You can save a lot of money shopping secondhand at thrift stores, yard sales, eBay, and Craigslist. In fact, there are some things you should always shop secondhand if you can, such as books and clothes.
But there’s a flip side: things that are the worst to buy used. Some used goods can pose a health or safety risk. Others just don’t hold up very well, so buying secondhand is unlikely to be a bargain.
That doesn’t mean you can never find good deals on them when they’re used. But when you buy these things used, understand the risks and take precautions to protect yourself and your money.
Things You Should Never Buy Used for Health & Safety Reasons
Some secondhand goods can pose safety issues for several reasons. Some safety gear can have unseeable damage that makes it less effective. If you can’t screen for safety problems when shopping, the only way to avoid them is to buy new.
In other cases, safety standards have changed over the years. If you buy used, the product you get may not meet the current standards. And in some cases, used products pose a risk to your health because of dirt, germs, or insect infestations a simple cleaning may not be able to remove.
1. Child Car Seats
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 91,000 children age 12 and under were injured in car crashes in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available.
The best way to reduce that risk is with a good car seat. The CDC says car seat use reduces the chance your child will be hurt in a crash by 71% to 82% over just using a seat belt.
Unfortunately, if the car seat you’re using is secondhand, you can’t be sure it’s providing the protection you’re counting on. According to Consumer Reports, there are several potential problems with used car seats:
- Crash Damage. In a crash, a car seat’s components can suffer stress that reduces its protectiveness. But you can’t always see such damage from the outside. The only way to know if a car seat has ever been in a crash is to rely on the seller’s word.
- Recalls. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issues recalls on particular models if they don’t meet safety standards. So if you buy one that isn’t this year’s model, check for past recalls. Sometimes, manufacturers can fix recalled products, but not always.
- Expiration Dates. Car seat components wear out over time. Once a seat is past its expiration date, you can’t be sure it’s still structurally sound or that its safety features are up to date.
It’s only safe to buy a used car seat when it’s never been in a wreck and comes from someone you know personally — someone you would trust with your child’s life. And even then, you need to take precautions.
Start by checking the expiration date, which should appear on the seat itself. If the seat shows only the date of manufacture, assume the expiration date is six years later.
Then, scrutinize the seat to ensure there are no cracks in the foam or shell and no rips, holes, or fraying in the straps. Check the strap configuration against the manual to ensure everything is connected properly.
If everything checks out, register your seat with the manufacturer just like you would if it were new. And finally, after setting up the seat, get a free installation inspection.
2. Baby Cribs
Another baby product you don’t want to compromise on is your child’s crib. Safety standards are vital for cribs, and older models may not be up to snuff.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission’s latest update (2011) to crib safety standards banned drop-rail cribs and strengthened standards for construction quality, including crib slats, mattress supports, and hardware. Any crib made before 2011 may not meet these new standards, and you can’t necessarily tell if it does by looking.
Even cribs made after 2011 can still pose a hazard. Some have been recalled because of safety problems, while others have become shaky over time due to misuse or poor maintenance.
On the whole, your safest bet is to buy a new crib. You can find some models at Ikea for $100 or less. Another affordable option is a portable crib.
A secondhand crib can be safe if it’s a new model that meets the current safety standards. But check the crib’s manufacturer and model number to ensure it hasn’t been recalled. You can usually find that info on the inside bottom of the headboard or footboard or on a mattress support rail.
Only consider a used crib if it’s fully assembled so you can see it has all its parts. Check that the supports are in place and in good condition and the wheels and any other moving parts are working.
3. Bicycle Helmets
A bike helmet is only designed to work once. During a wreck, the foam interior compresses. Even if it looks intact, it can no longer provide the same protection it once did.
And a crash isn’t the only thing that can damage a helmet. According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute, you can crack the foam in a helmet just by dropping it on a hard surface. The cracks may be small and hard to see, but you can detect them if you look carefully.
Even intact helmets can degrade over time. Exposure to sunlight can damage the hard outer shell of a helmet. This damage shows as fading or tiny cracks around the vents. Any helmet that shows that kind of wear is no longer protective.
There’s no good reason to buy secondhand helmets. Even if you know and trust the seller, it’s not worth the risk. They might not remember falling off the bike or dropping the helmet once.
You can buy new bike helmets at stores like Target and Walmart for less than $20. Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute tests show these inexpensive helmets provide the same protection as more expensive ones.
There are also special programs that can help you find helmets for as little as $5. At that price, there’s no advantage to buying used.
4. Car Tires
Your vehicle’s tires are literally the point where the rubber meets the road. If they’re not in good condition, they can put your safety at risk. And when you buy used tires, you can’t always tell if they’re sound.
When you buy used tires, there are too many unknowns. You can’t be sure they’ve remained adequately inflated and been rotated or that the wheels were properly aligned. You also can’t tell if they’ve been driven at excessive speeds or had a run-in with a pothole.
Behaviors like these can damage a tire in invisible ways. It’s even harder to tell when the tire is unmounted. You can’t necessarily spot problems like small leaks or bulges in the sidewall.
Also, even well-maintained tires wear out with age. Exposure to elements like ozone degrades and weakens the material. Thus, tires more than 10 years old are no longer considered roadworthy.
You can tell a tire’s age by the Department of Transportation code on the sidewall. The code’s last four digits indicate the week and year of manufacture. For instance, a tire with a code ending in 0719 was made in the seventh week of 2019.
AutoGuide.com says it’s generally safe to buy a set of used tires if they come with a used car that’s been checked and approved by a trustworthy mechanic. If the mechanic gives the car itself the thumbs-up, that’s a good sign the owner properly maintained the tires too.
Similarly, you can probably trust tires from a person you know takes scrupulous care of their car. If they’ve followed the maintenance guidelines, the tires shouldn’t have any problems you can’t see.
Just check the expiration date and tread — they should have at least an eighth of an inch. That ensures there’s still plenty of life left in them for the money you’re spending.
Many people avoid buying a used mattress simply because of the ick factor. Knowing other people’s skin, sweat, and bodily fluids could be in the mattress is a big enough reason to walk the other way.
But a bigger problem with used mattresses is the risk of picking up bedbugs. Mattresses are the most common breeding ground for bedbugs — and from there, they can spread to other parts of your home. That means even getting rid of the mattress may not eliminate the infestation.
You can’t always tell by looking if a mattress contains bedbugs. However, you can minimize the risk by getting a mattress from a reputable reseller.
But buying a used mattress has other downsides too. It won’t come with a warranty like a new one, and it won’t last as long. The average lifespan of a mattress is only seven to 10 years. So if you buy a 5-year-old mattress, it has half or less of its usable life left.
Laws on the sale of used mattresses differ from state to state. Some states require labels to show if a mattress is used or contains used parts. Some require all used mattresses to be sanitized, and others allow reuse of the springs only and not the cover or padding.
Check the laws for your state. If state law doesn’t require mattress sanitizing before resale, look for a mattress bearing a tag that shows it’s been sanitized anyway. Better yet, get a mattress that’s been recovered or reconditioned by removing, treating, and replacing the cover.
Some people assume the worst kind of clothing to buy secondhand must be swimsuits and underwear. After all, you wear them right next to the skin, and they can come in contact with bodily fluids.
But that stuff washes out. A round through the washer and dryer, and it’s perfectly safe. The garment people should really be concerned about is hats.
A hat bought at a thrift shop or garage sale hasn’t necessarily been cleaned. It could be harboring head lice or bacteria that can cause skin infections. And some kinds of hats aren’t that easy to clean yourself.
A used hat can be safe if you can sanitize it before wearing it. For removing lice, the CDC says the key is heat. Five minutes of exposure to temperatures over 128.3 degrees Fahrenheit (53.5 degrees Celsius) will kill both lice and their eggs.
That means any cloth hat that can go through a hot water wash and heated dryer cycle is safe to wear afterward. Unfortunately, you can’t clean most types of hats that way. To eliminate the risk of lice, you can either have them dry-cleaned or seal them in a plastic bag for two weeks before wearing them.
If you go the plastic bag route, hat manufacturer Lamood Big Hats recommends spraying the interior with a solution of 50% water and 50% rubbing alcohol. That should kill any harmful bacteria.
Like hats, used shoes can spread infection. In this case, the biggest risk isn’t bacteria. It’s mold and fungus that could cause problems like athlete’s foot.
However, podiatrist Diane Koshimune, speaking with Footwear News, says that’s only a problem if there’s a break in your toenail or the skin of your feet. Even then, you can prevent athlete’s foot by washing and drying your feet daily, wearing clean socks, and drying shoes thoroughly if they get wet.
The bigger problem with secondhand shoes is fit. Some types of shoes, especially leather ones, can mold themselves to the previous owner’s feet. If a shoe has stretched so much it doesn’t support your feet properly when walking, your muscles and tendons will work harder to compensate. And Koshimune says that can lead to problems like tendinitis.
Wear on the soles can also be a problem. Thin spots on the soles of flat shoes like sneakers or uneven heels on dress shoes can create more pressure on the ball of your foot. That can make the shoe painful to wear.
Gently used secondhand shoes can be safe to wear if you properly clean and deodorize them. Some cloth shoes can go through the washer, and you can spot-clean leather shoes. You can hand-wash insoles with hot water and soap or disinfect the inside of the shoe by wiping it with alcohol. A spray of alcohol or a mild bleach solution also works.
Avoid shoes with dramatic wear on the sole or uneven wear on the heels. Worn insoles are also a problem, but you can often replace those.
Just as with new shoes, it’s also vital to buy shoes that fit you well. Try them on and walk around the store several times to ensure they support your feet properly. Pay attention to any spots where the shoe squeezes or rubs your foot, which could lead to a callus.
If you’ve ever shelled out a bundle for pricey designer cosmetics only to discover you didn’t really like them, it’s easy to see how tempting it is to resell them and recover some of your lost cash. And as a buyer, it’s appealing to get a high-end product for a bargain price.
But dermatologists interviewed by Elle and Allure warn that buying used beauty products can be harmful. Makeup can harbor bacteria, viruses, and fungi that cause various skin infections. The risk is greatest with products that have reusable applicators, come into direct contact with the skin, or come in a container that you dip your fingers into.
Perfume that comes in a spray bottle is perfectly safe since the bottle doesn’t touch the skin. But according to InStyle, once you open perfume, the scent degrades within about two years. Heat and sunlight can accelerate the process, causing a fragrance to go off within a few months.
If you see yard sale cosmetics sealed in their original packaging, they’re safe as long as they aren’t expired. Perfume in a spray bottle is also OK if it smells right and is unexpired.
Used products that come in a tube or pump bottle are a tricky middle ground. It’s possible to use them without touching your skin, but you can’t be sure the previous owner always did that. While they’re probably safe, it’s probably not worth the risk.
In general, there are safer ways to save on beauty products. You can switch to cheaper brands that give value for your money, shop sales, and use coupons. You can even check out tutorials online to learn how to make your own.
9. Pet Supplies
Pet products like bowls, clothing, and toys often show up at yard sales and online. However, veterinarians interviewed by PetMD warn that these secondhand goods can pose various risks.
Soft products, like clothes, beds, and toys, can harbor pests like fleas and ticks. Stains and odors can also be a problem. And if dog toys or cat trees carry the scent of the previous owner’s pet, it could cause your pets to start urine-marking it to establish it as their territory.
Another concern is germs from a previous owner’s pet, which can linger in both soft and hard plastic pet supplies.
And finally, safety can be an issue. For example, crates or carriers need to support your pet’s weight, so it’s crucial to ensure they’re in good condition.
Secondhand pet gear is usually safe as long as you take some precautions. Inspect dog crates to ensure all the moving parts are secure and working properly and that there are no cracks or other damage to the case.
Before use, wipe the crate down with a pet-safe cleaner. To disinfect it, either follow up with a disinfectant like alcohol or a mild bleach solution or leave it in the sunlight to dry.
Metal or ceramic food and water dishes should be safe. Just clean them before use with dish detergent and water. If they’ve been used recently, disinfect them as well. It’s best to avoid plastic bowls, which can become damaged and collect debris that seeps into your pet’s food and water.
If you buy secondhand pet clothes, wash them in hot water with detergent before trying them on your pet. That will eliminate parasites like fleas and ticks along with odors and stains.
Finally, be careful with anything that contains porous materials, such as fabric. If they have no obvious stains or odors and no nooks and crannies that could harbor germs, they’re probably OK.
But avoid secondhand goods with carpet, such as cat trees. These can be a haven for parasites, and the material makes them hard to detect.
Things You Should Never Buy Used Because of Durability
Safety isn’t the only concern when shopping secondhand. Used goods that pose no threat to your health can still be a hazard to your wallet.
Everything wears out with time and use — some things faster than others. That isn’t a problem with most secondhand goods because you can tell by looking if something’s in good condition.
But with a few products, problems aren’t immediately visible. If you buy them used, you could be throwing your money away on something that won’t work properly.
10. Vacuum Cleaners
There are two potential problems with used vacuum cleaners. First, they’ve sucked up loads of grime like dirt, skin, and dust mites in someone else’s house. In most cases, changing the bag or cleaning the canister is enough to remove this residue.
However, some vacuums have inhaled even weirder things. For example, Ashley Poskin of Apartment Therapy says her husband used their Shark to vacuum up butter, leaving it with an odor no amount of cleaning could remove.
But the reason many owners dispose of an old vacuum cleaner is that it’s not working properly. You can fix many problems with old vacuums, but repairs can cost anywhere from a few dollars to a couple hundred. At the high end of that scale, it could be more cost-effective to buy a new vacuum than fix an old one.
The key to getting your money’s worth out of a used vacuum is to inspect it as carefully as possible. Examine the body, canister, hose, cord, roller bar, and even the filters. A conscientious owner will clean or replace the filters regularly, so damaged ones are a sign they didn’t.
If everything looks good, plug the vacuum in and test it. Flip all the switches to test each speed and other options, and check whether all the attachments work. As the machine runs, pay attention to any unusual noises, such as a rattle or any unpleasant smells.
If the machine passes all your checks, it’s a good investment if the price is right. Just clean it well inside and out and change the bag or filters before using it.
11. TV Sets
Like vacuum cleaners, TV sets can be costly to repair if they’re damaged. The cost can be anywhere from $50 for something minor like a bulb or fuse on an LCD TV to $1,000 for replacing a damaged screen on a 4K TV. Given those prices, used TV sets look like a bad risk.
If your secondhand “bargain” turns out to be damaged, fixing it could be more than the cost of a new TV. You can buy a set in the 55-to-59-inch range with decent ratings from Consumer Reports for as little as $500. And since used TV sets don’t come with a warranty, you’d have to pay for those repairs out of pocket.
That said, there’s one way to get around all these problems. Instead of picking up a used TV on Craigslist, go to an electronics store or website and buy a certified refurbished TV. Refurbished products are gadgets that a retailer or the original manufacturer has brought back to working condition. They even come with warranties.
Refurbished devices may not always look like new, but they work like new — if not better. Refurbished TVs often go through stricter testing than brand-new ones. Thus, your refurbished set could be more reliable than a new one while costing hundreds less.
When buying a TV this way, always buy from a reputable retailer, such as the manufacturer or Amazon, Best Buy, or Walmart. That guarantees the set you’re buying is legal stock and not stolen merchandise. And look for one that’s either factory refurbished, meaning the original manufacturer did the repairs, or certified refurbished, repaired by a trained professional.
Finally, ensure the set is backed by at least a 12-month warranty. That way, if a problem crops up, you can have it repaired for free.
12. Stereo Equipment
Used stereo equipment — speakers, receivers, amplifiers, CD players, and turntables — can look like a great bargain. They’re often priced at a significant discount compared to new devices.
However, that bargain comes with the risk your used audio component won’t match the sound quality of a new one. Heavy use can lead to problems like distortion, hiss, or loss of volume. And even if it sounds fine, problems like a malfunctioning button could make the secondhand gear difficult or impossible to use.
Any vintage stereo gear that’s at least 20 years old is likely to need service or refurbishment — and it’s not always possible to get it. Mainstream brands rarely provide service for their old models.
But used stereo equipment can still be a good buy in some cases. Speakers are the safest to buy secondhand. If they haven’t been abused, they can provide decades of service. Amplifiers are also a reasonably safe bet.
By contrast, CD players and turntables are much more likely to wear out with use. If you really want to buy one used, avoid private sellers. Instead, stick to reputable resellers with good user reviews.
No matter what type of audio gear you’re considering, find out about its history. If you’re buying from a store, ask about the number of previous owners and the service history. Also, find out whether the equipment comes with a warranty.
If you’re buying from a private seller, ask why they’re getting rid of the equipment and what they know about its condition. Audiophiles who know a lot about the product are more likely to have taken good care of it.
If you’re considering an older piece of equipment, contact the manufacturer to ensure they still offer parts and service for it or have an authorized third-party retailer who does (and what it costs). If you can’t get parts and support easily or at a reasonable price, it’s probably better to walk away.
The best way to buy used stereo gear is in person. That way, you can listen to it first and hear how it sounds for yourself. Crank up the volume and listen for noises like buzzing, hissing, crackling, pops, or distortion. Adjust all the controls, such as volume, tone, and balance, as you listen. If you hear anything that sounds off, don’t buy it.
Also, test all the controls to ensure every button works properly. If you’re buying a receiver or amplifier, test all the inputs and outputs as well. And inspect the case for scratches and other damage.
If you buy online or from a private seller who plans to ship the gear to you, confirm they have the original box and packing materials. If they don’t, there’s a good chance the equipment won’t survive the trip in working order. If you have an item shipped to you, take photos or a video as you unpack it so you can document any damage it suffered during shipping.
When it’s only your wallet at risk, it can be worth taking a chance on a secondhand product if the price is low enough. You shouldn’t spend $100 on a used vacuum cleaner or a set of speakers without testing it carefully first, but if you find the same product for $10 at a garage sale, you don’t have much to lose by taking it home. If it doesn’t work, you’re only out 10 bucks.
However, if a secondhand product could pose a safety hazard, it’s not a bargain — no matter how cheap it is. When shopping for anything a life literally depends on, such as a car seat or bike helmet, it’s not worth taking risks. Safety is something you can’t put a price on.