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Should I Buy Refurbished Electronics? – How It’s Different From New & Used

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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 $1,200, which is out of your price range. As you hunt online for a better price, you come across several offers for older MacBook Pros secondhand – some for as little as $250.

This sounds like a fantastic deal, but you hesitate. You suspect that if someone else is getting rid of this computer, there must be something wrong with it. You worry that the computer won’t work at all or will break down within a week or two, leaving you out $250 with nothing to show for it.

Fortunately for you, 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 $800. 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 vs. Used

“Refurbished” isn’t just another word for “used,” but the two terms are related. Used goods, also known as secondhand or pre-owned goods, are products that another person has bought, used, and sold. Refurbished goods, also known as reconditioned or remanufactured goods, are products that another person has bought and then, for some reason, decided to return. Generally, prior to resale, an item is checked by the retailer or manufacturer for functionality, and minor adjustments or fixes may be made – perhaps it is given fresh packaging, or a new battery is placed in the product.

Basically, all refurbished electronics are used – but not all used electronics are refurbished.

Just because an item was returned doesn’t necessarily mean it was damaged. Sometimes people return products because the packaging is damaged, or because of minor blemishes that only affect the product’s looks. In other cases, they simply have “buyer’s remorse,” meaning they change their minds about a product after buying it. In cases like these, buying refurbished can get you a product that hasn’t been used at all for a bargain price.

In other cases, refurbished products have been returned because of malfunctions – some minor, some major. When you buy a refurbished item, there’s no way to tell what was wrong with it before it was returned. It shouldn’t matter, though, since all problems with a returned item are supposed to be fixed before resale.

Items listed as “refurbished” have several advantages over those sold as “used” or “secondhand”:

  • Like-New Condition. Sellers of refurbished items repair everything that’s damaged, then test the item to make sure it’s working properly. They also clean it and, in many cases, replace worn exterior parts, such as the face plate or buttons. This means that when you buy a refurbished product, 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 up and resells a product, the warranty is likely to be at least a full year. Products refurbished by a store, on the other hand, have shorter warranties of 30 to 90 days.
  • Support. In many cases, buying a refurbished product from the original manufacturer gives you access to the same tech support you’d get with a new product. That means if you have any problems with your new equipment, you can call the manufacturer for help. However, this feature is often available only for current models. If you buy a recently discontinued product, you shouldn’t count on getting support from the manufacturer unless that benefit is specifically mentioned in the sale listing.

woman buying refurbished tablet computer

Refurbished vs. New

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 item refurbished – including PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones, TVs, and digital cameras – at prices up to 50% less than you’d pay new.

Buying refurbished goods can allow you to get older models that are no longer sold in stores. That’s what I did when I bought my last computer, a Mac mini. I originally ordered a new Mac mini that was running OS X Lion, but this new operating system turned out to have a lot of problems. So I returned the new computer and bought a refurbished one with Snow Leopard, the previous version of OS X.

On the other hand, older versions aren’t always better. For example, if you bought a new Windows computer, it would likely come with the acclaimed Windows 10 operating system. However, if you bought refurbished, you could end up 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 sellers aren’t as scrupulous as others about making sure all problems are fixed. If you discover a problem after the 30-day warranty has expired, you could have trouble returning the item. According to ConsumerReports.org, some stores don’t accept returns of refurbished products at all, and others only allow returns within 30 days after purchase. Even your credit card can’t always help you, since many cards specifically exclude refurbished goods from their purchase protection offers.

Shopping Smart for Refurbished Electronics

Buying refurbished electronics can be a way to find reliable products at bargain prices – but it can also be a way to get burned if you’re not careful. It’s certainly worth looking for deals on refurbished goods, but it’s also worth taking some common-sense steps 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

The most important 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 they’re listing as refurbished really have been fixed up 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.com. Amazon.com offers certified refurbished versions of its Kindle e-reader, Kindle Fire tablet, and Fire TV stick. These products are guaranteed to look and work like new. They’re all backed by a one-year warranty, and you can buy extended warranties for some products.
  • Apple. You can find refurbished Apple products, from iPods to Mac computers, in the Apple Store. Apple certifies that all its refurbished products have all defective parts replaced and are thoroughly tested, cleaned, and repackaged. They’re also backed by a one-year warranty. You can get technical support for refurbished Apple products, but it costs extra.
  • 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. All three types of products come with the same warranty Dell offers on similar new products. They can also be returned within 30 days with no shipping charge.
  • 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. Refurbished products are guaranteed to be in “fully functional” condition and are backed by a one-year limited warranty.
  • Lenovo. The Lenovo Outlet offers deals on all Lenovo computers. Refurbished products are guaranteed to work just like new ones, though they can have minor cosmetic damage. They all come with a standard one-year warranty.

shopping for electronics online

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 items are repaired and tested just like manufacturer-refurbished products, though they often do not come with a warranty.

Good retail sources for refurbished goods include:

  • Amazon.com. The online megastore resells returned goods through its Amazon Warehouse Deals site. All products are tested and graded to rate their condition, but they don’t come with a warranty.
  • Best Buy. The Best Buy Outlet distinguishes between refurbished items and “open box” items, which have been returned unused. Certified refurbished items, which are guaranteed to be in like-new condition, are sold both in Best Buy stores and online. They all come with warranties ranging from 90 days to one year.
  • CowBoom. A Best Buy brand, CowBoom specializes in deals for pre-owned and refurbished consumer electronics. Each purchase comes with a 15-day no hassle money back guarantee.
  • Crutchfield. Crutchfield is an online vendor that has earned top marks in Consumer Reports’ ratings of electronics stores. The Crutchfield Outlet Store sells a variety of returned electronics, from TVs, to cameras, to car stereos. All outlet items have been inspected and tested and come with a manufacturer’s warranty, plus free lifetime tech support.
  • NewEgg. This online retailer electronics sells refurbished computers and peripherals in its NewEgg Outlet. All refurbished items are inspected and repaired by certified technicians, and some products come with warranties.

What to Buy

Some refurbished items are better deals than others. For instance, Rick Broida of CNET says he would “choose refurbished every time” when buying Apple products, which he considers to be overpriced when they’re sold new. He points to deals on a refurbished iPad and MacBook Air that save you 15% to 30% compared to the new versions. And thanks to Apple’s excellent guarantee on refurbished items, he says, you give up nothing by choosing refurbished.

Eric Griffith of PCMag goes one step further, arguing that refurbished computers in general are nearly always better deals than new ones. He points out that unlike a car, a computer is pretty easy to restore to like-new condition by wiping the drives, reinstalling the operating system, and replacing the peripherals. He says the only people who really need new computers are those who have to have “the latest and greatest” and those who want to customize their systems to their exact needs.

However, there are also some items that don’t stand up well to refurbishing. Here are some that experts recommend against:

  • Hard Drives. Broida argues in another CNET article that a hard drive can’t really be restored to like-new condition. Once it’s been used, 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 already that it isn’t really worth risking your data for the sake of a better deal.
  • TVs. Broida says refurbished TVs can be a lot cheaper than new ones, but every time he’s bought one, it arrived in “horrendous” condition. Many of his readers have also complained about refurbished TVs being damaged during shipping due to careless packing. Another problem is that refurbished TVs usually 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 points out that running ink or toner through a printer has “a way of gumming up the works,” and there’s really no way to bring it back to like-new condition afterwards. However, he thinks a refurbished printer could still be a good deal if the savings are substantial enough. He warns buyers to make sure the printer is re-certified by the manufacturer and comes with new ink or toner.
  • Cell Phones. Matt Granite, a “money expert” at USA Today, lists cell phones as one of the items he would never buy used or refurbished. His reasoning is simple: Considering how many times people drop their cell phones, he doesn’t see how they can ever be fixed up as good as new.

How to Protect Yourself

When buying refurbished electronics, it’s especially important to do some research – both on the product itself and on the seller. Here are several things to check whenever you buy a refurbished item:

  • Reviews. Read online reviews of the product to learn about its strong and weak points and make sure it has all the features you need. As you read through reviews, make a list of the problems other owners have had with the product. That way, when your device arrives, you can test it to see if it has any of the same problems. Do this right away, so you can return it within the warranty period 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 item isn’t really a bargain. Check the model number to make sure the new product you’re comparing is the same as the refurbished one.
  • What’s Included. Check the listing carefully to make sure a refurbished item comes with all the extras you need to use it. For instance, if you’re buying a desktop computer, check to see whether the keyboard, mouse, and power cables are included. If they’re not, consider how much extra money you’ll need to buy new ones. With these extras tacked on, the refurbished PC 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 – and some don’t include warranty coverage at all unless you pay for it separately. Find out how long the warranty on your item is before you buy, so you know how long you have to return it if there’s a problem. Steer clear of products listed “as is,” which are really used rather than refurbished.
  • Return Policy. Make sure you know how to return your item if you’re not satisfied. The length of the return period depends on where you bought the item – Crutchfield gives you a full 60 days for returns, while the Apple Store gives you only 14. On the plus side, Apple pays the cost of return shipping, a bonus most retailers don’t offer. Also, check to see whether the merchant charges a “restocking fee” for returned items.

using a refurbished tablet computer

Final Word

In general, technology experts are enthusiastic about refurbished electronics. They say that 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.

However, they also stress that it’s important to do your homework first. The more you can learn about both the product itself and the seller, the better your chances are of avoiding an unpleasant surprise when your package arrives.

Have you ever bought refurbished electronics? If so, would you recommend them?

Amy Livingston
Amy Livingston is a freelance writer who can actually answer yes to the question, "And from that you make a living?" She has written about personal finance and shopping strategies for a variety of publications, including ConsumerSearch.com, ShopSmart.com, and the Dollar Stretcher newsletter. She also maintains a personal blog, Ecofrugal Living, on ways to save money and live green at the same time.

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