If you want to save money on a laptop, tablet or phone, buying an older device that’s been refurbished is a tempting idea. Last fall, faced with virtual school and working-from-home, I saved around $700 on a refurbished MacBook for myself, before handing my much older laptop over to my son. Buying used is also a greener consumer choice: According to the German news organization Deutsche Welle, humans generate about 50 million tons of electric and electronic waste every year, waste that can become toxic if it’s not properly disposed of. As Mother Jones points out, reusing extinguishing products saves the chemicals, water and fossil fuels that go into making new devices, too.
There are some things to keep in mind, however, if you’re looking to buy pre-owned tech that’s been upgraded or cleaned up (rather than simply used and erased). You don’t want to wind up with a lemon that sees you put out more money in repairs or a replacement.
Don’t assume “refurbished” means what you think it does
Refurbished is not universally defined, and the interpretation that counts is that of the party doing the selling. It can mean a product was simply tidied up, wiped of the former owners content, sanitized and repackaged, or it can mean it was additionally inspected, tested and overhauled with replacement parts.
You don’t know what you’re looking at until you know what the vendor, retailer or manufacturer selling the item means by refurbished, and answers vary from detailed to vague. Before you start browsing, figure out if their definition squares with what you want.
Make sure to get a deal
While it’s hard to find significant discounts on refurbished tech from upmarket manufacturers like Apple, Ritchie says to aim for savings of between 10 and 30 percent on updated but used tech. “Anything more than that and you’re getting a really good value.”
How do you know you’re getting a good deal beyond the price listed? It helps to know what you’re looking at from a technical POV. If you are buying a computer or laptop, for example, it’s not just the age of the product you should factor into your decision but the health and efficiency of the processor and the RAM, or memory. Understand the functionality of these components and you’ll get a sense of its capacity, speed and efficiency.
If you need a fast, multi-tasker laptop or desktop, look for one that has a processor with at least 2.4 gigahertz or GHz. RAM, or the memory of a device, is another feature that affects speed. Most consider 8 gigabytes (GB) as the baseline.
You may not need a super-efficient computer if you’re just using it for streaming or simple processing. If you plan to use it for gaming, or to run a lot of storage-sucking applications, you might want to look for upgraded RAM (at least 16GB) and a more powerful processor.
What you need, how much you’ve got to spend, and your expectations overall for repairs, refunds or warranties are all factors to keep in mind before you press the add to cart button.
There are benefits to buying from big brands and manufacturers
Many big retailers and manufacturer sites sell refurbished electronics. Montreal-based tech analyst Rene Ritchie recommends that people buy from them, rather than wing it with used items on Ebay, Kijiji or another third-party hosting site.
“Go with a trusted vendor, a company that has a good reputation and that is really well established,” says Ritchie.
One bonus with going big is that these companies define what “refurbished” means to them, allowing you to decide if it’s good enough or not. You don’t get a full history of the item, but you get some idea of what has or hasn’t been done.
Apple certifies its products with testing and aims to make them “like new,” which means that replacement parts are the same as those featured in their new products.
Dell runs its refurbishment program through a subsidiary, but guarantees that its products are “visually and diagnostically tested.”
Best Buy offers consumers the option to buy items from a number of market sellers, including “certified” refurbishers, or independent sellers that meet a higher standard for refurbishment than average sellers.
That’s not to say that all independent sellers or vendors are untrustworthy or not worth considering. It’s not a level playing field: Manufacturers have the advantage, and use it by controlling who gets the certified parts needed for repairs, for example.
Five years ago, I bought a used iPad that had zero upgrades or fixes from an independent seller hosted on a third-party site and it’s still kicking. It was cheap, and I didn’t need to see its CV to recognize that I had limited money to spend.
The biggest advantage of buying from third parties is that it’s usually cheaper than dealing with big box retailers. The biggest risk is not having any recourse if you’re unsatisfied. If you’re wary of buying used tech from a third-party seller, message them and ask the questions that you want to about the product they’re offering. It’s also smart to check ratings and reviews, if there are any. If your seller isn’t forthcoming or able to answer questions, then it’s probably wise to keep looking.
Look for warranties and return policies
Another big benefit to buying from the known entities is that most offer warranties and return policies. I bought my laptop on Apple’s refurbished section because I need it for work—that time, I did not want to take a chance with an independent seller. Apple offers a one-year warranty for its refurbished products as well as a 15-day return policy, and 90 days of free technical support (you can sign on for more at a cost, which I did).
Dell offers a 100-day limited warranty and 30-day return policy. Best Buy offers return policies on their refurbished products but the timelines can vary between 14 and 30 days, so be sure to read the fine print.
Amazon Renewed, which sells refurbished products from independent sellers, offers a 90-day supplier warranty and applies its standard 30-day return policy. Again, it’s good to read the fine print, as some return policies start from the day of purchase and others from the date of arrival.