No one gets sentimental over a CD. Eight-tracks are a nostalgic novelty.
But records, man. People feel ways about records.
Records shaped many of our formative years. And some who may not have been raised on the medium are now finding appreciation for it. The sound quality, though imperfect—or perhaps because it’s imperfect—seems more authentic, less digitally mastered and / or remastered.
And because so much of our music is now accessed digitally, the act of carefully pulling out a record, placing it gently on the turntable, setting the needle within the record grooves, and letting the music play is special. It's done with intention.
So, as with listening itself, shopping for vinyl also has to be done with intention, especially if you’re doing so secondhand. Here are a few tips for navigating the vinyl-filled milk crates at your local estate sales. Estate sales are a great place to find bargains on not just various individual records but full COLLECTIONS of records. But unlike used record stores and other secondhand shops, the vinyl at estate sales may not have been thoroughly checked for quality and play-ability beforehand. So it’s important to know what to look for, since chances are good you won’t be able to play them ahead of time.
Warps. This one seems the most obvious, so let’s get it out of the way first. A warped record is a bad record. Unless you want to own it simply for the album cover art, or because you want to toss it in the oven and mold it into a bowl-shape so you can have your very own funky chip n’ dip, you should avoid warped records.
Scratches. Another obvious one, but with a little more nuance. A well-loved or even kind-of-liked record is going to have some scratches. Deep gouges will render the record unplayable. Diagonal scratches—those that span multiple tracks—are the most vicious. But smaller scratches may not be a deal-breaker.
Pay close attention to the edges, since that’s where the needle hits most solidly and most often. A general rule of thumb is: If you can feel it, you can hear it. Now, this might go against many a collector’s rules against touching a record, but you, or whoever brings them home, will want to clean them before rocking-out commences. So if you’re sincere in your interest and your intention, go ahead and make sure the scratch isn’t anything more than surface-deep.
Water damage. You can notice water damage on the actual vinyl album—it looks like a smear and lacks any gloss.
Heat damage. Wavy edges are a sign of heat damage, as is pitting on the surface of the record, both of which will affect the sound quality (usually creating a "whooshing" sound). It’s not a common vinyl malady, but depending on how the original owner stored the records, it is a possibility.
Mold. On your records, the inner sleeves, and the outer covers. Not only can it affect the play-ability of the record, it can spread to other records in your collection.
When casually shopping, these are the most important factors. When it comes to collecting for value and resale, however, there’s a bit more to consider, particularly the overall quality of the inner and outer sleeves. Watch for ring-wear, which is when the record jacket shows wear around the record itself. The jackets of frequently-played records are particularly prone to split seams, either from enthusiastic extraction, or returning the record a little too roughly. The good news is that visible wear and tear like this may affect the asking price. So if you’re not concerned about the minty-ness of your vinyl and its cover, you can get a good deal. And then those seams can always be mended with some acid-free tape.