Say you’re in the market to buy a new laptop. The one you’ve got your eye on is the MacBook Pro, but you can’t find a new one for less than $1,300, which is out of your price range. As you hunt online for a better price, you come across several offers for older secondhand MacBook Pros — some for less than $400.
That sounds like a fantastic deal, but you hesitate. You suspect that if someone else is getting rid of this computer, it must be a dud. You worry the laptop won’t work at all or will break down within a week or two, leaving you out $400 with nothing to show for it.
Fortunately, there’s a third option. You can buy a refurbished MacBook Pro from a reputable site and get a laptop in like-new condition for around $600. Refurbished electronics can be the best of both worlds, with lower prices than new equipment and lower risks than used — as long as you know how to shop wisely.
Refurbished Electronics vs. Used Electronics
“Refurbished” isn’t just another word for “used,” though the terms are related. Used goods, also known as secondhand or pre-owned goods, are products another person has bought, used, and sold. Refurbished goods, also known as reconditioned or remanufactured goods, are products another person has purchased and returned.
Generally, when selling refurbished items, the retailer or manufacturer checks each product for functionality before resale. It may also make minor adjustments or fixes, such as giving the device fresh packaging or a new battery.
Basically, all refurbished electronics are used — but not all used electronics are refurbished.
Returned devices aren’t necessarily faulty. Sometimes, people return a product because of damaged packaging or minor blemishes that only affect its looks. In other cases, they simply have buyer’s remorse, meaning they change their minds after buying it. In cases like these, buying refurbished can get you a completely unused gadget for a bargain price.
In other cases, refurbished products, or “refurbs,” have been returned because of malfunctions — some minor, some major. When you buy a refurb, there’s typically no way to tell what was wrong with it before it was returned. But it shouldn’t matter since a reputable refurbisher fixes all problems with a returned device before resale.
Merchandise listed as refurbished has several advantages over those sold as used or secondhand:
- Like-New Condition. Sellers of refurbished items repair everything that’s damaged, then test the device to make sure it’s working properly. They also clean it and, in many cases, replace worn exterior parts, such as the faceplate or buttons. That means when you buy a refurb, it should both look and run like new.
- Warranties. Many refurbished products come with a warranty, though the length of the warranty depends on who did the refurbishing. If the original manufacturer fixes and resells a product, the warranty is likely to be at least a full year. But products refurbished by a store have shorter warranties of 30 to 90 days.
- Support. In many cases, refurbished devices from the original manufacturer come with the same tech support as new products. However, that feature is often available only for current models. If you buy a recently discontinued product, don’t count on getting manufacturer support unless the sale listing specifically mentions the benefit.
Refurbished Electronics vs. New Electronics
The biggest advantage of buying refurbished electronics rather than new ones is the price. According to Digital Trends, you can buy nearly any kind of electronic gadget refurbished — including desktops, laptops, tablets, smartphones, TVs, and digital cameras — for as little as half the price you’d pay for new items.
Buying refurbs is a way to get otherwise unavailable older models. That’s what I did when I bought my Mac Mini in 2011. I initially ordered a new Mac Mini running OS X Lion, but that operating system turned out to have a lot of problems. So I returned it and bought a refurbished Mac with Snow Leopard, the previous version of OS X.
But older versions aren’t always better. For example, if you buy a new Windows computer, you’ll get the acclaimed Windows 10 operating system. A refurbished one might come with the widely disliked previous release, Windows 8. While you could upgrade to Windows 10 (likely for free), it would add an extra layer of hassle to the purchase.
Another problem with buying refurbished electronics is that some resellers aren’t as trustworthy as others when it comes to ensuring all problems are fixed. And while some sellers give you a month or longer to return a product, others allow only two weeks. According to Digital Trends, some stores don’t accept returns of refurbished products at all.
Warranties on refurbs aren’t always as good as those on new products, either. According to Consumer Reports, some companies grant a one-year warranty on refurbished phones, while others provide only a 90-day warranty. Fortunately, many credit cards offer extended warranties on refurbished goods that come with a warranty.
Shopping Smart for Refurbished Electronics
Buying refurbished electronics lets you find reliable products at bargain prices — but you can also get burned if you’re not careful. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself. These include shopping at reliable websites, choosing products that are worth the money, and reading the fine print before you click the buy button.
Where to Shop — Manufacturer Sites
One crucial way to protect yourself is to make sure you buy from reputable sellers. When you shop at obscure sites, you can’t be sure the products really have been repaired to like-new condition. A $199 iPad is no bargain if the tablet breaks within a week and the customer service department is impossible to reach.
A safer bet is to buy refurbished electronics directly from the manufacturer. That way, you know the company you’re dealing with wants you to be happy with the brand.
Companies that offer refurbished products include:
- Amazon. Amazon offers certified refurbished versions of its Kindle e-reader, Kindle Fire tablet, Fire TV stick, Echo smart speaker, and Ring home security devices. These products are guaranteed to look and work like new. They’re all backed by the same limited warranty as new devices.
- Apple. You can find Apple products like refurbished iPhones and MacBooks in the Apple Store. Apple certifies that all its refurbs have all defective parts replaced, inside and out, and are thoroughly tested, cleaned, and repackaged. They come with a one-year warranty and up to 90 days of free tech support.
- Dell. Dell offers certified refurbished products via the Dell Outlet. Unlike many sites, this store lets you know whether each product was returned unopened, used and then refurbished, or cosmetically damaged. Regardless of the reason, the products come with the same warranty as new products. You can also return them within 30 days at no cost.
- Epson. Epson sells refurbished printers and other products in the Epson Clearance Center. All factory-refurbished products come with the same warranty as new ones.
- HP. You can buy refurbished HP products as well as closeout and overstock deals in the HP Business Outlet. HP guarantees its refurbished products perform like new and backs them with a one-year limited warranty. Tech support is available for an extra cost.
- Nikon. You can find refurbished Nikon optical equipment like cameras and binoculars on Nikon’s website. However, these refurbished products only come with a 30-day warranty.
- Samsung. All Samsung-certified pre-owned smartphones are inspected and restored to like-new condition before being resold. They come with brand-new chargers and headphones and are backed by a one-year warranty.
Where to Shop — Retail Sites
Another way to find reliable refurbished electronics is to buy from a well-known retail outlet. Many big online retailers sell returned and refurbished goods at substantial discounts. These devices are repaired and tested just like manufacturer-refurbished products, though they don’t always come with a warranty.
Good retail sources for refurbished goods include:
- Amazon. The online megastore resells returned goods through its Amazon Warehouse. All products labeled Amazon Renewed have been inspected, tested, and restored to like-new condition, though they may have minor scratches and dents. They come with a 90-day warranty.
- Back Market. This site deals exclusively in refurbished products, including smartphones, laptops, tablets, smartwatches, and game consoles. All products sold through Back Market come with a limited one-year warranty and a 30-day return period. Though all products are guaranteed to work like new, they’re graded based on their physical appearance, allowing you to save even more by choosing products with cosmetic flaws.
- Best Buy. The Best Buy Outlet sells used, refurbished, and open-box merchandise (products that have been returned opened but unused). Certified refurbished devices are guaranteed to be in like-new condition, but their warranty periods vary.
- Crutchfield. The Crutchfield Outlet Store sells various open-box, closeout, and scratch-and-dent electronics, including TVs, cameras, and car stereos. All outlet products have been inspected and tested and come with a manufacturer warranty, a 60-day return period, and free lifetime tech support.
- eBay. Some large manufacturers maintain official eBay stores with lower prices than their own outlets. You can find deals from resellers, but be careful. Some devices are used rather than refurbished. Always read the seller’s terms and conditions and check ratings before you buy.
- Gazelle. You can use Gazelle both to sell your old electronics and to buy freshly refurbished ones. All Gazelle-certified pre-owned smartphones and tablets pass a rigorous 30-point inspection before resale.
- Newegg. At Newegg’s Certified Refurbish Outlet, you can buy refurbished electronics, such as refurbished computers and peripherals. All refurbished items are inspected and repaired by certified technicians, and some products come with warranties.
- Walmart. If you’re in the market for a refurbished TV, Walmart has an excellent selection. Even the biggest sets are available for under $1,000, and some small ones are less than $200. All refurbished TVs come with at least a 90-day limited warranty.
What to Buy
Some refurbished items are better deals than others. For instance, Rick Broida, senior editor of CNET, says he “can’t see any reason to pay extra” for new Apple products when refurbs are so much cheaper. All Apple refurbs come with a full one-year warranty, and with iPhone and iPads, even the battery and outer case are brand new.
Consumer Reports goes a step further, saying refurbished smartphones from all brands are a good deal. In a 2018 survey, 82% of people who bought refurbished phones were happy with them, and 67% said they had no complaints about them at all. That’s barely lower than the 69% who said the same thing about brand-new phones.
In fact, Simon Hill, associate mobile editor at Digital Trends, argues that shopping refurbished makes sense for just about any electronic gadget: phones, tablets, computers, laptops, cameras, and even TVs. Hill admits it’s “always a small gamble” buying refurbished, but he says you can mitigate the risk, and the savings make it worthwhile.
What Not to Buy
Some products don’t stand up well to refurbishing. Experts recommend against:
- Hard Drives. Broida argues in a 2012 CNET article that you can’t really restore a hard drive to like-new condition. Once someone uses it, it’s already started to wear out, and there’s no way to undo that. Plus, he points out, prices on new hard drives are so low it isn’t worth risking your data for the sake of a better deal.
- TVs. Broida disagrees with Hill about refurbished TVs being a good deal. He says every one he’s ever bought arrived in “horrendous” condition. One problem is that these large, heavy devices are easily damaged during shipping due to careless packing. Also, many refurbished TVs come with only a 90-day warranty, which he doesn’t consider long enough for today’s “unreliable” sets.
- Printers. Broida is on the fence about this one. He says that once you’ve run ink or toner through a printer, there’s really no way to bring it back to like-new condition. But he thinks a refurb can still be a good deal if the savings is substantial enough. Just ensure the printer is recertified by the manufacturer and comes with new ink or toner.
How to Protect Yourself
When buying refurbished electronics, it’s imperative to do some research — both on the product itself and the seller. There are several things to check whenever you buy a refurbished item:
- Reviews. Read online reviews of the product to learn about its features and its strong and weak points. As you read, make a list of problems other owners have had with the device. That way, when it arrives, you can test it to see if it has any of these problems. Do so right away so you can return it if there’s anything wrong.
- Prices. Before buying a refurbished item, find out how much the same product would cost new. If the difference between new and refurbished is only a few dollars, the refurbished device isn’t really a bargain. Check the model number to ensure the new product you’re comparing is the same as the refurbished one.
- What’s Included. Check the listing carefully to ensure a refurb comes with all the extras you need to use it. For example, a desktop computer needs a keyboard, mouse, and power cables. If they’re not included, consider how much buying them would add to the price. With these extras tacked on, the refurbished desktop might not look like such a bargain.
- Warranty. Though most refurbished items come with a warranty, some are covered for only 30 to 90 days. Others don’t include warranty coverage at all unless you pay for it separately. Check the warranty period before you buy. Steer clear of products listed “as is,” which are really used rather than refurbished.
- Return Policy. Know how to return your device and whether the merchant charges a restocking fee. The return period varies by store — Crutchfield allows 60 days for returns, while the Apple Store gives you only 14. On the plus side, Apple pays for return shipping, a bonus most retailers don’t offer.
In general, technology experts are enthusiastic about refurbished electronics. They say as long as you buy from a reputable source, you can get a product that works just like new for a fraction of the cost.
But they also stress that it’s crucial to do your homework first. The more you can learn about both the product itself and the seller, the better your chances of avoiding an unpleasant surprise when your package arrives.
Buying refurbished is just like buying secondhand — but with more protection. It takes a little more work, and you have to examine both the goods and the seller with care. But if you’re willing to put in the effort, it’s a suitable way to save money.