At our local Tip Shop I recently bought a 1979 Bernina 830 for the princely sum of $15. I wasn't permitted to even plug it in to see if it worked, but it looked in great condition so I took a risk. With a new light bulb and circuit board in the foot pedal ($173) my local repairman says it should last another couple of decades.
Now, new machines would cost the same price, so why go vintage? Berninas have always been popular for schools and colleges - you know a machine is sturdy if 13 year old boys can't break them! This machine hums along with the sound of Made-In-Switzerland precision that my former, brand-new $500 machine (that died after just 8 years) never ever had.
If you're in the market for an older machine, perhaps for financial reasons, or maybe, like me you just want some old-fashioned quality, here are my tips:-
* Go online and find reviews for the model you're looking at. I found great reviews for old Bernina, Husqvarna, Pfaff, Kenmore and Janome machines.
* My machine came with the original 30 year warranty form and instruction manual full of samples sewn by the original owner. If your manual is missing, try searching online for a downloadable version.
* See your machine in person or at least ask it's owner to video it to test some basic functions. Check it runs smoothly without any clanking or odd noises. Change the needle, wind and insert a bobbin, thread up and stitch. Try backstitching, zigzag and the buttonhole process - the essentials for dressmaking. Ask which presser feet come with the machine and look for scratches or surface damage.
* Befriend a good machine repairman. I've been saved from a pointless purchase with just a quick phonecall to ask advice.
Good luck! Remember spending thousands of dollars on a sewing machine won't necessarily make you a better dressmaker. Enjoy the satisfaction of a great recycled machine. You can spend up on fabric instead, with a self-righteous lack of guilt!