Estimating Worth - "How $VALUABLE$ is my VAX?"

VAXen were expensive. No doubt about it. The MicroVAX II's that I paid $26 for (both so $13 each) originally sold for over $35,000! And as recently as 1985. What most people don't realize is that the only thing that depreciates faster than a new car is a new computer. Yesterday's computer is, to the general computing public, worthless.

Technically that isn't completely true, older computers are always worth about 5 cents per pound as industrial scrap. And some of them were quite heavy, a MicroVAX II in a rack mount chassis could easily fetch $10.00 as scrap. But it is a travesty to have working computers get melted down for their raw materials1 Anyway, it does sort of set the bottom line on what something (in this case VAXen) are worth.

Finally, understand that there are two people participating in the "value proposition", the current owner and the wannabe owner. Even if you are willing to pay $100 for a VAX, if someone won't part with it for less than $250 then its "worth" $250. Further, if someone just wants it out of their garage/storage room/backyard what-have-you, it may be worth $0 (they will let anyone have it for free), and in some instances people will pay you to take away their old VAXen because it is just too much trouble to find them a home. I can help! Actually I can and do, often place VAXen and other unwanted but still functional computers. Also there are places like the Computer Museum History Center that preserve computers as well.

The Modern VAX Market

The open market for VAXen determines their value and hence what you can expect to reasonably get by selling one. This section looks at who the buyers are and where the markets are "made." Understanding the VAX market is essential to understanding VAX value.

Who is buying VAXen?

Of course the first thing you have to understand is who is your customer. And to answer that you need to know just who is buying VAXen these days. The list it turns out is really short.

Trapped Companies -- Considered the choicest of cuts, the IT manager that has some mission critical application running on a VAX, no source code, and the original company is now defunct. This guy (or gal) is trapped. They have to keep their VAX running at any cost. Because of this they will usually pay top dollar for the item they need, because they need it now. Selling to these guys is a waiting game, it gives you the most money but it takes the most time. You have to find them (expensive advertising in magazines like Processor), their equipment has to break (DEC made damn reliable gear!) and then they have to pick you to solve their problem. Doesn't happen a lot but when it does you can get as much money as you want for something.

DEC Resellers - These guys make their living catering to the first group. Typically they are referred to as "dealers" or "resellers" and they try to keep an inventory of spares for the types of VAXen that are in service today. Generally the smart ones dump their old stuff as soon as its no long "profitable" to warehouse. The dumb ones keep trying to sell Ethernet cards for $500 long after you can pick one up for free by sending a note to comp.os.vms. Of course these guys and gals have discovered Ebay as well, both to buy stock that they need and to sell stock they no longer need. Generally following a couple around on Ebay can tell you what is "in demand" these days. Fortunately for me, its rarely VAXen based on the Q-Bus!

Collectors and Hobbyists - This is where I am, and some of my friends. We're cheapskates because generally we have time on our side. We collect and preserve machines that, for all practical purposes, don't justify the power required to run them. As our desire for things closer to the "active edge" where machines are still in use, we begin to compete with the Resellers above. Most of my collection was either given to me outright, or I simply paid to get it shipped to me. We're passionate about these machines and often we use them to educate the younger generations as to what a computer really is.

Speculators - These folks are basically scum. (just kidding!) In case you haven't noticed some types of computers have become "investment grade" collectibles (I of course refer to the original Altair 8800, Apple I, and IMSAI 8080 type machines) These machines fetch multiple thousands of dollars at auction Well, if it can happen to one computer why not another? Speculators tend to buy somewhat indiscriminately on the hope of "landing" something that will someday be useful. You can always tell when a speculator is calling because he asks, "how many were made?" or "who else used these kinds of machines?" Typically they pay less than actual collectors because they want to maximize their advantage later on when they sell.

Scrappers -- Sort of the catfish of the computer industry, these guys (very few women in this field that I've seen) buy metal for 5 cents a pound or less and sell it to Taiwan or others for 7 or 8 cents per pound. If you move several tons of stuff per day you can make a decent living at it, and if you take the time to separate the copper, gold (yes gold), and other metals you can make even a bit more. Its the presence of gold on circuit boards (especially Hewlett-Packard boards) that has made them literally a gold mine for scrappers. Before the EPA declared some of the stuff in capacitors and such like as hazardous waste you could take a circuit board, crush it to bits, then "refine" it, and it was pretty decent gold ore. Unfortunately for the scrappers the "tailings" from this type of operation now have to be disposed of in an EPA approved toxic waste site. That raises their costs significantly. But makes more machines available for us!

Things that Affect Demand

This is basic economics right? When something is in "demand" its worth more then when nobody else wants it. It is no different with VAXen.

Sometimes an article or a web page will talk about older computers and mention a VAX by name. Often times that type of VAX will then be "in demand" for a short period of time. Other times an event will occur like Compaq allowing "free" licenses to VMS and all of its layered products that will suddenly make it practical for hobbyists and collectors like me (Kudos to Compaq!) to run a VAX in all its VAXified glory and then several people who thought they could do nothing with it will suddenly see a use for it. Or NetBSD will start supporting a particular architecture and that one will be in demand.

All of these things keep a steady demand for the occasional VAX, as always Time == Money, in this case, the longer one waits the more likely you are to find someone with the money, but its a pain to wait.

Things that Affect Supply

Lots of different things affect the supply of VAXen on the used market. Typically when a software company "end-of-life's" (EOLs)  a product that ran on VAX they will dump all of the VAXen they had around for testing. Suddenly there are a lot of VAXen around. The Y2K scare was another event that unleashed tons of VAXen because they weren't generally considered Y2K safe2. Another thing affecting supply that is occurring as I write this (fall 2000) is that DEC/Compaq has officially EOLed the entire VAX architecture, with new VAX purchases being cut off by the end of this year. After that, the clock is ticking before they will not be supported by DEC/Compaq maintenance contracts. At that point businesses won't use them any more (or will do so at their own risk) and the only market will be museums, collectors, and scrappers.

Another effect on supply are those DEC resellers who determine no one is buying certain parts any more and they will sell them off at generally scrap prices or slightly above.

Things that Affect the Market

Of course if everyone is selling a VAX whose to say anyone wants to buy yours? Further, the VAX line represents over 20 years of computer development at DEC, and yet everything is on the market at the same time today. Given that a MicroVAX II is 90% the speed of an 11/780, takes up 1/10th the space, and runs off a standard wall plug, someone would have to really really want an 11/780 to buy one instead of a MicroVAX II. But size, power, and cost aren't the only factors.

The "desirability" issues come into play with collectors, being the first VAX the 11/780 has a certain appeal, being the fastest VAX the VAX 9000 appeals to some. Neither can be run from "wall current." My current favorite VAX is the VAX 4000/VLC, this VAX is small, takes "standard" memory and disks, and can run the latest VMS (not quickly, but not totally slowly either). Its a great little VAX for someone who just wants to play with a "foreign" architecture machine.

Making a VAX Market

To "make" a market you need to bring buyers and sellers together and facilitate their ability to do business. There are three markets, two fairly efficient ones, and one not so efficient.

The Reseller Market

The Reseller market has two forms, the "public" side which you can get to by reading "Processor" magazine or a similar trade publication and the DEC Dealers Association which is generally the place where the resellers buy and sell from each other. Otherwise known as the "wholesale" side.

Dealers in this market will generally always buy old VAXen from you (most advertise that fact) but they are looking to either sell your VAX on the "retail" side or even the "wholesale" side to other dealers. Because it takes a lot of time and effort to acquire, test, stock, and manage used and surplus inventory, the prices you will get for your "raw stock" are anywhere from 5 to 20 times lower than the prices on the "retail" side! So consider that when you look up "MicroVAX 3100/M20" on the reseller market and you find one for $750, that means that the same dealer will often pay you less than $20 for yours! Sure, if you could get to their customer before them you could undercut them, but it isn't worth even trying.

There's Always EBay

Yes there is. And EBay represents the closest thing we have to an "open" market on old VAX gear. It is brutally efficient in the sense that when someone really wants a VAX they can buy it on EBay for the going rate. However, the customers are fickle and several working VAXen have been listed and expired with no bids at all. More modern VAXen like the 4000/700 or 4000 model 60, 90, or 100 will always sell, but the early model 3100's often have a very hard time moving.

Of course it really isn't "free" to sell things on Ebay, you have test your hardware, take pictures of it, usually describe it in great detail, and then hope that someone out there wants it.

Although sometimes it surprises me, the typical 4000/VLC was selling on Ebay between $10 and $100 with the mean somewhere near $45 and suddenly one sells for $170. So, again the Ebay lottery pays off for some lucky seller.

The "Word of Mouth" Market

Generally this will get VAXen out of your place quickly with little fuss, but with little money too. If your goal is to "just get rid of it" or "find it a decent home." then you can do no better than to post a message on either comp.os.vms or send mail to offering it for free (taker covers shipping)

Ok, Ok Already but what is it worth?!

Ok, so you've read to here (or you skipped ahead) and you've come to my table of VAX values, by no means definitive but based on typical sales on Ebay up to fall of 2000. Note that generally these prices are "net" which means including shipping, so the MicroVAX II that might be worth $200 if picked up locally is only worth about $10 if it has to be shipped across country!

My what a difference a year or two makes. It would seem that many more VAXen have found their way to EBAY than buyers have. I also believe that most commercial outfits have gotten the message and decommissioned their installed VAXen. This has certainly put the squeeze on resellers who have been unloading some of their slow moving stock on Ebay as well. At least three different dealers have completely exited the VAX business and dumped their inventory on Ebay. All in all the brutal forces of supply and demand have made themselves felt. Some VAXen, like the VS3100/M76 which has a Linux port available continue to draw hobbyists, but others are languishing. Add to that the confusion surrounding the Compaq/HP OpenVMS hobbyist program and it makes for a tough market.

Things that always make a VAX a bit more appealing are:


Features that add value



MicroVAX 3100
Models 10, 20
  1. More than 4MB of memory
  2. One or more hard drives
  3. Operating System running
  4. Keyboard and Mouse
< $10 $5 - $15
MicroVAX 4000/VLC
  1. More than 8MB of memory
  2. Internal Hard Disk included
  3. Mouse/Keyboard
$20 - $50 $25 to $100
VAXStation II
  1. Includes RD54 drives
  2. Comes in the larger BA123
  3. No damage to plastics
  4. RX-50 and TK-50 drives
  5. 16MB (full) of memory
  6. SCSI Controller
  7. Graphics card
< $30 $25 to $100
  1. Includes MicroVAX III badge
  2. More than 16MB of memory
  3. SCSI Controller
  4. 1GB or larger hard disks
$50 to $125
(its actually that rare)
$50 to $125
VAXStation 2000
  1. Demonstrably works
  2. Included RD54
  3. Keyboard/Mouse/Monitor
$15 $5 to $75
MicroVAX 3400
VAXServer 3400
  1. Includes a SCSI Controller
  2. 32MB of memory or more
  3. TK70 Tape drive
< $30 $50 to $150
MicroVAX 3300
  1. Includes SCSI Controller
  2. Has more than 16MB
  3. 1GB or greater hard drive
  4. KFQSA DSSI card
< $50 $50 to $150
MicroVAX 4000/200
  1. In the BA215 case
  2. With extra drives
  3. 64MB of memory
$25 to $50 $100 to $200
MicroVAX 4000/60
  1. With CD-ROM drive
  2. With extra drives
  3. > 32MB of memory
$20 to $50 $45 to $275
MicroVAX 4000/90
  1. With CD-ROM drive
  2. With extra drives
  3. > 32MB of memory
$50 to $150 $100 to $350
MicroVAX 4000/300
  1. SCSI Controller
  2. With extra drives
  3. > 64MB of memory
$50 (< $75) $50 to $500
MicroVAX 4000/700
  1. SCSI Controller
  2. TF85/86/87 Drive
  3. With extra drives
  4. > 128MB of memory
$100 - $150 $300 to $1000


1. Interesting side note, one of the largest buyers of scrap metal from old computers is Taiwan, and they turn them into flimsy metal cases for those no-name clone PC's you see at Fry's and BestBuy! (the source is a scrapping firm in LA that sells containers full of old scrap to these guys!)

2. Contrary to what a lot of people believe, VAXen are perfectly happy operating on this side of the year 1999. Generally Y2K support is a software issue and not a hardware issue and DEC/Compaq was very good at making sure VMS 7.2 was Y2K compliant. Only systems with very old operating systems (VMS 4.x, BSD 4.x, etc) had difficulty, and to a collector that is simply "charming."

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Copyright (c) 2000 by Chuck McManis, All Rights Reserved