Prosumer machines with home use
We are talking here about the high end offerings typically called “prosumer machines” and light commercial single group machines costing £500-1600 and not the more typical cheaper high street brands such as Gaggia, Krups etc. Although many of the same issues will apply. I have reviewed many different types and makes of domestic and light commercial coffee machine, often the question comes up “which used machine should I buy?” Usually you will have a pretty good idea of the functions you want and the exact model of machine you would prefer. You will have both anecdotal and possibly factual knowledge of known problems with any particular machine. Here is the first place you need to be careful. So called "known" problems may not be stated accurately. e.g. problem A causes problem B, but people only think B is the problem and don't realise it's caused by A, or they completely misinterpret the reason for any given problem. In addition manufacturers revise machines from time to time and may eliminate problems, or simply introduce new ones. It's also quite possible manufacturers simply ignore some problems that have existed (and still exist) within the design of their machines. These issues are sometimes not resolvable easily by the user.
Points to consider:
- Who has owned the machine & how has it been used
- Has it been maintained
- It's age and condition
- Parts you are likely to need
- warning signs
Who has owned the machine & how has it been used
Often I see comments like hardly used only used for 2 shots per day etc.. You can take all this stuff with a pinch of salt, it's mostly rubbish. People generally don't buy one of these machines to use it once or twice per day, but they think it sounds good in adverts. It actually makes little difference if it's reasonably well used or hardly used. In fact if it's hardly used I would worry more about water going stale in the machine and tank, a general lack of maintenance because someone feels they have "hardly" used it, therefore their logic thinks it needs maintaining much less frequently…which is actually not true. It could possibly indicate an owner with little passion for coffee and hence the maintenance aspects.
Is the owner knowledgeable and competent, to have both is important if they have been doing any more than basic maintenance jobs. Repairs attempted by the knowledgeable, but non competent, may leave much to be desired. I personally might choose to repair a machine with a non manufacturers part and possibly redesign an aspect of the machine. I would do this only because I have enough knowledge and competence to know whether I am creating a better fix and an improvement to the manufacturers original design or not. Be wary of modifications from the original by people whose competence you are not sure about.
So the old hardly used thing is a real waste of time in an advert unless it's true and if it's true it might give you cause for worry. of course used for a few weeks and stored properly, is a very different thing.
Lastly, if you are a member of a forum, don't think that just because you are buying from another forum member, your purchase is risk free, it's not. The person you are buying from may have very different standards from you, may not have the knowledge to know, or in some cases may simply want to pass on a problem to someone else. As always the rule is Caveat Emptor. If you can buy a machine with existing warranty cover (check that it is transferable), most warranties are not, because they are "bought out warranties", supported by the retailer who sells the machine and usually to the person they sold it to. At the time of writing only Bella Barista does a 2 year fully transferable warranty on espresso machines it sells.
One often overlooked aspect is the "ownership trail", who has owned the machine previously, try and find out as much as you can. It might be that one of the previous owners used it in a cafe for 3 years, or another used it in East Anglea, with water straight from the tap for 2 years (perhaps 1 year as it would have failed before 2 years with treatment like that) and never descaled!
Has it been maintained
also see maintenance-of-espresso-machines
This is a tricky one, from an owner with little knowledge they might think a group gasket replacement is a big deal and if they did that 2 years ago that counts as maintenance. If they say it's been well maintained, don't be afraid to ask them how they have done that if they are doing it themselves, or who has done it for them. and what they have done. Ask them if they have replaced (or had any components replaced) any components and why. Please bear in mind espresso machine maintenance is generally expensive, not least because you usually have to ship the machine (properly insured) to and from the maintainer, with a high risk of damage unless packed extremely well. This at the time of writing is likely to cost £60, plus the maintenance costs. This usually means machines are maintained by the owner.
When you get an answer to your maintenance queries and a list of what has been maintained, take that to a knowledgeable person (preferable one with specific knowledge of that machine) and ask their opinion and anything you should look out for. If the owner refuses to answer…walk away.
If the machine has not been properly maintained, and most have not been, consider offering less than the asking price, again get advice on this as it might be quite machine, location and situation specific. In general though you would expect to offer between 10% to 30% (in extreme situations) less than the asking price. If you feel even 30% doesn't do it…then walk away. Note: this 10%-30% figure is based on a fair asking price for age and condition, not an inflated one!
It's age and condition
This is a tricky one a machine on all day but used once per day ages in pretty much the same way as a machine used 15 times per day (with the exception of a few components). I don't like machines that are turned on and off mulltiple times per day as this causes it's own problems and I dislike machines that are on 24 hours per day. In general I like a machine to have been switched on and of once or twice per day and off when not being used e.g. at night. The age of a machine is that age where it has spent it's life in use and not stored/switched off for long periods e.g. My own Duetto is perhaps 7 or 8 years old, but because i own 3 dual boiler machines and am usually reviewing machines for 3 or more weeks at a time. it has actually had very little use during that 8 years, perhaps less than 2 years use, most of the time it, has been stored away and has been stored for the last 2.5 years.
So age is not always reliable and condition/maintenance are very important. Ask for photographs if they are not there. you want good quality photos, not blurred or tiny low res photos. You also want many more than 1 photo. You need as a minimum:
- Front back and both sides
- Top and cup tray area
- Underside of group
- Photo of the internals (if you can both sides, back and top).
With these photos you are looking for wear commensurate with age and stated usage, a clean machine, panels that don't look as they have been cleaned incorrectly (esp important for Mirror finish stainless), lastly for any dents as these may reduce the price, or indicate the need to look for collateral damage e.g. machine was dropped (bent feet), has the frame twisted etc…
Lastly photos of the internals. If they state they have fully maintained the machine during it's life but won't photo the internals….walk away. You are using these photos to look for leaks and gauge general condition. Also any knowledgeable person you ask to give you an opinion on a machine will want to see these photos.
Parts you are likely to need
A machine ages, in many respects it's directly related to on time rather than usage, of course some components are completely usage dependent. If it's a component that seals and contains rubber/viton, then it generally ages with on time, if it moves and slides (mechanical) then it's mainly usage. Electronics/heating elements, tend to age with on time..
also see maintenance-of-espresso-machines
In general a well maintained machine is likely to need a lot less parts than an unloved one. A careful owner will need less parts and maintenance than a careless one. A knowledgable and competent owner will may have almost zero problems and very low parts requirements. Usually this last type of owner fixes problems almost before they become problems, meaning they don't cause bigger and more expensive problems later on.
In general though (unless it's been stated as changed), budget for a new group gasket, new shower screen and a vacuum breaker on most machines.
This is the biggest killer of espresso machines, more than 95% of espresso machine problems (not due to normal end of life for components) are caused by water. Look at where the person lives, is it a hard water area, and remember from time to time hard water can be piped into an area. How are they filtering the water, because a Brita jug filter is pretty much useless, unless it's cartridge is changed every few days or weekly and even then it's not fantastic. There are commercial inline water filters available and a house may have a water softer. This is much better although water from these sources may still have other contaminants that due reduce espresso machine life. RO water has no contaminants, but unless properly treated may cause copper corrosion, the treatment is simply and quick, but some owners don't do it. If the machine is plumbed, then this is fine, unless it's plumbed into an RO machine without a remineraliser (because user end treatment is not possible as with a tanked machine). Plumbing in many machines may also hide a faulty 1 way valve, so if possible test it running tanked as well (if that is an option for the machine). Some people do use bottled water, find out what they use and look up it's mineral content, many are fine, but some "mineral waters", are not good for espresso machines.
In general a machine used in a hard water area, used with unfiltered water from the mains, even regularly descaled is likely to have many problems, not least problems cause by regular descaling and improper/no post descale maintenance.
I can't emphasis the effects of bad water enough. I use my machines on RO water, post treated to ensure it's correct for the machine and provides decent taste e,g, neutral, correct ionic level, and able to provide a sodium carbonate passivation layer over the internal parts of the machine. I enjoy 0 machine problems.
Big red flags are statements such as:
- I don't know anything about espresso machines
- I bought it from a cafe where it only had light use
- I bought it from ebay and was going to fix it up but don't have the time
- No idea of who owned it before them
- No idea of any maintenance performed on the machine
- Bought to fix up and sell (normally your paying more and often to someone whose trying to fix it up as cheaply as possible)
- Regularly descaled
- Has x problem which I have been told is an easy repair
- has some "issue" which doesn't affect it's use
If the photos show a dirty machine, or are low res only, this could be hiding something. Look carefully at the internal photos for anything that seems to contradict what the person is saying such as:
- Non standard components, or components obviously changed, where no maintenance has been stated.
- The tell tale salmon pink colouration of brass parts that have been cleaned with descaler to hide corrosion or deposits from leaks, or suspiciously bright copper in certain areas
- Burn marks or scorch marks on connectors or electronics
- Water or misty glass in guages
- Notchy group handle on E61 groups
- Leaky Steam/HW valves
- Unusual Sounds
- Areas with "cauliflowers" of limescale at places such as the safety valve, heating element or other joints, this could indicate a leak. If the water is low in limescale causing compunds, then this may show as corrosion or lightigh discolouration in a thinner deposit
- If there are "cauliflowers" on the inside on a machine supposedly used with good water or a filter, consider the veracity of the seller as to the water used.