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Buying Used Cell Phones and Computers: Wise Move, or Bad Idea?

If you’ve ever groaned about the price of a brand-new iPhone or Galaxy S, then you might want to think twice before getting an upgrade.

In 2016, marketing firm Deloitte predicted Americans would sell or trade more than 120 million smartphones — creating a market of about $17 billion. The second-hand tech market actually topped $19 billion a year later — and is expected to keep growing.

With second-hand sites like Amazon Warehouse Deals and Gazelle offering deep discounts on gadgets every day, there are plenty of affordable options for buying the latest tech. But is buying a used cell phone or computer a good idea? And how do you know which resellers to trust?

We’re breaking down everything you need to know about how to buy second-hand tech — and save big.

Why You Should Buy Used Gadgets

Before certified resellers like Gazelle or marketplaces like Swappa burst onto the scene, savvy shoppers had to try their luck on eBay and Craigslist to purchase a used iPhone or laptop. But now there are more choices — and more ways to save on tech.

First, let’s talk savings. Buying a used cell phone or computer will save you money in the long run — without sacrificing quality. When you purchase your gadget directly from the manufacturer or from a certified reseller like Gazelle, you’ll save as much as 30% on lightly-used items.

Sometimes refurbished products even work better than new products — simply because they’ve been taken apart and repaired.

“If you're purchasing a used product from a manufacturer or third-party, [...] authorized sellers typically sanitize, sort, and grade the units based on physical looks and functionality,” reports Elisa Roland at Reader’s Digest.

Combine this with certification, and you should feel comfortable purchasing a used device — especially if you’ve researched the return or replacement policies of the vendor.

But used tech can help you save in more ways than one. In addition to the upfront cost of purchasing a device, you’ll also wind up shelling out more money for memory and RAM on a smartphone, tablet, or laptop — especially if you buy new.

When you buy used, however, it’s easier to upgrade your storage capacity for less, says NerdWallet’s Kelsey Sheehy.

“A 128GB iPhone 7 on Gazelle, an online marketplace for used electronics, is currently only $40 to $50 more than the 32GB version being sold there,” Sheehy reports, noting that the manufacturer’s price for more storage more than doubles between new models.

In addition to saving money and getting more bang for their buck, some second-hand consumers turn to used devices because they desire more freedom from carrier contracts.

After all, most cell phone carriers and internet companies want you to purchase devices right along with your data plan — which means you’re locked into a contract that could cost you thousands of dollars, without the benefits of upgrading until you pay off your phone or tablet.

Used tech gives you more freedom to hunt for the best deals: on cell phones, tablets, and a carrier plan that works for you, especially if you buy an “unlocked” cell phone.

“Most smartphones are locked to the network you started on when you bought it, whether that be Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, or Sprint,” explains Liane Cassavoy at Techwalla.

“The beauty of an unlocked phone is that you can purchase a SIM card that provides the service you want, whether that means international service, prepaid service, or simply contract-free service from one of the major carriers,” she adds.

Finally, selling and buying second-hand tech doesn’t just help you keep money in your wallet — it also helps the environment. The second-hand tech market gives lightly-used gadgets new life — which should make you feel extra good about your purchase.

If you’re going to upgrade your own phone or laptop, just be sure to resell the gadget you plan to replace before it outlives its shelf life, cautions Dr. Carole Mars, senior research lead at the Sustainability Consortium.

“Turn over that old device so that somebody can get a second life out of it,” Mars told The New York Times. “There’s no reason for it to go into a drawer.”

How to Get a Good Used Gadget

Nervous about buying your next upgrade from a reseller? Here’s what you need to know to avoid scams and find the best gadget for your budget:

Research your seller

Many manufacturers, from Apple to Samsung, sell refurbished gadgets on their own websites. Going this route should help you feel confident that the product you’re purchasing has been examined and, in many cases, spruced up according to the manufacturer’s specifications.

But if you choose to go third-party, do your research, suggests Yanyan Ji, general manager of e-commerce for Gazelle.

"Consumers should trust companies that boast strict security guidelines and use programs such as CheckMEND to make sure that phones sold aren't stolen,” Ji explained to Reader’s Digest.

“These companies ensure that devices are top quality, not damaged and obtained legally, so consumers can have peace of mind," he added.

Thankfully, many reputable third-party sellers have certifications, like Gazelle’s Consumers should be the most skeptical of sellers on eBay or Craigslist, who may offer few details about the product or its condition.

“Experts recommend looking for trusted payment gateways, including Braintree and PayPal, and buying from stores that use services like CheckMEND to flag up stolen goods,” reports David Nield at Gizmodo.

“Buying with a credit card rather than a debit card can give you some extra protection in terms of getting refunds for faulty goods,” he adds.

Avoid troublemaker products

While some gadgets, like phones, tablets, and laptops, do well in the second-hand market, some electronics don’t thrive when passed down to a second owner.

"Larger consumer electronics, like televisions, sometimes don't make economic sense to repair; that's not for lack of trying really, just lack of parts," Matt Zieminski, an account manager for iFixit.com, explained to Reader’s Digest.

It’s much easier to find parts for cell phones, laptops, and tablets — which is probably why there’s such a robust second-hand market!

The Best Third-Party Sellers

Want to try your luck with a third-party seller? There are plenty of reputable ones out there. Here are some of the best:

  • Gazelle: Gazelle has made a name for itself as a reputable third-party buyer and seller of small electronics. Items must go through a 30-point quality inspection before being re-sold. If your item doesn’t work as promised, return it within 30 days for a full refund.
  • Amazon: If you’re used to purchasing items on Amazon, you’ll most likely appreciate that the company’s Warehouse Deals page uses the exact same interface. They also label items “like new,” “very good,” and “good,” and most consumers find these labels to be reliable indicators of an item’s condition.
  • Swappa: Swappa is a user-to-user marketplace that offers used laptops, cell phones, and other devices at a discount — you’re just buying them directly from another owner, rather than a company. They also offer a repair network and protection plans.
  • OfferUp: Like Swappa, OfferUp is a P2P network. The interface is somewhere between Craigslist and Pinterest, with an emphasis on buying locally.

So if you’re looking for a new device — don’t despair. There’s no need to go overboard with your side hustle or put in lots of overtime. There are plenty of used cell phones and computers to choose from — just do your homework first.

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