If you’re like me, you see the word “used” in front of “tech” and you instantly think “junk”—outdated smartphones and virus-hobbled computers. And that’s a shame. Because used tech doesn’t have to mean bad tech. In fact, buying secondhand computers, tablets, and smartphones isn’t just an ethical move—after all, e-waste is responsible for 70% of America’s toxic waste—it’s a terrific way to score a total steal.
That used smartphone? It could be brand new yet cost 40% less because the first buyer changed his mind about the model. That refurbished iPad could be a rejected birthday gift (wrong color!) that was never even turned on. And the biggest source of secondhand stock? Trade-ins for newer models, though the current ones are working just fine. Here’s how to get yourself some great deals.
Before you buy, know when to buy
Whether you’re hunting for a gaming console or a smartphone, there are a few crucial rules to follow.
First, be sure to check your credit card’s fine print, because many—including Amex and Visa Signature—don’t offer their typical purchase protection on used goods. So if there’s a problem with one of those gadgets, you’re out of luck chasing a refund. The smarter play is to opt for PayPal on these purchases: Its policy is very generous, as it provides a 180-day window during which you can claim refunds on defective items.
Then it’s all about timing. The secondhand price of last year’s iPhone will drop as soon as this year’s appears. But surprisingly, those prices also usually soften whenever a rival, like Samsung or LG, launches its latest competitor. Across every tech sector from laptops to tablets, it’s a universal truth: If you purchase an older model when there’s a major new product launch, you’ll get a good deal.
The best places to buy used
Buying pre-owned electronics is a bit like shopping for a secondhand car: You should stick to a certified dealer.
Sure, Craigslist is full of tempting, dirtcheap deals on almost any gadget. But cash-on-a-corner handoffs provide zero payment protection—at best, the phone is defective. At worst, it’s stolen.
Among certified sources, there’s nowhere better than Apple itself, which even has its own online store for refurbished products. Every refurbished item on offer there has been assessed for both function and appearance in exactly the same way as its factory-fresh counterparts. If the product is being resold after a repair, it’s like new: Scratched or damaged parts will have been replaced. Older iPods and iPads always receive brand-new batteries and outer shells, too. These secondhand products come with a full one-year warranty and are eligible for standard AppleCare. The only difference is price: Discounts on tablets and laptops can hit 25%, while peripherals like Apple TV might go up to as much as 40% off.
The only drawback you’ll find is the spotty inventory, especially on not-so-old items.To track the stuff you want, you can create automated alerts using one of two free online services. Refurb Tracker (refurbtracker.com) alerts you when a product becomes available. Refurb.me (refurb.me) does the same, but boasts handier features, including pricing histories.
What about other stuff?
Easy. For Android products, check out Gazelle (gazelle.com) or BuyBackWorld (buybackworld.com), which hoover up tons of used items, inspect them, then resell them on eBay. The best place to check if you’re getting a deal is on Flipsy (flipsy.com), which continually aggregates prices from multiple sellers.
If you’re looking for other tech toys, try Amazon’s Warehouse Deals (amazon.com/warehousedeals) for everything from cameras to kitchen mixers. They’re mostly returned items, whose condition has been hand-graded by Amazon staffers: Skip anything marked “Acceptable” or “Good.” Search only for “Like new,” which means the box wasn’t even opened, or “Very good,” code for a top-tier refurb. Though there’s a generous 30-day return window, Amazon offers no warranty whatsoever on these goods, so it’s more important than ever to use PayPal when purchasing.
Video game juggernaut GameStop offers a similar window on secondhand software it sells via a dedicated pre-owned channel (gamestop.com/preowned), with the bonus of a 30-day guaranteed exchange for the same model or game, and a full refund within seven days of purchase. There may be cosmetic wear on discs, and missing boxes, but frankly, the discounts are simply too huge to ignore.
Remember: It’s all about the return policy
As the secondary market for high-quality, good-as-new, heavily marked-down refurbished items continues to balloon (the analyst Gartner expects the refurbished phone market alone to more than double in size from 2014 to 2017, with 120 million pre-owned smartphones for sale worldwide), don’t forget that buying used is all about reading the fine print. Though a recent study found that only 5% of returned electronics were actually defective—the other 95% were simply unwanted—you could end up with a dud. The federal retail laws around secondhand goods are lax, and meaningless terms with no legal definition—like “certified pre-owned,” “factory conditioned,” and “remanufactured”—are carelessly flung about with abandon.
So focus on the seller’s return policy as your safeguard, and steer clear of certain categories: Large screens are more problem prone, meaning items like TVs and monitors are riskier purchases than laptops and phones. And you don’t need me to tell you that it’s just gross to consider a refurbed Fitbit or Apple Watch. Yes, sometimes buying new really is your best option.