7 Tips to Save Money on Your Model Trains

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If you have been a model railroader for some time you will understand that the costs of model trains can add up very quickly. Model trains are the best hobby in the world, but if you are going to pay full retail price for everything you buy, it will soon become the most expensive hobby you have ever had!

Here is how to save money on your model trains:

1) Make Sure You know What You Want

A common mistake with beginner railroaders is to start collecting one scale of model trains only to find that there are more accessories in another scale, so they change over. Do your research first, speak to other railroaders, check how much space you have available, do you want diesel or steam locomotives, will your layout be multi-level, etc.

Think carefully about what you want. Hobby shop sales people love customers that walk in and ask their advice. Most of the sales people are on commission bonuses or incentives, so it is natural for them to sell you what is in stock and preferably the equipment with the biggest commissions.

With the internet it is easy to do some quality research and find the best price. Often model train equipment from different states or countries can be much cheaper, even with postage included.

2) Create Half a Layout

A model train that takes up your whole basement looks very impressive, but the bigger your layout the more money you will spend. Often beginner model railroaders will see large and impressive layouts at their local model train club and want to build a similar sized layout.

They usually do not have any idea what that large layout has cost the owner and how many hundreds of hours have been invested in building the system. Start off slowly with a half sized layout built against a wall. With clever use of backdrops you can make your layout appear twice as big as it actually is.

A half sized layout is quicker to build and will provide any beginner railroader a good idea of costs and time involved. A half sized layout can always be pulled away from the wall and made twice or three times as big.

3) Buy 2nd Hand

I have bought locomotives off eBay for a tenth of the price of a new one. Model train enthusiasts are generally very careful with their model train equipment, so it is very rare that you will buy a dud.

Unfortunately some veteran railroaders die after 30 or 40 years of model railroading. Often complete sets like these can be bought for a fraction of the cost of buying new. Set up an alert on eBay, watch your local newspapers and community boards, keep in touch with your local model train club and ask the hobby shops.

Hobby shops usually only sell new equipment because the profits are bigger, so they will happily keep your details on file should someone come in wanting to sell 2nd hand equipment. Advertise in newspapers and newsletters that you want to buy 2nd hand model train equipment. Most veteran model railroaders have far too much equipment for their needs and usually have had stuff sitting in boxes for years. Your advert may come at a time when they need some cash.

4) Trade With Other Railroaders

Model train clubs are great places to swap or trade model train equipment. Often railroaders do not want cash but they may want what you have. It does not mean that you have to swap a diesel locomotive for a diesel locomotive, you could trade your skill in building a pond or painting their model train room. The ideas are endless and this can be a massive money saver.

5) Always Spend Your Hard Earned Money on Quality Over Quantity

If you have the money and only want new equipment than you absolutely must buy quality over quantity. Locomotives can cost hundreds of dollars and it can be tempting to buy a locomotive at the lower end of the price scale. Manufacturers have become very good at producing lower priced locomotives that are well detailed and look good. However they lack in their inner workings.

A common mistake is to say you will upgrade later, because the initial money you spent will be wasted. Once you experience quality equipment you will never use the low quality stuff again.

6) Make It Rather Than Buy It

Model trains will teach skills that you never had before. From working with electrics to creating rivers and ponds to building landscapes and so much more. It is this skill set that you develop that makes model trains the best hobby in the world.

Every part of model trains can easily be learnt by buying an ebook, a book or asking your model train club. So make it before you buy it. Buildings can be bought in kit form but it is so much more fun (and cheaper) creating the structure from scrap wood, beads, glue, paint and other bits and pieces.

7) Keep a Journal And Budget

It can be very easy to impulsively buy when being sold by an enthusiastic hobby shop sales person. If you know what you want and have done your research online you will know how much you need to spend, which will make negotiating easier.

Building a reasonable sized model train layout can run into the thousands of dollars. If you have $500 to spend then you do not want to even start with this layout. You will end up with a half finished layout until you find some extra money.

As you buy your model train equipment record the date, the details of the item you bought and the price you paid in a journal or notebook. That way, when you come to sell it 2 or 3 years later, you know what you paid for it and can price it accordingly. A journal is a great way to record your progress. Keep pictures as you are building your layout and comment on any issues or milestones.

Got any comments or questions? We would really like to hear them…

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13 Responses to 7 Tips to Save Money on Your Model Trains

  1. Dan says:

    How much do you estimate you’ve spent on your model trains?

    Most model railroaders I know have spent well in excess of $10,000. They’ve bought their stuff over 10 or 20 years so they haven’t really noticed the money being spent but over the years they’ve built magnificent layouts.

  2. Thomas M. Murphy says:

    Tip’s are very help-full

  3. tomsav says:

    Very useful for reference! Thanks.

  4. Paul says:

    Dan is probably correct, many modelers don’t keep a record of money spent and will be higher than one thinks. The articles are good and serve as a very good guide

    I build UK steam 1900s to 1960s but manage to get some good ideas. Thank you.

  5. Thomas Murphy says:

    I took your advice and am purchaching most of Atlas NickelSilver track and turn outs from e-bay at a big savings.

  6. Patrick Huot says:

    You are definately right. I’m a seasoned HO modeler myself and your tips are surely correct.
    Especially when it comes to purchasing equipment for the first time. Ebay is prob. the best source to track down the best prices for what your looking for. For example. I had been contemplating buying the new Athearn Southern Pacific GP40X’s for about a year now. (I already had a brass one) $69.99 had been the cheapest advertised price each. I just purchased a set of two for 1- $38.00 and the other for $48.00.
    The key when starting out (as you stated) is: explore what’s available, decide how much room you have and then pick a scale. After that it’s a lifetime of hobby enjoyment!
    Also: Take a young newcomer under your wing and show them what to do and what there is available. It will be rewarding and they will remember it the rest of their lives. (I did)
    Nice chatting with you.
    Take care.

  7. Tom says:

    The idea of a journal makes a lot of sense. Knowing what you have bought & paid for is great for the non-hobbist left with the estate.

  8. Jack Whitney says:

    I have heard a lot about using a fast clock in model railroading. Just what does this mean?

  9. Ron Gager NMA UK Southshore Group member says:

    Tips on the small things can be very useful too.

    eg if you use a jug water filter such as a Brita, the carbon granules in the spent cartridges are just right for ballast or earth when painted over, costing nothing, and giving a warm re-cycling feeling.

    eg Chinchilla dust available cheaply from pet stores is very fine and a sandy color making it suitable for pathways etc.

    eg Mixing some talcum powder with glossy paint will produce a matt finish.

    eg Do not mix lead solder with the new lead free types as they are completely incompatible.

    eg Be very careful when using isopropyl alcohol (de-natired alcohol) when ballasting, track
    cleaning etc. Plenty of ventilation is absolutely vital. See Wikipedia for the side effects
    when ingested by mouth or through the skin or inhaled.

  10. Bryan says:

    Hi Dan

    Thanks for your correspondence. I decided about 18 months ago to have a go at building a model railway layout having for the 1st time ever managed to create some space in a spare bedroom after moving house. Having never done this sort of thing before I decided to buy a few books to give me a few ideas of ‘what to buy’ and ‘how to do it’. This approach believe me is NOT the way to do it. The so called experts who had written the books were obviously out to impress with technical information and the need for a bottomless wallet was paramount to buy all the equipment the writers thought one should have to paint things and stick things together etc. etc.
    So what did I do? I stopped and thought….What do I want to do?…..and this is my advice to get you started..it worked for me;-

    1) By all means read model railway (railroad) info books on how to do ‘it’ but don’t take it all as a rule of thumb, just get general ideas.
    2) Have an picture in your own mind before you start on what you want your layout to represent, for instance modern traction with suitable rolling stock with up to date ancillary buildings around any station area and accompanying town shops and houses.Or alternatively picture the days of steam locos with all the grime of an old engine shed,, water towers, coaling stages and all the ash, rusty sidings old wagons that this era produced.
    Just two ideas
    3) Its so easy (spurred on by the enthusiasm to get started) to go out to the shop and waste money on buying track, engines and rolling stock without having first some idea of what you want the finished layout to be.
    4) Having got started, if you get stuck for ideas then STOP, leave it for a while, then come back to it. Something will eventually click into place, but don,t plough on regardless, it can be expensive.

    I started out knowing nothing about how to build a model railway, but I did know what I wanted to finish up with. It happened to be the mid 1960s when the railway in the UK was in the transition period from steam to diesel and was very ‘run down’ with acres of disused sidings, grass growing between the tracks, decrepit engine sheds and filthy locos and rolling stock. This is what I remember vividly and it has made the task of creating it that much easier.

    Finally remember that all you need is a good mental picture and a fair degree of common sense

    All the best


  11. John Suther says:

    I have read that a “swinging bridge,” such as the Golden Gate is not “desirable” for railroad transportation. Is this correct, as I am planning to build another HO scale layout soon, and I am beginning to plan it now! Thanks & GOD bless!

  12. Larry Denning says:

    Having started in the hobby back in 1955, most model trains were only available at retail hobby shops, and occasionally at a club open house. By the ’70’s more used trains were showing up in newspaper ads and hobby magazines. By the time of my divorce in 1980 I had accumulated over $155,000.00 in trains, much of it brass steam locos, no layout. I was forced to liquidate it all, and the buyer got a HUGE deal!!! It was only 6 years ago that I got back into the hobby after seeing all the trains on eBay. Many great buys can be found on EBay, however if you haven’t checked out eBid yet, you’re missing out! EBid is the number ONE competitor and is rapidly growing! As a buyer, and former power seller on eBay with 100% positive feedback for 10 years, I have purchased numerous model railroad items, from brass to scratchbuilt, and was rarely dissapointed. I got many items for 99 cents, and sold many at that price! But it looks like those days are dying for eBay due to all of their new requirements for sellers. Fees have been increased, minimum seller ratings are required now, restrictions are being put on shipping charges and shipping time, and ONLY electronic payments are allowed! They double up on their fees when you pay with PayPal as they now own it!
    Sad to say, it has caused me, and many other sellers, to leave eBay. I’ve moved my store to eBid, NO seller fees unless YOU add them for additional features! Now I’m selling my 99 cent items again!
    Check eBid out, we currently have 10 model railroad sellers with stores, and many other individual sellers listing items at great prices! It’s free to register, and most sellers offer all forms of payment!

    Get registered at http://us.four.ebid.net/perl/normal.cgi?ref=460765&mo=register-main

    I’m currently working on custom detailed, custom painted, graffiti’d and tagged rolling stock, locos, and name trains to be listed in my store as I complete them, along with many other items, details, and decals.
    Find my store at http://us.ebid.net/stores/Larrys-Trains-and-Detail-Shop

  13. tommy tinney says:

    i,m just getting into model trains in o scale and there is some good advice in these colums thanks for the great work tltmountainman

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