This discussion is meant as a reference and not as the absolute bible of used boot buying. Good sense and caveat emptor apply.
Buying new boots to add to your collection can be an expensive hobby. However, it is also possible to find used boots in good condition at a fraction of their original price. Ebay provides a rather varied selection of used boots for auction or sale but it is not easy to know if the boots that have caught your attention are really worth the buy.
New boots have been really priced out of reach for people who do not live in America. I am one of them. Once I add overseas shipping charges to the cost of a new pair of boots, I probably am better off electing amputation, so I don't have to hanker after those boots. I jest, of course. The next best alternative I have would be to buy used boots, mostly off ebay and from other boot sites where used boots are offered. While I don't profess to be an expert ebayer or an avid (enough) collector, I think I have paid enough “tuition fees” (in terms of bad buys) to know well enough how to spot a good pair of used boots from a pair of “d'oh” ones. Still, I still “Ask the Expert” when I need a second opinion.
Here are some key boot parts that I look out for before making a bid.
A lightly worn down sole is acceptable, especially if they are Vibrams. However, watch where the wearing down takes place. These are dead giveaways of the podiatric condition of the previous owner. An unevenly worn down sole might indicate an unwieldy gait, which might indicate that the ankle creases might not be along the usual lines of a normal foot. When you buy and wear the boot as is, you might discover that you might lose your balance slightly as you walk because the worn down bits have chipped off the support that you typically expect from your boots.
A worn down sole at the ball might suggest the weight distribution of the wearer is mainly at the ball of his feet. Here, you'll discover that your boots might be warped around the balls of the boots and they often do not feel very comfortable to wear. Furthermore, a worn down ball might mean that you might slip when you walk on slippery surfaces, since the main traction bits in that area are missing.
Other parts of soles that are frequently worn down include the outer edges (those boots might have seen hard work and lots of action), the fronts (the wearer could be a kicker) and the area behind the front toes.
Tip: Look at your frequently worn footwear to observe how you wear down your own boots. While some people might recommend that you get a pair showing similar wear, I'd suggest you go for a pair with even wear. That way, the boots do last longer.
Another point to note is whether the soles are replaceable. If they are, then a pair of boots with a good leather top might still be a good buy at the right price. If not, then the boots are a goner once the soles are gone.
Ankle creases tell you a lot about the way the boot was worn. A reasonable pair of boots may have a largely horizontal crease in the front and back of the boots. The sides of the ankle region should show a dimple (protrusion) at the end of the front and back creases. All other types of creases might have the boots end up cutting into your ankles when you wear them.
Typically, one should not consider a pair of boots if there are structural damages at the ankle area, such as cracks that extend all the way through the leather, deep cuts in the leather, odd folds that are already broken in.
Different boots have different space for toes. Some boots have steel toes, which give toes lots of room. Non-steel toed boots tend to be a little more snug in the toes region. Another type of boots have the “hard” toe and the toe box is also quite roomy. As long as the toe section is not damaged or seriously knocked in, does not have bad cuts or cracks or tears, some light scuffing or minor cuts are acceptable. Some people even like those minor cuts as they give the boots character.
Know the boot widths and your feet's needs. I can go between 10.5EEEE to 12R, because width controls the boots I choose more than length. If you buy a pair of boots that are too tight on your feet, you are not likely to wear them because of the chaffing that you can expect on the sides of your feet.
Apparently, worn stitching at the soles of the boots are not a big issue to worry about but worn or broken stitching at the top side of the boots are not good. Neither are boots where the tops are separating from the soles.
Know how tall the boots are. The shaft heights will tell you till where the boots reach on your legs. Typically, shorter boots lower than 10“ will fit true to height. Combat and work boots above 8” may give you about 0.5“ less due to sag but the difference will not be that significant. For taller boots, you can expect the sag to be more pronounced. A 1” to 2“ sag can be expected for a 17” shaft, for instance, because your boot ankles need to be “folded” to fit your boots to your feet.
Height aside, look at the condition of the shaft. A leather shaft that has holes - be they cuts or wear throughs - cannot be repaired. Some people might say that small tears can be repaired but the integrity of the shaft is somewhat compromised. Personally, I would not recommend buying those boots, if you intend to wear them for daily chores. But if you just need a beat-up pair of sacrificial footwear for some mucky project, then go right on. Be careful not to end up getting hurt because of the boot's imperfection, though.
Check also that the shafts are not folded, especially for the taller boots, till deep creases form on them. These creases will be places where initial leather cracks occur, if the leathers are not maintained.
Insulated boots are COOLER to wear than non-insulated boots. Sounds odd but I suspect insulation actually channels most of the warm moist air inside the boots out and thus keeps feet dry and cool. Insulated boots also fit a little more snugly and are less likely to “bite” the feet. If you are considering a used pair of boots, look for a pair with clean insulating layers inside the boots which are not damaged. Of course, there is nothing wrong if you prefer a pair of uninsulated boots. If that is the case, then look for a pair that looks clean.
Tip: If you are a hygiene freak, check if the boot insoles can be changed or added on (without compromising the inner area by too much). Some boots have insoles that are stuck to the base of the boots and these could get uncomfortable when they wear down.
Make sure you ask for the measurements for the boot calf openings, aka the top of measure of the shaft opening. You will want a pair of boots with a calf opening that fits your calves nicely. Typically, lace-up boots will not pose much of a problem (except perhaps Doc Martens, because they cater to the relatively skinnier calves), but pull ons like patrol boots will give you a lot of grief if you cannot get the boots up. Know how tall the boot shafts are and then find the measurement of your calves at that particular height. You will want the boot calf opening to be about 1“ bigger if you wear your pants over your boots and at between 1.5” to 2“ bigger if you wear your pants or jeans inside your boots. Remember, as you age, your calf muscles lose tone and spread outwards. Giving yourself a little buffer allows the boots to be worn long after your calves become bigger.
Look at the boots in their entirety. If they do not sing out to you, you might want to forget them. There are always better offers around, so be patient.
This is the final issue. Know how much a new pair of the same boots costs. Have a depreciation figure in your mind so you can approach the sale rationally. I used to jump at “cheap” boots that look decent but after a while, I begin to realize I get what I pay for. A more expensive pair of gear would not only be more durable, they provide better protection to my feet.
I would typically consider a NIB/NWT pair of boots at a 20-30% discount, a pair that is worn less than 5 times at about 30-50% off and all others depending on their actual condition. Some guys like worn gear and if the gear is beat up and looks “abused” (physically and otherwise), they are willing to pay a little more. That is really their wish. I have no comments on that.
Another factor I would consider in pricing would be the seller. Some sellers offer great gear but at rather high prices. But these boots are always as described and in great condition. These are additional factors that I will factor in when judging pricing.
Another thing that buyers ought to be aware: Shipping charges. Know your shipping. USPS, for instance, has a cap on shipping charges. Boots can often fit the USPS standard box and that should not set you back by more than USD 14 (nearest dollar) in general. In fact, if you are buying a pair of rather pricey boots, ask if the seller can throw in shipping for free.
Foreign buyers have to realize that the shipping for their boots are likely to cost more than or close to the value of the boots itself. In addition, customs and duties may apply. So, it'll be important to make all these calculations before buying a pair of boots, unless money is no object.