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Watch collecting can be a very expensive hobby. When you start out collecting, pulling the trigger on that first couple hundred dollar watch may feel like a lot of money. With time and experience, you start learning more about your tastes and how to identify value and start expanding your collection.
Suddenly, spending a couple thousand dollars on a watch doesn’t seem so crazy anymore. You find your “grail watch”, lust after it for months, and finally pull the trigger. Before you know it, you’ve got thousands of dollars invested in your collection and family members questioning your sanity. Sound familiar?
Luckily, watch collecting doesn’t need to completely destroy your finances. There are huge communities of passionate enthusiasts selling and trading watches online every day. What’s more, a lot of these watches are greatly cared for and selling for a fraction of the original retail price.
Buying watches used online it not without it’s risks. Replica watches, scam artists, and unknown service histories can turn a great purchase into a bad one very fast. There’s no warranty, and a lot of times you’re not going to be able to return the watch if you’re unhappy with the purchase.
Luckily, if you know where to go and what to look for, you can mostly avoid these pitfalls and save yourself a lot of money in the process.
On Price Depreciation
Barring certain rare and out of production models, the price depreciation on a used watch typically bottoms out at about 50 percent of it’s retail value. A lot of popular models easily retain 70 to 80 percent of their retail value. This means that you can buy a watch, enjoy it for a year or so, and sell it back for practically what you’ve paid for it.
At the very worst, you may need to spend some money to service the movement or refinish the case. If you’re lucky, you may have gotten a rare or limited edition model that has actually gone up in price over time. Rolexes that were purchased in the 80’s for around $500 new are now selling on second-hand markets for $5000, far outpacing inflation. Brand’s that are well established have a much better chance of appreciating in value than the smaller, boutique brands.
Where to Look
My favorite tool by far for finding private watch sales is WatchPatrol (http://www.watchpatrol.net). This free service indexes all of the major forums and trading posts where watches are changing hands.
As of today, here are the communities that WatchPatrol indexes:
You can easily setup alerts for particular models, and the saved search feature will even notify you instantly if something in your search comes available. To buy watches from one of these communities, you will have to setup a user account. In some cases, you may need to participate in the community for a bit before being allowed to sell. Watchuseek in particular requires 100 posts minimum before you are allowed to post in the sales section.
Buy The Seller
“Buy The Seller” is a common phrase around online marketplaces, and it basically means do your homework and research the person you’re buying from before sending them money. These communities are 99% trusted members, and I’ve had dozens of transactions without problems, but there will always be somebody out there trying to take advantage of that.
Common red flags for untrustworthy sellers:
- Low post count or new user: most forums keep track of when a user account was created and how many posts they’ve made. New accounts with low post numbers should be treated with caution.
- Price is too good to be true: If the price seems like it’s too good to be true, it probably is. Make sure the watch is trading at a fair market rate. Additionally, scammers typically focus on the popular high-end models like the Rolex Submariner where profits are the highest.
- No references: Although there are new sellers that can be trusted, most sellers on these forums have a history of successful transactions. By searching the forum for that person’s username, you can typically find posts from other users endorsing their experience working with them.
Inspect the Condition and Authenticity
Spotting a fake watch is getting a lot harder these days. Luckily there are a few things you can keep in mind to prevent you from getting burnt:
- Do your homework: Do you know what an original version of your watch is supposed to look like?
- Know your brand: Fakes are much more common on expensive, well-known luxury brands: Be extra cautious with Rolex, Omega, Breitling, etc.
- Beware of Frankenwatches (especially Seikos!): these are watches that are a mismatch of original and aftermarket parts that are often passed off as originals.
- Check the movement: have the seller remove the case back and send pictures of the movement. The movement is much harder to replicate than the case and dial and should be easy to identify as original.
Condition can be a hard thing to determine online as well. Make sure the seller has detailed high-resolution pictures showing the watch from all angles. Small, poorly lit photographs should be a red flag. Watches that have damage to the crystal or movement should be avoided unless heavily discounted. Watches with scratches on the bezel, case, or bracelet can usually be refurbished rather cheaply. Acrylic crystals can be replaced cheaply and refurbished with a little bit of polish. Use of this condition information to help determine a fair price and negotiate with the seller.
How to Pay
There are a few different options for sending payment to sellers online. The most popular choice by far is Paypal, and I would highly recommend using it if you can. There are a lot of built in safety nets with Paypal that allow you to get your money back if something goes wrong with the transaction, and sending and receiving money is very easy. Of course, there is a small transaction fee associated with Paypal and that turns off some sellers, especially those selling very expensive watches.
If you’re being asked to use something like Western Union or a Check/Money Order, be warned: you have little recourse for getting your money back if something goes wrong. As soon as your money leaves your bank account, you might as well consider it gone.
There are new and low-cost payment systems coming online that are actually very good, like Dwolla and Square Cash, but they just don’t have enough traction to supplant Paypal, which seems to be the default choice everywhere. If you find a savvy seller, you may be able to use one of these payment systems and avoid the Paypal fee altogether.
Buying watches online can be a risky proposition, but also a very rewarding one. In my experience buying and selling through dozens of transactions in the various watch communities, I’ve never once been ripped off or sold a fake product. With that said, it’s always good to do your homework to make sure you’re not dealing with a scammer. Trust is hard to build and especially hard to verify.
There are lots of great deals to be had and fantastic people to meet. Buying your watches used second hand can save you thousands of dollars in the long run, and it actually makes watch collecting a lot more fun. You get access to rare and out of production models, and don’t have to deal with pushy sales people at your authorized dealer. If you can stomach the risk, the rewards can be substantial.