How do you know what to look for and what to avoid?
In this guide I won't go into the many LED's, Edge-lit fluoros or backlit neon-like signs that are advertised as neons on Ebay because they aren't neons at all of course, but Ebay will not do anything about these sellers spamming their descriptions with the word "neon" in it to attract your attention.
Many neons sold on Ebay are fake (knockoff) non-genuine chinese garbage and can be either expensive to fix or even worse, they cant be fixed at all and your investment is down the drain. Recently this has proliferated on Ebay and many people just don't know the difference, but there are many things to look for even if you don't know what original trademarked and copyrighted signage looks like.
Look for sellers that have many different brands that are "brand new" and/or "direct from the factory". Genuine neons of different brands generally wont come from one factory, they will come from the distributors and quite often the distributors will only have a few different types at most.
Sellers that have music, car and alcohol neons etc advertised at once will fall into this category generally.
Look at the size. Genuine advertising neons are made for a reason, to promote a brand. They will be big, yet some sellers would have you believe a neon sign is "big" or "huge" at under 30cm across and 20cm high. Well, thats small enough to go in a breadbox! Even at up to 45cm x 35cm, the chances of it being the real deal are minimal. The genuine agents or distributors spend good money making sure you see their neon illuminated in that bar you go to or shop you walk or drive past. Small is not value for them, big is, even if it costs them a bundle because it sells their product.
Multi-voltage is another alarm bell and a very good one to take notice of. Genuine real neon transformers will be a certain specified voltage and thats it. Not 110v-240v, just 240v if its Australian approved or 110v if its a USA neon. A new Australian (CE) approved transformer will cost in excess of $120 alone at trade prices even for a cheap small 3kV transformer (and double that for decent transformers from neon repairers), so any new neon sign under $250 will probably be garbage and will either be a small size and unrepairable due to integrated transformers or smaller diameter glass than what is used here.
New on a metal frame? Thats another alarm bell as Australian regulations have banned new neon signs on metal frames some time ago due to the risk of electrocution (especially from poorly built 3rd world imports) although its worth noting that the USA still allows metal frames, so if its a genuine USA import that has been converted to Australian voltage with the correct single voltage transformer, that will be allowed I believe, but it will probably not be a new neon sign. If its a genuine Australian new commercial sign, it will be in an acrylic (perspex) case. It certainly won't be on a little plastic stand or base with a plug in power pack.
It comes with an adapter to suit our plugs here in Australia? Ding-Ding, theres yet another alarm bell. It won't be a genuine approved Australian transformer if it doesnt have the correct plug on it already (have you seen many in K-Mart that required you to go buy an adapter so you can use it?), so please keep in mind if it catches fire as they have been known to do because they are made cheaply under somewhat sketchy quality control, that when you try to claim on your house insurance that no approval probably means no compliance with your local regulations .. you will probably also need good luck with that claim as fire investigators are very good at their jobs to work out what caught fire!
2-4 weeks delivery from "outside AU" or even 2-4 weeks from inside AU is another alarm bell you want to take notice of. Why? It's coming from China or another far flung destination because even at the slowest freight within Australia, it won't take much more than a week even if the seller is slack sending it. Remember it won't be the genuine article and most likely what will arrive will not look quite like the one you bought pictured. I hear that 2-4 weeks is sometimes optimistic also, as reports of 5-6 weeks is not uncommon and remember Paypal allows you only up to 45 days to make a claim (6 weeks is 42 days).
Stopped working? Throw it in the bin most times to save you the time of running around to find someone to even look at it as i hear horror stories all the time from my neon repairer who talks to others in the neon trade interstate of people paying anywhere up to (and beyond) $200 for a new neon from Ebay or a market and nothing can be done to fix it or it will cost in excess of the original cost, sometimes much more. This is not unusual and sometimes within weeks of getting it, but you already left your feedback and nobody wants to know you now!
Theres a reason some things are cheap and its because they are. The sour memory of a dud purchase is remembered long after the sweet taste of a cheap deal has disappeared. Remember, a genuine authorised neon will cost the distributors around $800-1200 each when new and sometimes more because they are commercial grade, Australian approved and repairable even if they break or stop working.
You now know what to look for and what to avoid and with some luck you won't be a victim of neon counterfeiting that can leave you out of pocket or perhaps much worse. Remember, you get what you pay for in life.