Buy a used Rancilio Sylvia. Believe me, you can not go wrong with a Sylvia if you can find one for under $400, and you can if you are patient.. 3way solenoid, stainless stell case, marine grade brass fittings, boiler, solid brass chrome plated 58mm portafilter, E61 style group head, easily modified to a PID, TONS of coffeegeek user support, one of the largest boilers in this class/price range of machines. Probobly the only used machine in this price range with a boiler large enought to pull a triple,
A Gaggia would be the next best choice. Smaller boiler though, but you will more easily find one of these used for under $300. You can easily get a used Francis Francis X5 (maybe X3) under $300 on ebay but,,,,I had one, not as good as a Gaggia and not in anywhere near the class of a Sylvia. (but, if you are one who is really plain Ga Ga over form and find that more important than function, well,,,,,may be just the ticket).
Research it on Coffeegeek.com. There are often used Sylvias and Gaggia classics, babys being sold there in the Buy, Sell, Trade forum section by people with upgraditis.
Make sure to budget another $259-$300 for a good grinder. You may get by with a Solis Maestro class for under $200 new but....well, been there, done that, You would be much better off with a Rancilio Rocky for about $250 - $300 used.
In all honesty if you want an outrageous home machine that will be on par with commercial quality, look for a used lever machine. I have an Olympia Cremina and it's easily on par with the Linea at work. Only downfall with it is that you can't serve large crowds.
Of course there is a huge learning curve that goes with levers, but it really gets you involved and personal with each shot you pull. Much more satisfying than simply pushing a button. And I've seen some nice used ones in the price range you speak of. Just my opinion. Later!
What is your experiance level pulling shots? What kind of Grinder do you have?
*$ used to have the Barista by Seaco which was a good little machine - might find one on ebay or find the Seaco equal on other sites. Costs about $300-$400 new. Unlike most traditional espresso machines, this one has a pressurized portafilter - you can buy replacement nonpressurized portafilter and give it a try if this is an issue for you. I used mine for two years and sold it for more than I paid for it. The guy that bought it is very happy.
Beyond that, a used, well taken care of Gaggia Classic would be a good option - less than $500 easily from someone looking to move up. Again, based on how you answer the question on experiance, there is some learning curve hear and with all traditional machines. I'd get a good grinder first if you don't have one although the Seaco is far less picky on the grind than others because of its' portafilter. Any other machine - get a good grinder first.
I now have a La Spaziale Vivaldi II S1 - I LOVE IT! A good step up in price though.
I have a Silvia I bought from a Coffee Geek member that I would be willing to let go of. I bought it then started working at a shop with a GB5, so I haven't used it since. I have a new gasket/screen kit that I haven't put in yet, but I would if you didn't feel comfortable with the job.
Rancilio Silvia is a great espresso machine but I wouldn't recommend buying from some of the sites these guys list. Yes, they may give you a great deal but what happens afterward? Especially with a "used" machine. There is a small site - top100espressomachines.com- that has its own in-house service & repair center. They take care of you for life and have excellent customer service to boot. Give them a try and see how happy you are over the lifetime of your machine and not just when you pay for it.
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