The Pawn Shop Debacle

ezpawnIt was about 9:30 last Friday morning and I was just firing up the compressor for a round of framing on the master bedroom addition I’m building at a friend’s house. Well, trying to fire it up, anyway. When I plugged in the beefy machine and braced myself for some noisy chugging, I was greeted with silence instead.

“What The Feather!?”, I cursed as I checked the cords, switches and settings. I eventually found a flaw in its power cord and fixed it, and we were back in business. For about two minutes, at which point I realized the motor was running constantly and never shutting off. There was yet another problem with the machine, this time a broken pressure regulator. Air was hissing out just as fast as the cylinder could pump it in, so it would need to run constantly to maintain the 100PSI that I need for the nailguns.

It has been a bad winter for compressors. In Hawaii, Johnny Aloha and I blew an old Craftsman when he overworked it running an air chisel to chip away part of his asphalt driveway. So we had to borrow the next door neighbor’s crazy old barrel unit. While it did get us through the rest of the project, it too was leaky and inconvenient to use. When I got home and started working on this addition, we started with my friend’s venerable Bostitch compressor which has run reliably for the 5 years since he bought it off of Craigslist. On the first week of the job, it blew its cylinder gasket and lost pressure. So I brought over my heavy-duty trolley-mounted Dewalt compressor, thinking that would be the end of the issues.

So when even my 4-years-new Dewalt started acting up right at the beginning of this workday, I was naturally pretty peeved. With nowhere left to turn, we limped through the day with that machine, manually switching it on and off as needed to handle nailing sessions as we installed the sheathing on the newly framed walls. I became increasingly annoyed at the compressor as the day went on, finally cracking and uttering the following Antimustachian utterance:

“We need a working compressor right now. I don’t have time to fix this, so I’m going to check Craigslist and try to buy a new one tonight. Then I’ll just give this one away on freecycle – someone else can fix it, and my time is too valuable right now to be the one to do it.”

I checked Craigslist. There was a great Ridgid compressor for sale right in Longmont. Brand-new condition, reasonable price. I sent a text message, negotiated the price, and got a call from the owner.

“Uhh, hi. This is Trisha. You see, I’m selling the compressor on behalf of my husband, who no longer needs it for work. But the thing is that it’s at the Pawn shop. I pawned it last night to get a loan because we’re short on cash. You’ll have to meet me at the pawn shop to pick it up”.

At this point, I was shocked to learn something that everyone else apparently knew about pawn shops: when a seller brings in some merchandise, the pawn shop doesn’t buy it outright. Instead, they issue a “loan”, for about one third of the value of the item, and promptly tack on the state-regulated maximum 2% monthly interest fee, and about 20% of miscellaneous bullshit additional fees for “storage and handling”. The customer then needs to come repay this loan, or renew it monthly with additional fees, if they want to maintain ownership of the item. The total cost can be upwards of 200% in annualized interest per year. If the customer fails, the shop owns the merchandise, and they bring it out to the sales floor to sell to someone else (often done on a “rent-to-own” basis if they can find another sucker who is bad at math!).

Now WHY, you may ask, would anyone pawn an item for 30% of its value, when they could just sell it on Craigslist for 100%, while dealing with much nicer people? It is one of the mysteries of our society – those information gaps that keep poor people poor – just like the idea of  “financing” a car or running a credit card balance. Pawn shops are designed to prey on poor and undereducated people by ripping them off. Great business model!

“Oh boy, here we go”, I thought. If this information had been correctly explained in the Craigslist ad, I never would have responded. But since I was already invested in the deal, I made the foolish desicion to play along. I made a date to meet Trisha at the EZ-Pawn up on the seedy part of North Main Street at 5PM. I showed up with the Scion xA and a wallet full of cash.  “At least I might get a nice story for the Mustachians out of this”, I thought.

I met Trisha in the parking lot – she had just come from her job in Denver, apparently commuting in a black full-size V-8-engined Chevy pickup truck. We entered the store.

Inside, there was the usual display area of outdated electronics, Walmart bicycles, and some surprisingly good tools. A  long lineup of unhappy-looking people shuffled along at the cash register. I perused the tools and answered some emails on my phone until Trisha got to the front of the line and explained her request to the cashier/manager.

“Okay Miss”, said the manager, “the compressor is in storage, so in order to see it, you’ll just need to pay the full balance of your loan plus all the fees”.

“But I don’t have the money for that”, said Trisha. “I used that money to buy gas on the day I pawned it. But this guy here has got the money – he’s willing to buy the whole thing! Just bring it out so he can see it”.

“I’m sorry, I can’t bring it out until I have the money”, the manager repeated.

“But I can’t give you the money until I see and test the compressor”, I explained. “Can’t you make an exception so we can get this sale done?”

“Nope. The compressor is MINE now, until the loan is repaid”, said the manager, getting a little surly.

“Well, my apologies to both of you”, I said, “after learning about a policy like that, I can’t do business with this shop even if you did change your mind, so I’ll be off now”. And I left.

A few minutes later, Trisha called my mobile phone again.

“I talked to my mom, and she says if I drive over to her place, she’ll loan me the money to get the compressor out of the pawn shop. If I do that, and then bring it over to your house, will you still buy it?”.

“I appreciate the offer, but if you don’t mind let’s just call the deal off for now. Best of luck to you and I’m sorry again!”.

Whew. I spent some more time that evening shopping online for brand-new compressors. Then another friend came over, we drank some beer, and he mentioned I could just borrow his compressor for as long as I needed it, taking the pressure off of the purchase completely. Why didn’t I think of that before?

The next day was Saturday. With the loaner machine procured, I decided I now had time to try to fix my own compressor. I did a little bit of research. It turned out that I could use an external regulator to work around the problem. That would cost only $48.23 from Amazon with free shipping. That’s a lot less expensive than buying a new compressor. But wait – digging deeper I found you can get a Dewalt regulator repair kit at amazon or ebay for only $23. That’s even better. And it looks really simple too.

That gave me an idea. I took the 3-minute walk down the street to the construction site, and wheeled my trusty Dewalt home. And within 5 minutes, I had already learned something truly valuable:

How to Fix a Dewalt Compressor Regulator*

I detached the regulator unit from the front panel using a star-shaped ‘Torx’ screwdriver bit.


From there, I was able to pull it out of the frame so I could get a wrench onto the nut that holds on the pressure-adjusting knob.


Inside, I saw a spring thing, a metal pin, and a rubber seal. But the spring wasn’t very springy. “Hmm, that’s a clue”, I thought.

I pulled the three pieces apart, sprayed some silicone lube onto them, and reassembled. Now the spring was springy. “That will probably work better”, I concluded.


I re-tightened the nut and fired up the compressor. The air leak was gone and the adjuster knob turned better-than new.

Not only did I save about $300 and a whole bunch of environmental waste,  but I will now know how to fix air regulators for the 70 remaining years of my life! And the whole thing took less time than a single visit to the pawn shop.

Let this be a lesson to me. I must not start getting all high and mighty with that “my time is too valuable to spend fixing my own shit” nonsense. As explained in the article about the value of your time, these equations only favor the lazy in the case that you have near-infinite wages in your day job, or already-infinite knowledge of everything and thus you cannot benefit from the learning experience of fixing your own stuff. At least give it a try.

And oh yeah, the other lesson: pawn shops are ridiculous. Help me convert the rest of the world to Mustachianism, so we can have them all torn down.



* (I made a heading out of it, so we can be first in the search engines with this result – apparently nobody has ever written about this before!)

  • Rebecca February 20, 2013, 12:37 pm

    MMM – Have you used the Tool Library in Boulder (http://resourcetoollibrary.org/)? It opened recently and seems like a great resource.

    • ultrarunner February 20, 2013, 2:58 pm

      Too funny… I was just going to recommend this! I was scouring pawn shops and craigslist for a framing nailer recently… for a basement finishing project at one of my rental houses. A framing nailer isn’t something I use terribly often, maybe once every few years, so buying a new one didn’t make a lot of sense. Anyway, I didn’t find anything and forgot about it for a while… but while on one of my 3x/week trips to ReSource, I decided to finally pop into the Tool Library. Holy cow, that place rocks! Perfect for those items you don’t need often, and the prices are incredible!

    • Mr. Money Mustache February 20, 2013, 7:50 pm

      That tool library sounds cool, but I live in Longmont rather than Boulder – making a 30+ mile roundtrip twice (once to borrow, once to return) would pretty much eliminate any possible savings from renting there. Luckily for me, I already own almost every possible tool, so I serve as the tool library for other people :-)

  • AussieJulie February 20, 2013, 5:54 pm

    I love the idea of a Tool Library. Thank fully I have a very handy Dad – engineer, 2 handy brothers – Boiler Marker/welder and mechanic and a very handy Hubby – can make a Rolls Royce out of a toothpick (LOL). I never throw any tools away and I always keep a list of items I need for repairs in a book so that if I see them anywhere cheap or free, I grab them. some items take a little while but that’s ok. cheaper than buying a new one. One of the longest items I have in need of repair is an umberella. The end bits that hold the fabric onto the frame came off. parts are hard to get and to buy another one to distroy it to repair the old one – just doesn’t seem right. but one day I will find it and the satisfaction in completing this job will be of a great value.

  • pachipres February 21, 2013, 9:09 pm

    My eight year old son got a hockey bag equipment storage bag on wheels at a local sport recycle shop for free because it was missing a wheel. My dh ordered a new wheel for $23.50 from the company “Grit”. My son was so thrilled. It was a $150 bag for only $23.50.

  • KC @ genxfinance February 22, 2013, 12:53 am

    Cool man. Good job. Funny how things work out well when you experiment a little. :D

  • GubMints February 22, 2013, 10:18 am

    3M –

    Great post! I’ve only shopped at a pawn shop once or twice in my life… can’t even remember what I was looking for.

    Knowing now how nefarious the back-end of this business is, I don’t think I’ll set foot in a pawn shop again.

  • Eric Hansen February 26, 2013, 8:01 am

    I love that your Antimustachian response was to go to Craigslist. You’re so far along that going to Sears to buy a new compressor doesn’t even enter your mind.

    I spent my summers in high school and college working for a concrete company doing flat-work. We tried to stay lean, which meant owning very little equipment and renting from the local implement when needed. Because I was there often picking up odds and ends for different jobs, I developed a pretty good relationship with the rental house employees. They let me rent tools for free or cheap on weekends for my personal projects. With your construction connections, I’m sure you could do something similar.

  • Mark February 28, 2013, 9:26 am

    I’m a big fan, no not pooping on your blog, but did you happen to notice the ad on this page for borro.com? Sure looks Pawny to me. I guess we should just enjoy the irony of you making a little coin from them on a site where they won’t find any takers :)

    • Mrs. Money Mustache February 28, 2013, 6:28 pm

      Hi Mark,

      What you’re seeing is a google adsense ad. They are different for everyone. Mine currently shows an ad for “Bigstock”, probably because I recently purchased something there for some work I’m doing.

      Some of the ads are based on content of the article (which explains what you see) and sometimes it is based on your online activity… I think you can customize it.

      Anyway, since I doubt anyone clicked on the ad, we probably didn’t make any coin from their site. :)

      • Mark March 1, 2013, 9:06 am

        One click for you anyways, since I was curious ;) Now I’ll probably get lots of google ads for pawnshops

  • Jose March 2, 2013, 2:23 pm

    Good story. I’ve occasionally picked up tools at pawn shops but eventually stopped as I’m not comfortable with the history of the tool and I can’t stand how pawn shops take advantage of people that need help but aren’t savvy enough to sell their stuff on craigslist. The lady selling the compressor was interesting. She could have posted it on Craigslist for twwice what the pawn shop gave her and probably sold it in a day!

  • Kate March 13, 2013, 7:56 am

    I’m a little concerned for Trisha in this story. She seemed rather desperate and uneducated about finances. Did you help her out and direct her to your blog? It seems like she needs some serious help!

  • Sarah April 3, 2013, 2:42 pm

    went with my SO to a pawn shop a few weeks ago and found a set of gold rings and one sparkly ring for WAAAAAY less than the “regular” jewelry stores prices and amazingly enough all three rings fit us perfectly…I can’t imagine paying retail anymore…we paid less for all three than one band was going for at the retail shops…

  • GubMints April 5, 2013, 5:26 pm

    Just gave my dishwasher a good FEATHERING.

    The motor was making a horrible buzzing and vibrating noise.

    After consulting with a Yelp-recommended appliance repairman on the phone, I learned that the likely cause was debris (broken glass or plastic) stuck down in the sump.

    After a whopping 10 seconds of googling, I found the disassembly how-to video for my exact dishwasher make on YouTube.

    Long story short, 1.5 hrs later the noise was gone with ZERO damage to our family’s wallet. Benjamin Franklin and Ulysses S. Grant both called me moments later with their congratulations.

    God Bless both MMM and YouTube!

    • Mr. Money Mustache April 6, 2013, 8:44 pm

      Haha.. that is a great story! Fantastic to hear that your repair skills can rouse dead presidents :-)

  • Joggernot April 10, 2014, 5:38 pm

    On reading this post (I’m working my way through from the beginning) I went to our local pawn shop to see that was available. Nothing good; nothing interesting; and some of the crappiest tools I’ve ever seen. Wouldn’t pay a dollar for them. At least it was within carting distance (golf cart is legal here and I have an electric one).

  • Bill Shortell March 1, 2016, 6:39 pm

    I felt bad for the young , broke woman. Your advice is excellent, but do you have any feelings for people not as philosophically endowed as you?

  • Matt Hagler November 21, 2016, 9:26 pm

    New reader, just making my way through the old posts, but I have a good air compressor story that I thought I would share.

    My dad’s Harbor Freight air compressor that he had bought new quit compressing air in the middle of one of his projects. So he went down to HF and got the newer, bigger, better one that he “needed anyway”. The next time I was at his house I asked him what he was going to do with it. He said something about using the tank to increase his air capacity but that he prolly wouldn’t get around to it and that I could have it and try to fix it. I brought it home and tore it apart finding a broken flapper valve(thin sheet metal). I found a parts diagram online and called the number to order the parts, it ended up being like $4 for the new valve and gaskets. I thought what the heck and asked how much for the handle, I accidentally broke the handle like 2 weeks after he bought it and have been listening to grumbling every time he had to move it. It ended up being only $3.17 for the handle so all total parts and shipping I had about $11 and a little sweat equity in getting the compressor back to like new condition.

    Moral of the story any time something breaks I tear it apart and try to figure out why. It’s already broken so I can’t make it any worse and I almost always learn something. And probably 60% of the time I can fix it for little to nothing.

  • Michael May 6, 2018, 5:24 pm

    I am amazed at this situation!
    I had many questions on this experience with said woman…
    “How did MMM just walk away from the woman?”
    “How come he didn’t educate her on her infallible insanity and financial ideals?”

    “And why didn’t he help her after she at least called back, again taking the time to educate her?”

    The most surprised and amazed I have been to date on this blog…
    (Reader since 2014)


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