Gadget Freak: Four Simple Rules for Buying Used Gear
I needed to replace my aging VHS camcorder, and I'd dropped enough coin on the holidays to put me in hock for the rest of 2006, so I decided to hunt for a bargain on something used.
Crutchfield's "Scratch and Dent" store had a Canon Optura 300 Mini-DV camcorder listed for $850. It certainly was tempting, but I thought I could do better. Just a little googling brought up the same model for $500 at a New York-based electronics dealer, but it was refurbished and the warranty was a bare-bones 90 days.
I was at a loss. Was I about to enter a world of pain? It turns out buying used can be a good deal, but only if you follow the rules.
Know your stores: Some sellers have special sections on their sites where they offer gear that buyers have returned. Others present used gear alongside new goods but usually label it "refurbished" or "factory reconditioned." Different sites use different terms, and products vary in condition, so investigate before you buy. Inventory and pricing vary wildly day to day; if you're looking for something specific, check back often.
Separate used from abused: Some used electronics are best avoided. Buying anything with lots of moving parts, like a multidisc changer, is a bad idea, says Phil Jones, director of technical support for Crutchfield in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Another bad idea: TV sets and monitors. Tubes fade, bulbs burn out, pixels die--and it could happen at any time. On the other hand, amplifiers, AV receivers, and some single-disc DVD players will hold their value, even if they don't offer the latest 6.1-channel home-theater experience. Used speakers can be a good choice, too, though they're generally not something you want to buy unseen--or unheard.
If you're purchasing a used computer, a handheld, or something similar, a smart cutoff is the device's age, says Gateway spokesperson Lisa Emard. Six months old is okay, but twelve months or more is not.
Scrutinize the warranty: The best protection is to buy reputable products from dealers who give you 30 days to change your mind, says Jones. Ideally, the product will come with the original manufacturer's warranty (usually at least a year), but many refurbished goods offer only 90 days. With the camcorder I wanted, if I had purchased it from the New York dealer, I could have added a four-year extended warranty from Canon for $150 and still paid far less than list in total.
An extended warranty is a great idea, says David Slavitt, CEO of Audio Visual Solutions in Montville, New Jersey. But if adding it brings the price to within 10 percent of a new product's cost, buying used makes little sense.
Price it right: Don't go higher than 80 percent--or below 50 percent--of what the device costs new, Jones recommends. Ignore this guideline, and you're paying too much money or taking too big a risk.
Beware of online stores that advertise superlow prices but try to sell essentials like power cords as "extras." Before you do business with a lowball dealer, check out the store's reputation on sites like Epinions.com, PriceGrabber.com, and ResellerRatings.com. Look for telltale patterns such as reports from buyers who tried to get the advertised price only to find that the gear was now out of stock.
You'll get the best prices from private sellers, many of whom sell via auction sites. Stick with sellers who meet the requirements for being part of the PayPal Buyer Protection program, which will reimburse you for up to $1000 if you get ripped off. The best strategy? Know who you're buying from--or, at least, know where they live--so you can try to work out a satisfactory deal if things turn sour.
I ended up not buying the camcorder. At $650 with the warranty, the deal was so good it looked fishy--and the store's online ratings confirmed my suspicions. Besides, I have my eye on this handheld satellite radio, and there's this PDA I like, and the cutest MP3 player.... I may just have to put them on this year's Christmas list. That's the best deal of all.