If you are getting into pinball for the first time, welcome to hobby!  

If buying used, find a bring an impartial (ideally pin-Educated) friend to help judge condition of the game.
If buying new, balance your retail options with distributor options.  If you need service after the sale and have a local retailer, consider retail. If you plan to service the machine yourself or have a repair dude in mind, enjoy the price-benefits of buying from a distributor.
Respect that people have the right to assign value their stuff.   Bring supporting materials to justify your offers and in the end of the day, whichever side of the transaction you are on - respect the buyer / seller position.
Expand your searches.  Consider buying regionally or even nationally.   Here on the Alabama Gulf Coast we are (often) limited in our local selection.  Buying a machine nationally opens up your options.   Get lots of pictures.

Shop around for shipping alternatives.