Cheap Tank Buying Guide

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How many tanks can your car hold? :)

How many tanks can your car hold? :)

Everyone loves to save money, right? Remember this when you have your heart set on that new aquarium. Sure, the pet store setups look great. What’s that? A sale sticker!? Some major chains have a $1 per gallon sale which people tend to make out as ‘all the rage’

I say stay away! Don’t fall for it! One can often procure tanks for much less than this, often at half the $1/gallon rate that is a sale price in the pet store. First things first, lets go over a few baseline fundamentals of tank buying, this applies to Freshwater tanks, but much of it can be applied to Saltwater tank purchases as well.

The first thing you need to know is that aquarium setups in the pet store are WAY overpriced. If you buy one of these lovely setups, you can forget getting even close to what you paid for it if you ever try to resell it. In most cases, you’ll be lucky to get half.

The $1/gallon sale looks great, right? On the surface, maybe. If you are replacing an old, or busted tank, then sure, bing bang out the door with your new 40g tank and setting it up in just a few hours. BUT, if you are buying a new tank and adding it to your collection, you should factor in the extra costs also. Here’s an example. You purchase a 29 gallon tank in the nifty $1/gallon sale. I guess you’d like to have a hood/light for that tank, right? add $30. How about some filtration? Add $30. What about a heater? Add $25. Where you gonna put that new tank? Stand $50.

These are just the basics to a fish tank setup, mind you. Your 29 gallon tank just went from costing you $29 to now:






And you are out the door at around $164 plus sales tax. That dollar/gallon sale just got expensive didn’t it? If you want fancy stuff you can expect to pay a lot more. If you want a particular style of tank, and you want it right now, then that’s the way to go. However, if you are like me, then you’ll be looking for cheaper options.

There are several avenues that you can take to achieve this.

Classifieds – The classified ads are a great place to start. Figure out what day the classifieds are printed, so that you can check them first thing and call any potential deals.

Freecycle -This one is always good, since free is a good thing. Just remember that sharing is caring, so if you get something then offer something up in return.

Craigslist – This can be an aquarist’s goldmine. It’s free to list ads, so you’ll find everything and anything on here. Do individual searches for “Fish”, “Aquarium”, and “Tank” and then sort through the recent listings. Don’t forget to do these same searches in the ‘pets’ section as well. Since Craigslist operates in real-time, check it often!

Local Fish Clubs and Forums – Don’t overlook this one! Google and ask your LFS if there is a local or regional fish club in the area. Register on the big fishkeeping forums and look for locals. Sometimes the best deals can be had from fellow fishkeepers, and even if not, it’s always good to find others in the hobby to give and receive help from.

All for $25 from a local forum member

Friends and Family – Lots of people have aquariums…… in their garages and attics. Unfortunately, the fun of fishkeeping wears thin in many households for one reason or another. But this is good for us, because we can get these tanks often times for next to nothing. The more you become known as the fish-guy or fish-gal to your family and friends, the more likely you are to pop up in their head when they are looking to clean out that garage or attic, or when one of their friends asks if they know of someone who wants an old fish tank.

Making the Deal. So, you’ve found a great tank at a great price, what now? Contact the seller, and if you don’t already have a picture, ask for one. Think about any questions you want to ask before you get on the phone, or send the email to them. Does their ad tell you what size the tank is? Does it specify if it comes any accessories? Do they have a firm price, or do they have an open offer? Where are they located? Do I have the ability to haul this tank if I end up purchasing it? Is there fish included? Do they have exact measurements of the tank? Sellers often list the wrong tank sizes, so don’t be surprised if you go to look at a 55g tank and it ends up being a 20g, or vice versa. This is why exact measurements help, so you can do your research beforehand.

Price can be very subjective. Offer a fair price if they leave the amount open. The worst they can say is no. Even if they have a price listed, ask them again what they’d take for it. Often times this number is lower than the original listed price. With tanks that I consider are overpriced, if I am really interested in them, I will email the seller and let them know that I would buy the tank at X price, X being whatever amount I think is fair, rather than what they listed. This way there is no pressure, and they may change their mind later and take you up on it.

Pricing Guideline for Used Tanks – Prices for tanks vary region by region, however this is one of my basic guidelines.

$1-2/gallon for complete setups

$ .50/gallon for bare tanks

I try to pay no more than $2/gallon for a good working tank, complete with stand, lights, filter. This is the value I place on used tank setups. That means I am getting a fair deal if I pay $110 for a 55g complete setup. Note that this price can fluctuate depending on the items that come in the package, if it has a great set of lights, or high end filter, then take note of that and factor it into your value.

$2/gallon for a complete package is a fair deal. $1/gallon for a complete package is a great deal. And these deals happen all the time, if you search for them. Let the seller name the price, and then negotiate from there, otherwise you may end up overpaying for something that you could’ve gotten much cheaper if you would’ve just let them name the price.

My target for used bare tanks is $0.50/gallon. This is for a solid, water holding, and decent looking tank. If you pay any more than this for a bare tank, then you might as well just hold out for one of those $1/gallon sales at the pet store and buy new.

Some setups will include all kinds of odds and ends, extra lights, filters, heaters, food, etc. This is great if you actually want the stuff, but it’s likely that you won’t. A 20 year old t-12 standard hood fixture, cheap air pump, and a possibly ancient bottle of tetramin flakes really shouldn’t factor into your price at all unless you ask them to pay you to take it away. That is, of course, unless you actually do have a use for all the ‘extras’.

Fish included? If there are fish included, great…. if they are fish that you want. However, I don’t typically factor these fish into the price at all, because I don’t buy a fish tank to have it already stocked with stuff. There are some exceptions, like if the tank is full of fish that I want, like discus, or some rare species/strain, that would be the only way I’d factor it into the price.

*Note* When dealing with saltwater, stock is much more expensive in general, and there are other things like live rock and coral that you may have to factor into the price. I don’t deal in saltwater so I cannot go further into this.

Sealing the Deal – You made it to the sellers location and you are looking at the tank, great! Put your emotions on the shelf for a while. Go over this basic checklist, write it down and bring it with you if you have to.

IMPORTANT* Bring DAYLIGHT with you. I cannot stress this enough, go look at the tank in the daytime if it all possible. If not, bring a good flashlight!

12 40b's for $10 each and a few 20L/10g's $5 each They were dirty, but cheap, and most were in good working order.

Used Tank Inspection Checklist

  • Does this tank look like the one described or shown in the sales pictures?
  • What does the glass look like? Is it scuffed, scratched, cloudy?
  • Check for cracks, hairline cracks can go unnoticed, and may still hold water just fine, so look it over really well.
  • Check the silicone seals. Tanks are held together and watertight because of the silicone along the edges of the inside of the tank. Make sure this silicone bead is solid and pliable. Some people keep reptiles and rodents in tanks, and this can lead to having silicone chewed away or the tank scratched up. One dead giveaway that you are dealing with a reptile tank is if it has a screen lid rather than a regular hood or glass lid. I usually try to avoid these tanks, but if they check out okay and are well sterilized, then they could work out fine. I have only done this with 10g and smaller tanks, I would not risk it with a bigger one. The larger reptile tanks are not braced at the top like a regular aquarium is, because they aren’t meant to be filled with water. I’ve seen some unbraced 55g tanks that would definitely bow/break if they were filled up.
  • Is the tank drilled? It’s not a big deal if it is, this could actually raise the value depending on what your intended goal is with the tank. Some drilled tanks have glass patches on them that are siliconed in place to cover up the drill holes from a previous setup. These are fine to work with, just make sure everything looks good and solid.

All of these were bottom drilled, we removed the bulkheads and sealed them with silicone and a piece of glass

Can you do a leak test? You may have to go on the person’s word about this one. Most people I’ve dealt with (in person) on Craigslist are pretty straightforward, especially when you are going to their home to pick up an item. If they tell me it doesn’t leak, then I usually believe them.

That doesn’t mean you should immediately trust people you don’t know, so if they can have the tank filled up for you to check it out before buying it, that would be best. Most people shouldn’t have an issue with this, and if they do, you might want to reconsider the purchase.

IF you notice any disparity between what the person advertised the tank as, compared to what it is after your inspection, then bring it up. If you see some scratches on the glass, and they didn’t mention this at all beforehand, then tell them. If you don’t mind the scratches too much, then still consider the deal, but see if they will bring down the price a little.

Classifieds to Avoid

Reptile tanks. A dead giveaway is if the tank includes a screen top. Reptile tank glass is sometimes thinner and has less bracing than standard aquariums.

I try to avoid any ads that look commercial in nature, as you will likely be paying some sort of markup in a commercial setting.

I also avoid ads that describe how much someone paid for their setup, paired with a request to make an offer. The reason is because it doesn’t matter if you paid $2000 for your 100g tank, it doesn’t make it worth anywhere near that, and I don’t want to insult them with a lowball offer.

These ads in particular often start out with a really high price, then as the days and weeks go by, they gradually drop as the person realizes that they paid way too much money for their setup at the pet store and can’t get rid of it for even close to their investment.

Classifieds to Look For

Garage sales/Moving sales. Garage sales can sometimes be good because people are usually selling their stuff that’s collecting dust, so they aren’t trying to get top dollar. Moving sales are good also, because even if the person has a high price at first, as their move date grows near, they may get desperate to sell the tank. I like to email offers to these people in particular, because they are most likely to reply to me if they have not gotten the tank sold at their asking price.

Curb alerts – Of course, curb alerts are always good. Freebies are great. But don’t be shocked if the tank you go to pick up is either a) already gone , or b) in very bad condition. There’s a reason they are giving it away for free, of course.

Newly posted ads – Check the date, Check the date, Check the date! Respond to the newest ads first, as they are more likely to still be valid. People often forget to delete their listings after they are sold, so you may be wasting your time. That being said, at least send an email to those old listings just in case.

8-Magnum HOT filters for $10 each, all working, craigslist ad

If you see a newly posted ad and it looks like a great deal, JUMP ON IT! Send them an email asap. You don’t have to commit to anything, just try to be the first to make contact with them. Most people will give the first responder the first option at buying their item, so it’s important to contact them before anyone else does. And to be fair, if you are not interested in their item anymore, notify them immediately so that they don’t wait to see if you are buying it. With many of the deals I’ve gotten, it wasn’t because I was lucky, it was because I checked the ads constantly and contacted these sellers within minutes of their initial posting.

16-15g tanks for $70, all in good shape and backs painted, craigslist deal

40b's cleaned up and ready for action!

There’s always more to learn but I think this will get you off to a good start, best of luck in your search!



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