The Right Way To Buy a Custom Built Model

How do you tell the quality of a custom built structure? The same way you choose a fine wine. By the price. Just as the fine wine market is very good at weeding out inferior wines, so goes the fine scale model structure business. But there’s a difference between perceived quality and real quality. Perceived quality is the high resolution photograph on a Stoney Creek Designs box. Now let’s be clear. Roger Malinowski is a true model railroading artist and sells absolutely first class craftsman building kits. Roger is a true craftsman in every respect. But face it. Most of us are not. We’ll never achieve the artistic craftsman quality that Roger is capable of, mainly because most of us have a day job. We can’t afford the kind of commitment to our scale model work of art while feeding our families. And, we can’t afford to have Roger build one for us either. So we turn to something we saw on eBay that looked really great in a photo and are disappointed that the single line description we read and low resolution single photo simply didn’t do it justice.

We pay $35, get free shipping and wait a week for our new masterpiece to arrive and all the time wonder, what does the back of the building we bought look like? Our professionally built, weathered and painted $35 scale model structure arrives in a half crushed cereal box wrapped in cut up brown grocery bags with three or four crumpled plastic Wal-Mart bags as cushion wrap. Of course it’s broken. But, maybe it looks better that way? After all, the 12 scale foot diameter 3 foot tall oil barrel fell off. That’s a good thing, right? The 16 scale foot long crate broke in half making it a little more manageable and the nine and a half foot tall figurine, painted on one side only, with neon green pants and an off pink shirt must have fallen out the small hole in the box. Still hopeful, we take what’s left of the structure out of the box only to find it has no back side just some cardboard where our professionally weathered and painted real walls are supposed to be. So it’s really a background building? That wasn’t in the single line description. Well, this could still work. What did I expect for $35, delivered?

So, we do what any respectable model railroader does, we take it over to the bare back wall of the layout, that’s going to be a wonderful painted mountain scene one day with loads of hand painted trees, blue skies and puffy clouds that look like they go on forever and are not just flat like the bare wall is now, and lean it up against it. Then we run a train by to try it out. The loading dock is way too short. Okay, we can put it up on stilts. Examining more closely as the train goes by again, we notice the windows are taller than the train and the door is too narrow for human beings to pass through as the building falls forward onto the moving train because the cardboard back is too light to hold it upright, derailing 6 of our prized $60 each custom railcars that all go careening onto the concrete basement floor dragging a $280 locomotive behind them. We somehow manage with our lightning reflexes to grab the $35 piece-of-crap structure before it hits the floor.

Now we’re pissed beyond humanity, out several hundred dollars in rolling stock and a locomotive and we have to fill in the divot in the concrete floor before the wife walks by in those sexy pointy tipped high heels we love so much and breaks her pretty little ankle, her $1000 shoes, and then our head. So we go straight to the eBay listing. Ah hah, the rat has a website that’s no longer active and a phone number that no longer works. Okay, seething now, we send him a really nasty, threatening email, all in caps so he’ll know we’re really mad and demand our $35 back or we’ll ruin him and every mother’s sons of his forever and ever, amen. Fifteen seconds later the email bounces back undeliverable. That’s it. We’ve had it. We take the most drastic, immediate action we can. That’s right sucker, we file an eBay grievance punctuating it with an “Item NOT as listed.” That’ll get’em.

Two weeks later, long after the concrete patch has dried and through some creative accounting we’ve figured out a way to buy a replacement locomotive without the wife figuring it out, eBay sends us a notification. They regret to inform us that they’ve tried several times but cannot locate the seller. However, through their magnanimous gesture, paid for by raping the bottom line pockets of the rest of us honest sellers, they are crediting your account the full $35, out of their own pocket, just to keep you as the great eBay customer you are. Yay. But, we won? We’re still out hundreds of dollars in damages, time and open plywood farmland on the layout. Okay, so what went wrong? Here are a few quick rules of the road to avoid all this heartache when buying a custom built structure.

Buying a custom built structure 101: First find a respectable dealer that’s been in the business for a long time, like FineTrains. Shameless self-promotion aside, there’s lots of great builders out there who work for less than your first born child. They should have a decent website that doesn’t look like a 6 year old did it in crayon and “evey ting chould be aspelled right.” They should have several products available at one time and an online ordering system with contact information. But don’t buy anything yet, contact them. Make small talk like you would at a new store and ask some questions. Then see if you get a professional email response. If there’s a toll free number, call them. Builders love to talk about their stuff, but don’t keep them on the phone for an hour, they’ve got stuff to build. There should be lots of high quality photos of current models ready to ship (forget the dreamers, or we build to suit) with real prices (not links to an eBay listing), a secure shopping cart (httpssssssss) and shipping costs either up front or when an item is added to a cart, all available without ever collecting any information from you.

The website should have a blog. It should have posts. They should be current. They must be relevant. There may be long breaks between blogs. We’re all busy. Custom builders are no different. Holidays can be hectic. Large projects can get involved. But if the last blog post was 3 years ago, lookout. The blog should talk about more than just stuff they want to sell you, upcoming sales, new items they’re dreaming about, and working on or can be found by you just fine on the website without reading about it. It should be more than one paragraph. Grammar and spelling count.

If you choose to buy on eBay look for a professional quality listing with at least 12 high resolution digital photos like our O Scale Art’s Used Parts and more than one paragraph of description about the item’s glorious assets. If there are links to videos like any of our On30 Scale Locomotives, watch them all. If there are links to a blog, read it all, or to a manufacturer, go look them over too. Then ask some questions. Even if it’s a one day listing (usually, but not always suspect) the seller has more than enough time to respond. The email responses, the eBay messaging responses, the listing description and any other references should all be grammatically correct and spelled correctly. If you’re not sure, copy and paste the text onto your computer or into google and let the spell checking begin. If there are several poorly lit or out of focus photos with a one or two line description, run away no matter how low the price looks. If the words “Look, Nice, Man or Wow,” (other than TCS Wow) are in the title run faster. If the listing title is 5 words or less, you know the description isn’t going to be better. It’s not worth your time or money. Digital photography is way too easy these days. If the seller isn’t trying to show you the best that he or she’s got like our O Scale A.J. Morgan & Sons Company, if it’s not their “A” game, why should you care? You’re building a railroad empire, after all.

If you are lucky enough to find a custom builder that you can afford, does high quality work like our O Scale Arlee Depot, doesn’t mark-up shipping or insurance, is willing to work with all your faults and backs up what they sell with a money back guarantee, stick to them like mortar to stone. Don’t shop around anymore. That’s like cheating on your wife, only worse, this is toy trains, people. This is serious. Why can’t you still shop around? Because they’ll find out. They do this for a living. They know what they are doing and what you are doing. They can see you through the computer monitor. Well maybe not yet, but they’ll figure it out and be very, very hurt. True artists are not normal. Recall the ear cutting? You are just buying a structure, they are cutting out pieces of their heart and trusting you to care for their cuttings until death do you part. You shop. They’ll find out. They’ll be hurt. You’ll pay more or worse; you’ll get dumped. Then it’s back to eBay.

One last word. In case you haven’t noticed, the prices on our website are generally 10% to 30% lower than our eBay listings. That’s because eBay forces honest sellers, like FineTrains, who back up their work with a money back guarantee to pay for those that sell crap and skip town. I’ll never understand why it’s our job to police eBay’s site, or at least pay for it, when it’s obviously their marketplace since they force sellers to pay for every fee they can invent. If something we have listed on eBay catches your eye, please do yourself a favor and check our website before bidding for the same item. Chances are it’s also listed on our own website, backed by our own guarantee, for a lot less money since we don’t have to pay the eBay deadbeat fee. And if by chance Roger Malinowski gets tired of managing his craftsman kit building empire, we can always use the help at FineTrains.Com. (And they say I’m not an optimist.)