7 Tips to Save Money on Your Model Trains

model train

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 leave us 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.

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Dan Morgan

Dan Morgan fell in love with model trains at the age of six when he visited an NMRA Convention in Seattle with his father. Forty two years later, his passion remains just as strong. After achieving a successful career in architecture, Dan’s particular interest is within layouts and buildings. With a wealth of knowledge on the subject, Dan loves nothing more than sharing this with others and is delighted in the forum of members who are brought together over the hobby they have in common. Dan lives with his wife Helen in Washington. As a professional painter, Helen has learnt through Dan about Model Trains and they now enjoy working on projects together. The only member of the family who isn’t allowed to join in is their over-enthusiastic Labrador called William who has been strictly banned from the workshop! You can find Dan on Google here!

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Leave A Reply (30 comments So Far)

  1. michael
    7 years ago

    Good advice! Renewing my intrest in model RR this site has been helpful.

  2. trainman
    7 years ago

    All very good tips. I would also recommend looking around and seeing if there is a model railroad club close to you. Get to know them and join their club this will put years of experience knowledge and talent at your finger tips. They to will be able to help you from making costly mistakes.

  3. Ian Parker
    7 years ago

    Go to http://www.kimevents.co.uk to save money on your model railway items from trade stands. Have a great experience

  4. Daniel
    7 years ago

    man i don’t even think there are model train clubs in birmingham, Alabama. i wish they where

  5. espeelover
    7 years ago

    Rock, Paper…Scissor. Paper always goes first! When sitting alone and trying to figure out where you want to go in this hobby, have plenty of paper and sharp pencils handy. Draw your ideas and desires before marching into a hobby shop and plunking down hard cash money.

    Know the Railroad(s) you want to emulate. Know what they moved and where they moved it (and a time period should be decided too). You will need to learn some geography and geology about the region you want to model as well. All of this is best done on paper first (in a journal or loose-leaf folder), then run those plans past somebody else; there is no idea as dangerous as the only one you have. Sometimes, a person who has been at this a while can really help your plans remain realistic and within reason, budget wise that is. Good ideas are usually where you least expect them; or so it seems much of the time.

    In the end, it is up to you, but I say get help where and when you can. Maybe even doing time in a local RR club, listening and learning from the doers, not the talkers, can help you advance in skills and ideas. Bottom line; enjoy your trains!

  6. espeelover
    7 years ago

    To Daniel in Birmingham, have you checked with the NMRA in the South East Region? Here is their link: http://www.ser-nmra.org/

  7. Ashley
    6 years ago

    The local flea markets and yard sales are good places. Be supprised what you can find there. Its also good for the beginner railroader to pratice his painting and detailing on the cheap pices you can find there.

  8. Mike
    6 years ago

    You seem to have way too many ads on your site. And a lot of your links just seem to go to promotional websites. I like seeing photos of other pikes, but I think this site needs more model railroading and a little less advetising. I do understand that you must pay bills, but at what cost to a real potential kick ass website for Model Railroaders?

  9. Ken
    6 years ago

    I have been looking for a book that will tell me and show me how to wire lighting on my layout.If anyone can put me in the right direction that would really help me out.
    Thanks for your time.

  10. thanakorn
    6 years ago

    i enjoy with model tranis . i start model trains 1 year ago

  11. Roy
    6 years ago

    I frequent construction sites for scrap blue or pink foam, plywood, 2x’s, etc. For a friend’s garden railway layout we used Quaker Oats cylinder-shaped containers for grain storage facilities. For glue I like to use non-toxic varieties, and it can be had for cheap at craft supply stores. Same goes for paint. If you are trying for a perfect match of a particular road, like Santa Fe red, the expensive hobby shop stuff is probably your best choice. For general painting of structures and scenery, the craft store acrylic paint is very inexpensive and if you can catch it on sale it can be bought for 50 cents a bottle or less.

  12. ED
    6 years ago

    I thought out my railroad before starting layout. Wrote a scenerio before buying equipment, knew I wanted early diesel. Bought cars I wanted and engines I could use, no steam just early diesel, primarily gp7/9. n-scale in a 18 x 22 room. DO NOT overbuy, it may look nice but do you really need it. Most people build huge yards and you can’t switch them because they are all full of cars and no place to put them. A friends wife has told him that he can’t buy anything unless he sells something he already has, guess what, he has found a lot he doesn’t need.

  13. HENRY
    6 years ago

    Thank you so much for highlighting the beginning steps as one gets into the Model Railroad Hobby.
    I have been “in it” since about 1945… or aboug 66 years. As I see it.. as a parent… this hobby has
    one very good reason to exist. It is the best vehicle I have ever been involved in that literally does
    may escape the parents who are setting up a layout for their children (age appropriate for HO is
    somewheres around 9 or 10 years old. Before that – if you want it go buy a circle of track and a
    LIONEL engine , a couple of cars, and a caboose. That is perfect for entertaining a youngster and
    can ever run around the Cristmas Tree !
    I certainly agree with the approach of starting small with a WALL backed layout and one or two
    ovals of track when you do make the move into HO. The next step is to immediately subscribe to
    MODEL RAILROADER (and NEVER throw out a single issue). This is like the BIBLE to anyone
    involved with model trains. Next buy or get a WALTERS catalog and also the wide range of the
    “HOW TO DO THIS AND THAT” booklets mentioned in these articles. REALLY NICE WAY TO
    I would suggest that your first (and maybe second) layout be simple, fast, cheap, and interesting.
    (SFCI). Before you go into the Hobby Shop- do your own homework. I am not in the business but
    can reccomend a couple of fine product lines..
    A> Locomotives and Cars = ATHERN (the stuff in the blue boxes). They are all reasonably priced
    and behave as if they are glued to the track . I have gone for over twenty years without a single
    problem with anything from Athern.. Scenery = Woodland Scenics (TREES, GRASS, wide range
    of flat out incredible quality. B Get a couple of nice structure kits – put them together in a night and
    amaze your friends. BUT= the faster you get into SCRATCH BUILDING structures the happier you will be. This is NOT complicated. There are some tricks and I hope to pass these along later. But
    an investment of about $20 (initial) vs $100 for a sophisticated kit will do wonders for your relationship with your wife ! D> ask your wife to help you making buildings, helping to paint etc.
    and you will gain an ally in this area…. More later I hope… Good luck and have fun ! HENRY.

  14. gepatt
    6 years ago

    Hi folks. I write from Argentina. I have 40 years of hobby. I believe that when a begginer become his first train, he hasn’t idea about what he want to develope. After a time to perform the hobby, he begins to prefer steam, diesel, transition, traction, etc. The first step must be a 4 x 6 or 4 x 8 feet layout, and learn how to resolve the different problems he find. Clubs, forums and chats are the best place to find help.
    The article is good, but not of universal application.

  15. Ed
    6 years ago

    I have a cheap way to make chain link fence for the posts and rails I used wire coat hanger ( use smallest gauge you can find). Cut to size sand and solder. Then you will need to get this material called tule from your local fabric store I paid $1.49 a yard which can make alot of fence.cut and glue in place .I have O Gauge trains and it looks great in my layout. Not bad for $1.49

  16. Gloriane
    6 years ago

    Grade A stuff. I’m unquestionably in your debt.

  17. Colin Mitchell
    5 years ago

    Make your own “turn-out” and save 75% of the cost of a “Points Motor.”
    The project also includes the circuit.

  18. Col. John Rhodes
    4 years ago

    Dan, appreciate all that you do. I’m going real slow. Planning and then plan the plan again. Still researching for the right loco for me. I have bought only two cars as I want as most of my equipment to be IC, which is hard to find. My Grandfather works for IC for many years. I may have to redo decals

    I have downloaded most of your info and have really gotten a good education so far. At least I can ask better questions.

    Thanks, Col John

  19. Daryl Harvey
    3 years ago

    Hi everybody I am new to the railroader game. I mean when I was a kid I use to play with the model trains all the time but in time it got a way from me. I have always have been a fan of the model train industries but recently I have gotten back into it because a project that I did in school. I have bought my first to train shell I need the under bodies I do not have a track yet but I will soon and that when I will need the under bodies for my trans. Also when I created my own board I want it to run off of windmill power and solar power panels and have it all computerized so I tell the trains where to go and also have slot car set with and I can have all the crossings and I will be able to make the cars stop at the crossings and even have police cars patrol the street and that is just the beginning.

  20. builder Kim
    3 years ago

    I build stuff from junk and stuff you throw away.What Dan say’s try and build your own and save money.I have built power poles to mail boxes,I do balsawood homes for my layout.I take non working signal lights or crossing lights and make work,cost is wire and 2 leds and time.I sent in a few idea’s on how to do this to Dan.Most times I come out with 2 or 3 new builds each week .Oh I have a problem with some clubs.Some only care about a buck.some rather you buy stuff and spend tons of cash.Some don’t care.And the rare ones are those who care how much you spend and want quality and realistic looking hand built scenery or homes or what ever it maybe to teach others there is an altenative to busting your bank and have ya wife screaming at your addiction.Lots of talk about it but no action.So need more hand built stuff with photo’s to show other’s what can be built from stuff you already paid for and is now throwing away in the trash.You guy’s built something from hand ,or have a cracker of an idea send it into Dan.I have already sent Dan a load.And don’t but could flood his email with tons of ideas and plans and builds.love this hobby and don’t want it to get lazy right.My builds are free to anyone who wants them not for sale.

  21. Robert
    3 years ago

    I could have used the advise about starting a log on everything I buy. I have over $3000.00 of car stock, locomotives, track, buildings and accessories bought from EBay. Some of them are new and some used. I do not know if all will come together because I have not started a layout yet. I appreciate your articles.
    Robert (aka mongo5511 on EBay) I just buy not sell.

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model trains for beginners

model trains for beginners