So you saw that bass of your dreams on eBay/Craigslist/local newspaper, and costs much less than new. There may even be some pictures, and everything looks good. Should you buy it? Short answer: probably. Buying used can be a great way to get that instrument you’ve wanted that is slightly out of your budget new, or just a way to get the one you want cheaper, but of course there are things to look out for.
Let’s start with eBay- it is an extremely popular way to buy/sell instruments. There are a few ways to buy on eBay, such as bidding, “Buy It Now” (BIN), or “best offer”; all of which have their advantages. But first thing’s first, you have to read the description and look at the pictures to figure out if you really want it. Also do some homework on the seller; click through their feedback and see if they sell guitars/basses frequently. Have they had any neutral/negative feedback due to slow shipping or bad packaging? You will probably not get to see the instrument in person before you buy it, so ask the seller questions. Ask them to email you more pictures. How recently has it been set up? Does it have new strings or should you plan on shelling out another $20-30 for new ones? Are the frets worn? While the buyer can’t flat out lie to you in the description (you can file a complaint, which can lead to the seller’s account being frozen by eBay), it is your responsibility to find out as much as possible before handing out your hard earned money.
Craigslist and your local paper can be great, too. There is not the variety of a world-wide market such as eBay, but there are plenty of deals to be had. The seller is usually local, so you can see it before you buy it. You still want to ask those crucial questions; you can’t tell everything by looking. Sometimes you can talk them down on the price, just depends on your negotiating skills. If you are uncomfortable meeting a seller at their house ask them to meet you in public somewhere. Take a friend with you if you want, just use your good judgement. 99% of the time the seller is just trying to make some money, not rob/kill you.
Pawn shops can offer deals, but this is where “buyer beware” really comes into play. Just about every pawn shop I’ve ever seen has instruments, but they may or may not be stolen. Also, the shop keeper probably doesn’t know much about the instrument, so if you ask “is the neck maple or mahagony” the guy will probably say “I dunno, some guy brought that in a few days ago”. This can work to your advantage sometimes, though. Maybe they have an American Fender, but they don’t know anything about instruments and have it priced as an import. The bass could have modifications that make it worth much more, but they have it priced as if it were stock. I actually bought my first bass at a pawn shop- a Washburn 5-string. I probably overpaid a little, which was my fault, but I was very happy with it.
The bottom line is use your good judgement. If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. There are scammers out there, but most people out there are just honest folks trying to sell their beloved/bass to pay the bills.