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When Buying Used Gear Makes Sense

Illustration: Chip Taylor

Refurbished, returned, repaired, and discontinued merchandise can be a bonanza if you don't mind getting slightly older or somewhat beaten-up gear, as long as you remember some caveats.

Many retailers sell used equipment right alongside new products. The sites of Best Buy and CompUSA, for example, offer links to "outlet" stores where used gear sells at deep discounts. Amazon even integrates used products, sold by individuals or third-party stores, directly into its regular listings. This gives you an easy way to see the price differential, without wasting a single click.

But should you buy refurbished gear?

The first big mystery in used merchandise is always "What happened to it?" And many retailers don't disclose whether a product was returned due to damage or simply because the buyer didn't want it. Offline stores almost always have "as-is" merchandise for sale, too. Typically these are models that were displayed on the showroom floor. But how much abuse have they suffered over the course of three or more months on the shelf? The bottom line is, you have no way to really know what you're getting in these cases.

CompUSA president and COO Tony Weiss notes that refurbs at his stores come from one of two sources: Merchandise returned directly to CompUSA, or merchandise returned to a manufacturer. In both cases, he stresses, the company does not resell items that have been damaged in any way, meaning all items were returned in working order and so did not need repairs before resale.

This leads to the second big issue: the warranty. Many refurbished items are sold sans warranty or with a very short one, often a 90-day guarantee. If at all possible, try to get a refurbished product that includes a manufacturer's warranty, too. Regardless, recognize that you're taking a risk--even if it's a small one--and set expectations accordingly.

Most of the readers in our survey reported that they rarely, if ever, buy used products. Boise, Idaho, resident Gail Robb is typical: She bought used gear only once, a peripheral for a Sony PDA that had been discontinued. Whether they simply enjoy the thrill of being the first to boot up a PC or, like Portland, Oregon, consultant Mike Radway, they can't accept the risk of a "mission-critical" device crashing on them, most users tend to avoid buying used gear whenever possible. Still, says CompUSA's Weiss, refurbished gear can be a great deal. "Historically, refurbished items are sold at a 10 to 30 percent discount versus new," he says. "By considering refurbished, something you couldn't previously afford might now fit in your budget."

For more information on shopping for used and refurbished equipment, check out Dan Tynan's "Four Simple Rules for Buying Used Gear" in the March issue.

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