Buying a sewing machine is a serious investment. You want a good value, but you also need a dependable, durable machine with all the features you need right now, and a few you'll probably want in the future. Buying a used machine can be a great way to save a bit of money, or to get a vintage machine that you know is made to last. But buyer beware! There are also pitfalls to buying a used machine. Here are nine things you'll want to consider.
Does it work and what can it do?
The basic test of any sewing machine, new or used, is whether or not it works! Whenever possible, test out a machine you plan to buy. With new machines, some shops will offer test models on the floor. With used sewing machines, however, you'll want to try the actual machine you're buying, not just the same model. Try out the features. Does the machine sew even stitches without skips? Does it operate smoothly, with no unusual noises?
Bring along several weights of fabric to put the machine through its paces, including something delicate and something a little more heavy duty. Remember, if you don't take the time to adjust all the settings properly between these two, such as swapping in a heavy duty needle and thread, your results won't be satisfactory!
Has it been refurbished, or is it in otherwise good condition?
It's not always easy to tell if a sewing machine has been well cared for at first glance. The outer housing may be flawless, but if the interior workings have been neglected over years of use, it's not going to work nearly as well as you expect. If you're purchasing from a shop that offers used machines, ask if the machine has been refurbished, and what that includes. If you're buying from a previous owner, find out what their maintenance routine was, and when was the last time it was taken in for a tune up.
Who's selling the machine?
Buying a used or refurbished machine from a shop is always the safest bet, since they're typically cleaned and repaired by experts before going back on sale. They may even come with an updated repair warranty. Unfortunately, this extra maintenance does mean you're not going to see as much of a price difference between one of these machines and a new one. Buying directly from a previous owner may give you more wiggle room on price, but you'll also see more variation in quality. Be sure you know what you're looking for and what your price range is before getting started.
How old is it? Can you still get replacement parts and accessories?
Vintage sewing machines were built to last, with many hand and pedal operated sewing machines still going strong today. Of course, most of these are used by hobby sewists or as demonstration pieces rather than your everyday workhorse, but if you're looking to add one to your collection, you'll need to buy used. The tricky thing about vintage machines is that they're difficult to repair, and have limited accessory options. You're not going to find a walking foot for a pedal operated machine, obviously, but the same is true of more modern models that have fallen out of production. Make sure you can find repair professionals and supplies for the model you're looking at beforeyou take it home.
What does it come with?
Speaking of accessories, this is another important question to ask. Which are included in the purchase? Do you have to buy a bobbin case separately? What about the fancy carrying case? Are there attachments, like different presser foot options, that are included? Make sure you know what you're paying for, and what's included in the final price.
What equipment do you already have, and is it compatible?
If you're getting a machine to augment what you're already using, it will need to be compatible. Double check that all the equipment you expect to be universal (like bobbins, needles, etc.) actually fit. This shouldn't be an issue with modern machines, as they're pretty well standardised, but if yours is of unusual make, or a vintage model, it's better to double check than to be disappointed later. You'll also want to check on the compatibility of modern features. For example, if you've built up a large library of computerised embroidery designs, you need to know that your new machine can handle the format they're stored in.
Is it easy to use?
Chances are, a used machine isn't going to come with all the user manuals. Thankfully, many of these are now available for download, but if you're a beginning sewist, it can be a challenge even to know what questions to ask when starting with a new machine. This is yet another reason why it's important to try out a machine before you buy it. Make sure you know how to backstitch to lock seam ends, adjust tension, wind and replace a bobbin, change between decorative stitches (if your machine offers any), and how to operate any specialty features on your particular model.
Does it meet your needs?
The tricky thing about used machines is that they're not always quite as advertised. An "industrial" sewing machine might turn out to be one of the "heavy duty" home models. A computerised embroidery machine may not have a large enough embroidery area for your plans. Know what you need in a machine before you start looking, and always check that any machine you plan to buy, new or used, can really meet those needs.
What is the asking price?
Last, but certainly not least, how much are you willing and able to pay for a sewing machine? It's going to take some homework on your part to determine what a good price is for what you're looking for. The popularity of vintage machines means they're often overpriced, while newer models may be surprisingly inexpensive. A good rule of thumb is to buy as much machine as you can afford, which is to say, get the best options available for what you plan to do most (the biggest embroidery area, or the fastest stitch rate).