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Buying a used laptop: Where to find the best deals

Buying a used or refurbished laptop doesn't have to be a frustrating hassle. Whether you're looking for a once-in-a-lifetime discount deal or just want a functional laptop for casual use, you can find one at a big-name retailer or local seller.
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Written by Taylor Clemons, Staff Writer on
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Buying a refurbished or pre-owned laptop can be an exhausting process; from double-checking model and serial numbers, to confirming proper start up and build configuration, the burden of truth seems to rest squarely on the shoulders of buyers. 

Thankfully, there are plenty of options out there if you're looking for a good deal on a laptop and don't mind that it's not the latest and greatest tech. Big-name retailers like Best Buy, Amazon, and even Apple have certified refurbished, open-box, and pre-owned tech covered by a myriad of return and exchange policies as well as limited warranties. They either have their own teams or use third-party suppliers to thoroughly inspect, clean, and repair units for resale so you can buy with confidence. The drawback is that you may not get the kinds of discounts you'd like to see, especially from Apple Certified Refurbished.

Also: Buying a used Mac laptop: how to avoid scams and find the best deals

If you're willing to put in the work, you can also buy with confidence from sites like Facebook Marketplace, OfferUp, and Craigslist. Craigslist is the most difficult to work with, since listings don't include photos of what's being sold, just text descriptions; this means you have to be willing to exchange contact information with sellers in order to get photo and video proof of working condition. Even then, it's possible that this evidence has been faked in order to dupe you into buying a dud item or sending money without ever receiving your laptop. 

What should you do before buying a pre-owned laptop?

If you're considering buying a pre-owned laptop -- whether it's used or refurbished -- from a local buy/sell/trade page, here are a few tips to keep in mind to protect yourself as well as your wallet:

Protect your identity and yourself 

Facebook MarketPlace and OfferUp have built-in messaging systems for talking to buyers and sellers. While this gives you some level of protection, you still need to be careful of accidentally giving away too much information. Never use your real name as your username. If the seller wants to meet up for the sale, choose a neutral place that's well-populated (like the parking lot of a local Target or Walmart), and bring someone with you. People looking for trouble will think twice if you aren't alone. Craigslist does not have an internal messaging system. Instead, it relies on outside email chains to communicate. 

If you aren't comfortable giving out your email address, you can always make a backup Gmail account specifically for shopping on Craigslist. That way, you don't have to worry about any personal information being tied to that account, limiting the risk of being scammed or tracked. And make sure to meet in neutral, well-lit, and well-populated areas for sales, bring someone with you, and make sure others know where you are going and when to expect you back so they can either come look for you or contact police if you don't call, text, or show up by a certain time. And don't forget to mask up! Even if you're vaccinated, you want to protect yourself and the seller from any nasty germs and new Covid variants. And a mask helps protect your identity from anyone with unsavory motives.

Ask for proof 

Buying used from a local seller is much different than walking into a big -name retail store and browsing their pre-owned items. You often can't get your hands on the actual laptop to make sure it works. So you have to get creative. If a listing provides pictures that show the laptop is on and running properly, ask for a video of the entire boot-up sequence from black screen to home screen. You'll be able to tell if the seller has made any cuts to hide problems or has faked the still photos. You should also ask for a photo of the laptop model and serial number; you can plug these into Google to find exact manufacture and release dates, build configurations, known issues, and any product recalls. This helps you to fact-check seller-provided information.

Never pay sight unseen

 If a seller is insistent that you send money via check, money order, or services like Venmo and PayPal before you ever lay eyes on the laptop, that's a huge red flag. A reputable seller should have no issue with you asking to send payment after the item arrives (if able to be shipped to you) or after you've confirmed yourself that the laptop boots up properly during a meet-up sale. Sending payment after an item arrives in the mail or you can actually see it for yourself will save you a lot of heartache as well as cash; unlike typical online shopping, it's a lot more difficult to get your money back from a bad Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist sale since it isn't a business transaction. 

Ask about warranties 

This mostly applies to retailers who offer pre-owned and refurbished laptops, since you can often get limited warranties to cover things like bad batteries, cracked screens, or dead components. But it never hurts to ask an individual seller if a laptop is still covered by any manufacturer's warranties, especially if it's a somewhat newer model. This way, if anything goes wrong, you can contact someone to help troubleshoot or offer repairs. Apple offers AppleCare coverage for their certified refurbished laptops as well as 90-day tech support so you never have to worry about your used computer giving up the ghost and leaving you high and dry. 

Where are the best places to buy pre-owned laptops?

Now that you know how to protect yourself and double-check seller information, you can keep reading below to see the best places to buy a refurbished laptop and find great deals on pre-owned computers.

Best Buy Outlet

At Best Buy Outlet, you can browse not only pre-owned and certified refurbished laptops, but also brand new units on clearance. Open-box laptops are rated from "fair" to "excellent-certified," meaning conditions range from pretty worn and parts missing to basically brand new. Refurbished, open-box, and clearance laptops from Best Buy Outlet are also covered by return and exchange policies as well as varying warranties. So if for any reason you're not happy with your new-to-you laptop, you can bring it back to the store for your money back, a different unit, or repairs. Prices also range from as little as $75 to just under normal retail, depending on condition. So if you're looking for a casual-use computer for web browsing and watching Netflix or something your kids can use for school, Best Buy Outlet has something to fit your needs and budget.

Amazon Renewed

Amazon Renewed has a similar structure to a brick-and-mortar store which sells pre-owned and refurbished laptops, but with one key difference: they don't have a dedicated team of their own which inspects and repairs units. Instead, much like how they list and ship new items from various retailers, refurbished laptops are repaired and inspected by third-party suppliers and sold via Amazon. The nice thing about Amazon Renewed is not only the steep discounts you can find on great laptops, but they are very up-front about unit condition and backed by a 90-day return policy and the Amazon Renewed Guarantee which offers a full refund or unit replacement if you are at all unsatisfied. The downside to Amazon Renewed is that there isn't a physical store for you to go to if something needs repaired or if you need help troubleshooting issues: you have to pack everything up and ship it off to a nebulous repair center, which could lead to lengthy repair times and the possibility of your laptop getting lost in the mail.

Apple Certified Refurbished

Mac users looking for discounts on laptops or other Apple tech are often forced to browse local buy/sell/trade groups for used units, which comes with its own risks. But thankfully, Apple has a dedicated store page for certified pre-owned and refurbished MacBooks, desktops, and accessories. You won't find any super steep discounts on anything, but if you're looking to at least save a couple hundred dollars on retail while also getting peace of mind you aren't getting hosed, you'll be able to buy with confidence. Certified refurbished laptops from Apple are backed by a one year warranty, optional AppleCare coverage for accidental damage or loss, and 90-day returns as well as 90 days of tech support if you need help troubleshooting common issues.

Facebook Marketplace

If you use Facebook, you're probably familiar with Facebook Marketplace. While you can find actual retailers selling open-box or certified refurbished laptops, listings are overwhelmingly local individuals selling used items. While there are inherent risks, such as getting a dud unit or running across a scammer, if you practice due diligence, you can find a great laptop for a steep discount. Just remember that you can always fact-check product information against manufacturer specifications like model and serial numbers, build configurations, colors, and operating systems. If for any reason you think a seller is being untruthful about something they're selling, politely decline the listing and keep browsing; if you suspect they're a serial scammer, report the seller and listing to Facebook so they can take appropriate action.

OfferUp

OfferUp is a newer buy/sell/trade platform that started in 2011, and have since acquired rival site LetGo in March 2020. Like Facebook Marketplace, you can find big name retailers but most listings are individuals. OfferUp also allows you to widen your search for like-new laptops by selecting parameters for sellers who are willing to ship items for a small fee rather than just doing a local pickup. And while this does give you a wider pool of sellers to sift through to find a great laptop for a good price, you have to be more wary of potential scams. If you are in Ohio and are interested in a laptop from California, you can always ask the seller for video proof that the laptop turns on, boots up properly, and can connect to the internet. You can also ask for additional photos of model and serial numbers to check listing information against official specs. While you won't be able to completely eliminate the potential of getting scammed, asking for more photos and video proof can help lesson risks. And remember: if a listing sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Craigslist

Craigslist is perhaps the most notorious buy/sell/trade site on this list. While it can lead to you getting your hands on a good used laptop for less, it also has a bad reputation for all kinds of scams and poor seller behavior. Craigslist doesn't allow sellers to ship items, so you have to be comfortable with meeting folks face-to-face, and since item listings don't include pictures, just descriptions, it's up to you to press the seller for photo and video proof the laptop is in good working order. If you aren't comfortable giving a complete stranger your phone number or email, you can create a backup Gmail account just for shopping on Craigslist; this way, you don't have to have any personal information tied to the account, limiting the risk of being scammed or tracked by strangers. And since items for sale require local pickup, make sure you take someone with you to the meeting place and let even more people know where you are going and when to expect you back. Not everyone is going to be who they claim they are, and anyone looking to cause trouble will think twice if you don't show up alone.

What does it mean when a laptop is refurbished?

When a laptop says it's refurbished, that means that the manufacturer or retailer's tech support has inspected the computer for damage, viruses, and dead components. If they've found anything wrong (like a cracked screen, broken keyboard, or ruined battery), they repair the unit and put it up for sale in "like new" condition.

What should you look for in a refurbished laptop?

Your refurbished laptop should be free of physical damage like scratches, cracked screens, bowing keyboards, or bulging batteries. A condition statement should be included with your new-to-you laptop so you can compare what the retailer found to what you see in your hands; the condition statement discloses things like cosmetic flaws that couldn't be repaired, as well as testing standards a laptop or other tech must pass in order to be a certified used product sold by the brand or retailer. If you find any damage, cosmetic or otherwise, that isn't disclosed in the condition statement, contact the retailer immediately; this is especially important if the unit is subject to a limited warranty or return window. You don't want to drag your feet and pay hefty out-of-pocket fees for repairs that could have been covered by a warranty or an exchange.

Is refurbished better than used?

Both mean that someone else had and used the laptop before you got your hands on it. However, if you buy a certified used or refurbished laptop from a retailer like Apple or Best Buy, oftentimes, it will be covered by some sort of limited warranty. It might cover things like physical damage and dud components but usually don't cover the battery; make sure you get a detailed explanation of the warranty before you buy. Certified refurbished and pre-owned laptops are also covered by a return policy like their brand-new counterparts, so if for any reason you aren't happy with your new-to-you laptop, you can bring it back to the store for an exchange or your money back. 

Buying a used laptop from someone on a site like Facebook Marketplace or OfferUp comes with risks: the laptop could not turn on, the hard drive could be damaged, or the battery is bad. Make sure before you buy to carefully inspect the laptop and spend some hands-on time with it to make sure there aren't any nasty surprises waiting for you. If a seller won't let you test out the laptop before buying, politely decline the offer and look elsewhere.

What does "open-box" mean?

When an item is listed as "open box," that usually means that it was sold to someone else and then returned to the store. Returns happen for a number of reasons: the customer didn't need the item anymore, it was the wrong item, they didn't like the color, etc. Open box items have all original paperwork and usually have the original packaging as well, making it easy to troubleshoot any issues with a user manual or helpline number. Like with any other used or refurbished item, you'll want to carefully inspect your laptop to make sure it actually works and is free from damage. It's easier to take care of issues the sooner you let the store know than to wait and potentially miss out on return windows and warranty coverage.

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