Buying A Ham Radio? Good Luck!

      17 Comments on Buying A Ham Radio? Good Luck!

Everyone is asking. buying a ham radio

As I roam the internet keeping up with others’ thoughts about ham radio, the number one theme that seems to come up, by a very large margin, is “I want to get into amateur radio, but I can’t afford it!”. The sentiment is also a high concern brought up in Off Grid Ham reader emails. It becomes even more complicated if your desire is to use radio off grid. In addition to buying a ham radio, off grid operators also have to acquire all the appropriate hardware to generate electricity. It’s not as easy as plugging in a simple AC power supply and calling it good.

Before we get into the meat of this article, let me offer some commentary about the idea that amateur radio is “too expensive.” The truth is, yes, radio can be expensive. In my forty-or-so-years of hamming I don’t know how much money I’ve spent on this hobby; it’s easily into tens of thousands of dollars. Heck, I think I have over a thousand dollars of coax cable coiled up in my garage right now. Like any passion, it’s easy to get sucked into a vortex of money!

But let’s keep things in context. Yeah, ham radio can be expensive. However, when compared to other pastimes, it’s cheap fun. One of my coworkers just spent several thousand dollars to travel out of state to play in a weekend golf tournament. Another acquaintance spent $30,000 on a fishing boat he uses only a few weeks a year. I’m certainly not putting them down. We all have our “thing” and it’s all good. But in practical terms, compared to those guys a $1500 radio looks like an excellent bang for the buck.

A recurring theme. buying a ham radio

A lot of aspiring hams make the mistake of running out and buying a lot of equipment without really knowing what their goals are. Or, even worse, they have a goal but have the wrong equipment to achieve that goal.

Recently, I came across a social media post by a guy who was recently licensed. He said he bought a FT-991A radio with a primary purpose to communicate around town on 2 meter simplex. It’s true he has a lot of room for expansion beyond that, but it was by accident, not design. I don’t know if he was given bad advice or simply did not bother to do his homework, but he could have achieved his low-bar goal for a heck of a lot less money.

The moral of the story is that you need to define your goals before dropping a ton of money on anything. I know this is a recurring plot on this blog, but the idea seems slow to sink in, so we need to keep beating the drum.

The market is completely nuts right now.

Options are limited due to the tight market for used radio equipment and shortages of new gear. Worse still, the limited stock of all equipment is commanding high prices. I did a little research for this article and was shocked to find broken 40-50 year old tube radios being sold “for parts” priced higher than what you could buy clean, working unit for just a few years ago! The big commercial retailers like Ham Radio Outlet are not price-gouging on new radios, but they are out of stock on the most popular rigs.

In these times, why would someone buy a used radio when for just a few bucks more they could get a new one? This is unsustainable. I think we are reaching critical mass with used radio prices. Don’t be surprised if their value crashes in the next year or so. If you’re looking to sell, do it now while the market is hot. If you’re looking to buy, holding off and waiting for the bottom to fall out may or may not be a good idea depending on your situation (more on that in a moment). This is madness, but I believe it will ultimately sort itself out and return to something resembling normal.

On the good side, off grid power gear is more affordable than ever. Solar panels are down in the recently unheard of $1.00-$1.50/watt range (US dollars), and often even less than that. Solar controller prices are stable. I paid $500 for my Morningstar MPPT controller about seven years ago. Today, the exact same unit is still $500. Batteries are kind of all over the place. The cost of lithium batteries is coming down while older battery technologies get more expensive.

buying a ham radio

Large solar for under $1.00/watt USD was unheard of just a few years ago. Actual screenshot from Amazon, taken in May, 2021.

No easy way out.

We face a dilemma. Off grid power equipment (solar panels, batteries, etc.) is very affordable right now. Radios, however, are hard to find and expensive when they are available.

If you already own radio gear and have been contemplating going off grid with it, the time to act is now! There’s no way of knowing how long the low prices will last. There’s so many good deals and it’s not likely to get any better. Price-sensitive amateurs have just lost their last excuse for not going off grid.

If you are looking to buy radio gear, you’ve got a hard decision to make. Buy now and pay crazy-high prices, if you can find anything at all, or wait it out. I guess the decision depends on how badly you need/want radio gear. Most of the people who recently jumped on the ham radio bandwagon for prepping/survival purposes are at a serious disadvantage. I suggest those folks take a deep breath and open their wallets, even if it hurts. Ham radio is so essential to prepping/survival that it cannot wait for a dip in the market.

What is going on with ham radio in particular and the world in general should make all of us do some serious thinking. How ready are you? Do you plan ahead of time, or do you react to situations after they happen? It’s never too late to learn and change, but “tuition” for the school of experience just went up considerably.

17 thoughts on “Buying A Ham Radio? Good Luck!

  1. Randall Krippner

    I can’t believe the prices in the used market! Holy cow they’ve gone crazy. I’ve seen the Kenwood TS-2000 selling used for more than what it cost new. It’s a nice transceiver, covering everything from HF up to VHF and UHF. I’ve got one that was my first HF rig. I think I paid $1,800 for mine brand new back in 2013. I’ve seen people asking $2,000+ for the things and I don’t know why. You can get a TS-590, brand new, for about $1,500 or so.

    Anyway, I wonder how many of these newbies to ham radio are also willing to invest the time and effort into acquiring the skills and knowledge necessary to actually use that new equipment effectively. Or the patience.

  2. Monty Collis

    I am a old SSB 11 meter guy. Back in the early 80s CBs were hot and kind of expensive. I even met a few Ham guys that chatted on 36 LSB locally using if I remember correcty FT101s. They are how I knew my 142GTL and Super Big Stick worked pretty well. I used 37 LSB to talk skip reaching as far as Alaska from Garland Texas on occasion. I still have that rig. So now I am putting in a Storm cellar and will use Solar power for it at our farm in East Texas. I think i am going to go with Bogart Trimetric PWM SC2030 and the TM 2030 monitor and shunt system that work together, and Trojan or Crown 6volt AGM GC batteries. A friend a church is a long time ham and the preacher is a new ham operator . I plan on following his lead. In the meantime I am going to set up my old 142 in the cellar and lighting. Maybe even a camera system and monitor along with a small refer. The battries should stay cool in the concrete cellar and last several years. I f I figure out how to vent them I might go with standard T105 or 145 wet cell batteries and put 4 of them there, taken care of, I think they are better than AGMs.

    1. randall krippner

      Having a CB radio on your shelf is a good idea, especially an SSB capable one. They’re good for short range communications and decent ones are pretty cheap as well. Antennas are easy to make or fairly cheap to buy.

      I used AGM batteries myself and like them, but I’ve been switching over to LFP. Not cheap but half the weight or less, smaller size, higher energy density, and long shelf life.

      1. Chris Warren Post author

        I have several CB radios in storage for distribution to neighbors in a SHTF situation. Clean working CBs can picked up for less than ten bucks each. Add a simple dipole antenna and you have an instant neighborhood comms system.

        1. Phil

          WHERE do you find WORKING CB radios for $10??? I always seem to find the ones going for $100+ that may or may not work…

          1. Randall Krippner

            Around here I see them at garage sales and estate sales fairly often. They go pretty cheap because new one are cheap. I’ve seen CBs from the 1970s and 1980s going for $5 – $25. New ones are almost dirt cheap. A quick look over at Amazon and I found a Uniden going for $49.

            I prefer the older ones from the 1970s and 80s. This was before surface mount devices were used so they’re easier to repair. Almost all of the components in the old ones are very common and the designs aren’t difficult to figure out.

          2. Chris Warren Post author

            You’re right again. The cheap CBs are there if you know where to look. With new CBs going for less than $100, it does not make sense to pay more than $5-$25 for a used unit unless it has SSB or is a collectible.

          3. Chris Warren Post author

            I have about six CB radios I picked up at swap meets. I did not pay more than $10 for any of them. They are clean, working units, but they are not fancy or desirable collectibles. They’re just basic 40 channel AM mobiles. I have them tested & boxed up with a simple dipole antenna for distribution in a SHTF situation.

            If you are shopping on eBay or eHam or anywhere on line, you’ll not likely find any cheap CBs. As a casual eBay seller myself, this is a matter of profit vs. work involved. Not many sellers, including myself, are willing screw around trying to sell a $5.00 item. By time I take the photos, create the listing, ship items out and respond to questions…the effort just isn’t worth it for the piddling amount of money to be made. If I can’t clear at least $20 after all my overhead, then I won’t bother. Many small time online sellers run this way; that’s why nothing is cheap on line.

            Scour the swap meets, yard sales, etc. You have to do a little digging but the deals are out there.

  3. David Evans

    There have always been, and continue to be, cheaper options. The main one being the second hand market… buying from an existing amateur rather than Flea-bay, which has so many pitfalls it should be approached with great caution.

    Buying an all-singing, all dancing shack in a box is not required if all you need is to communicate locally.

    Lack of analysis of needs invariably leads to disappointment and wasted $. Preppers are nominally quite intelligent but when they fail to learn, analyse and plan a viable solution, I question how long they would survive post apocalypse…..

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      There will always be cheaper options, but right now those options are very, very limited. As I mention in this article, the second hand market is red hot. You’re not likely to find a ham willing to give up a radio for less than it’s worth just to be nice.

      eBay is unfairly maligned, in my opinion. No one forces anyone to do anything there. Items sell for whatever someone is willing to pay. I am a bit biased as I occasionally sell stuff on eBay and usually do very well with it. As a devout free market capitalist, I feel no guilt at all accepting $20 for an item that’s really only worth $10 because some fool wants it badly enough.

  4. Paul

    Thanks for posting this useful information. I can definitely say I’m in the watching for equipment list while I build a few solar and wind backup systems – I have little trouble with my solar panels that are decent brand as you say – I’ve had multiple <100 watt newpowa ones have contacts that came un-soldered where they connect to the wires and were easily fixed however it's poor quality control. I see the most trouble with charge controllers. I have gone through quite a few different brands and spent more on an off brand MPPT style only to be more disappointed than ever as it excessively overcharged batteries. Under 30a controllers I have only had good luck with Renogy's controller long term – so far.

    I am wondering about vehicle mounted hams that seem to be available in the $200-$800 range currently – I have an off road vehicle setup with roof top solar panels and a standalone agm battery – What would it take for a decent ham/scanner combination or are the prices still really inflated on this equipment?

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      This is a GREAT time to pick up dollar panels, controllers, and such. As for cheap controllers and panels, wow, I recently had an entire article about that. I suggest sticking with name brand controllers: Renogy, Outback, and my personal favorite, Morning Star.

      Ham transceivers are expensive and hard to find at this time. I haven’t checked on scanner prices & availability, so my advice is to simply shop around. If you have solar on your vehicle, then half the work is already done.

  5. ethrane

    I thought it was just me. Been away from the market for about two years, using and happy with what I had in the shack. With the new SDR based rigs hitting the market, I figured I could pick up a used older gen radio like an FT-897 for less. Holy moley. They are going for a grand! I figured I just mis-remembered to pricing. Even older tube rigs like the 430 or 520’s are on the high side. Old FT-101s are going for $400. Just going to stick with what I have now. Thinking of focusing on the receive side of things with a Beverage antenna. At least wire is still “relatively” cheap.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      No, it’s not just you! Things are just crazy now but I think it will settle down before long. I do truly feel sorry for anyone starting from zero trying to get into the hobby.

  6. Randall Krippner

    Do you think the current price increases on used equipment and even some shortages is due to the pandemic? Things are opening up now, finally, but when people were stuck at home I’d think a lot of people who were only slightly interested in ham radio might have been buying stuff simply out of boredom? If so we might see the market being flooded with nearly new used equipment in the near future as a lot of these guys try to dump equipment they bought but didn’t really need.

    1. Chris Warren Post author

      The pandemic messed up the supply chain for sure. This is compounded by semiconductors being sucked up by Bitcoin miners. If you’ve been even vaguely paying attention to the news lately, you know that there is even a shortage of new cars because there are not enough microchips to go in them.

      I’m suspecting the pandemic probably did bring a lot of new & returning hams on board. We’ll see how many of them stay on the wagon when all this madness blows over. If many of them fall away, you are right, there will be a flood of barely used equipment at very low prices.

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