I have an elderly uncle who has been playing acoustic guitar all his life. His love is country music, and he has a particular affinity for the Carter Family, so he is familiar with the autoharp. He's always loved the sound and has been intrigued by the instrument. In the past three years, his hands have started to give him trouble, and this has made the fingering on his guitar really difficult. I recently suggested to him that he try an autoharp, since he could still play rhythm without having to press strings with fingers that no longer respond the way they used to. He LOVED that idea! Since then, I've been doing a lot of research, trying to learn about the instrument, and at his request, I've gotten him on (snail) mailing lists for music catalogs that deal in autoharps so he can look at them and get an idea of what he might like. Once he decides what he likes, he'll probably invest in one for himself. In the meantime, I've started to think I might like one for myself, but I can't really afford the $150 and up investment for a new one. I've been looking for a really inexpensive used one or even a "giveaway" that might be collecting dust in someone's closet. I'd like to be able to "jam" with my uncle when I go visit with him at Christmas. I think that'd be really awesome!
Does anyone on this list have any suggestions? I'm already looking at eBay, and someone on Freecycle.org (another place I've been looking) suggested the online Goodwill auctions, so I'm looking there, too. Is there an autoharp-specific resource for cheap, decent used 'harps for newbies who can't afford much of an investment but want to give this a try?
I've bought a dozen or so used autoharps on ebay and all of them have been in the condition described... which is to say, four were sold as playable, and arrived as playable, and the rest had the problems the sellers said they had.
One of the playable ones was an old black autoharp. I'd actually suggest an old black autoharp as the answer to this question, because they can often be had for $10 to $15, plus the $20 or so for shipping, and then you've got a harp for $35. If you ask the right questions to begin with (make sure its felts are intact and it has a complete set of strings and no rust and that it's not caved in), you can end up with a great harp to use for a while until you have money to put into a better one. In my case, I spent about $20 for the harp and $25 for shipping, and gave it to a friend as a starter harp: the idea is that he can try it and if he likes it I'll get him a nicer one later, but if he doesn't like it, I'm only out $45.
Remember also that if you asked the right questions and were told it's all okay but then the harp arrives and is not in the condition described, you can file a complaint with ebay or paypal and they may give you your money back.
I agree to an extent. While the feedback rating is worthless as an absolute number, you can see if there was negative feedback, how much, and what it said. Just because a bad seller can get lots of positive feedback doesn't change the fact that they can't make the negative go away. You can also see if they've had feedback withdrawn, which indicates that something was wrong but they've mutually agreed with the buyer not to tell you about it. Having encountered this problem, I don't care if a seller has a 99.9% positive feedback rating any more, I look at what the negatives said about them. If it's something that could easily be explained away by the buyer just being an ass - it didn't arrive fast enough, or perhaps the buyer wasn't happy with what they got but isn't claiming the seller didn't try to make good - then I ignore it. If the feedback is more serious - the buyer is saying the seller refused to make good, or perhaps making specific comments about bad behavior on the seller's part - then I don't buy. I also check the feedback the seller has left, to see what they say about others, because this can be indicative of their personality.
All of this sounds arduous, but it takes only a couple minutes.
Now, back to the issue of money... Part of why I think buying a cheap old black autoharp can be a good idea is that there are in fact plenty still in good condition, and there are so many on the market that the actual value of any of them is close to nothing. So, you can buy one while risking very little money. Even if ebay was to just say "the buyer beware!" and make no pretense about protecting you, it's just not much money.
As for ebay's willingness to do anything... it's variable. I had one incident in which a seller never sent my item. I appealed to ebay, they referred me to paypal, I filed a complaint with them, and they gave me most of my money back. (They took it from the seller's account, which didn't have quite all the money left, but I got 90% of it.) In another incident a seller is harassing me by phone (he's just a psycho), ebay is refusing to do anything. They say it's a matter for the police, which is true, but they don't have to choose to let him stay on their system. Nevertheless, anyone looking at his feedback can now see that I said he is harassing me by phone.
Overall, if you're going to buy a used autoharp, unless you can find someone local who wants to sell one in your price range, which is inherently difficult, ebay is one of very few options out there, and while their protections are not rock solid, they're better than the no protections that come with buying from someplace like craigslist.
Oh, and one other thing: I make many of my ebay purchases with auctionsniper.com . They offer cheap insurance on purchases, which I believe covers "it never showed up". I buy it whenever I spend enough money that I actually am concerned about not losing my money.