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What Does Refurbished Mean? How to Tell the Difference Between Not-New Items

The terms to know, the questions to ask, and other advice for getting a great deal on a refurbished piece of tech.
Refurbishing electronic item

Refurbished items usually mean great deals, with significant discounts off a product's retail price. But it can be difficult to figure out just what "refurbished" means — no uniform standard exists for the term — which makes it hard to tell when refurbished goods are deals or duds.

To help you snag the best bargains possible, we'll walk you through the terms you're likely to run into when you buy refurbished, used, or anything that's not brand new, so you can make an informed buying decision.

Why Would a Product Be Marked as Refurbished (Or Not New)?

When you see a product on store shelves marked as refurbished, one of the tough parts about deciding whether to buy it is that you just don't know why it has that refurbished label. However, with electronics, specifically, it comes down to the simple fact that any devices that customers return can no longer be sold as new. Here are some types of items that a retailer might sell as something other than new.

  • Items damaged in shipping that may be scuffed, scratched, or cracked

  • Items used to demo products in the store or at an event

  • Items that were originally leased or rented

  • "Open box" items that may have been returned without being used

  • Defective or damaged items that have been repaired in some way (more on this later)

SEE ALSO: Rebuilt to Last: A DIY Expert Explains Why He ONLY Buys Refurbs

Products not marked as new aren't necessarily broken or low in quality — they've probably just been returned (sometimes without the box even being opened), taken minor damage in shipping, or been damaged and then repaired. These items can be just as good as new — and save you a bundle.

What Types of Not-New Items Are There?

You might see a variety of terms used to describe goods that aren't brand new. Here are the ones you should be familiar with when shopping.

  • Used items are just that: They've been previously used. These items may show wear to some degree (and you'll want to carefully check their condition before you buy) and have typically not been repaired.

  • Refurbished items have been cleaned, repaired, and inspected to ensure they're in like-new condition. However, "refurbished" can mean different things to different retailers — the product may have been refurbished by the original manufacturer or simply fixed up by the retailer itself — so read the fine print and know what you're buying.

  • Factory refurbished items have been sent back to the manufacturer to be repaired. They have been restored to like-new condition by the original manufacturer, tested just like a brand-new item, and often come with a full warranty.

  • Certified refurbished items are simply refurbished items that are certified by some source. The source may be the original manufacturer — for example, you can buy Apple certified refurbished products or Samsung certified refurbished products — in which case it is likely also a factory refurbished item. However, the product may also be certified by a third party (for example, Best Buy's Geek Squad offers its own certified refurbished products).

  • Open box items have been returned by consumers, but in the vast majority of cases are not defective, or necessarily even used. Perhaps the customers changed their minds, but the items can no longer be sold as new. Though the taped-up boxes you may see on store shelves can be intimidating, these may well be brand-new items that are still covered by the original warranty.

When you're buying anything other than new, it's important to know just what you're getting, so pay attention to exactly how the item is marked. You don't want to pick up a refurbished item that was polished up by a local retailer and resold — possibly without a warranty or the ability to return it — without it actually working.

What's the Risk of Buying Refurbished Items?

While used, refurbished, and open box items can offer great deals, they can also be a risk. Used or open box items may not function as you expect — and may have unfriendly return policies and lack warranties. Refurbished items, especially if they haven't been refurbished by a reputable source, may never have been properly repaired or tested. Even though most refurbished goods are perfectly fine, you can always wind up with a lemon.

What Should I Look for in Refurbished Goods?

With smart shopping, you can get the good prices of a refurbished item and also have like-new security in your purchase. Here are the questions to ask yourself:

  • Who refurbished the item? This is the most important question when buying refurbished, because you're counting on the refurbisher's reputation to ensure you're getting a quality product.

  • What's the warranty? An open box or factory refurbished item may have a warranty that's as good as one for a new product. (Your credit card could get you an extended warranty, too.) Watch out for products without a warranty or with an extremely limited one, as this can lead to trouble if you have a problem later.

  • What's the return policy? If the item is being sold as is and you can't return it, if you do run into a problem you can't go back to the retailer with it. For items you can't return, carefully consider whether the deal offered is worth the risk that the item could stop working tomorrow.

Speaking of risks, don't buy used (rather than refurbished or open box) products unless they have a warranty of some sort, and you're willing to take a chance on them. They may be fine, but they may have problems that aren't immediately obvious.

In the end, if you use caution, you can enjoy (nearly) new gadgets at deep-discount refurbished prices.

Readers, how have your experiences been with refurbished products? Do you ever get confused by the different terms for not-new items? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Contributing Writer

Originally working in IT, Elizabeth now writes on tech, gaming, and general consumer issues. Her articles have appeared in USA Today, Time, AOL, PriceGrabber, and more. She has been one of DealNews' most regular contributors since 2013, researching everything from vacuums to renters insurance to help consumers.
DealNews may be compensated by companies mentioned in this article. Please note that, although prices sometimes fluctuate or expire unexpectedly, all products and deals mentioned in this feature were available at the lowest total price we could find at the time of publication (unless otherwise specified).
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Refurbished means it was used by another user and has been sold to a shop and they fix it by taking apart the system and making it brand new and sell to shops it also saves you money. That is what refurbished means.
Do NOT, EVER, buy refurbished electronics. Even with "cheap" prices they are NOT/NEVER/EVER a good investment. My experience with multiple, stupid efforts are 100% failure, and all they offer to you are someone else's previous problem. Learn from my misteaks!!!
For me, it just comes down to if I have a problem, how much faith I have in the retailer to correct the problem for me. If I know I'm in good hands and they will take care of any problems, then a used or refurb is the way to go for me. New doesn't always mean you won't have problems, just that you shouldn't. I take all that into account when I buy something. I think about how much work it would be to return it, and who & how I might get help.

A used game console (PS3) for example, buying one with a two year warranty from Gamestop can be cheaper than buying a new console ouright that comes with the 1yr manufacturer warranty. In that scenario, I'm given more confidence by the retailer that my used product will be covered by them directly, and for a longer period of time.
Most credit cards don't extend the warranty unless the product is new and sold through an authorized reseller. Refurbs and auctions are generally excluded from extended warranties. For example Apple sells a refurbished unit with same as new warranty, but my card will not double that to 2 years. Paying full price for new gives me the 2 years which I used once. It was well worth the small discount from the refurb to get the extra coverage. Check your card for specifics.
I used to have good luck buying refurb electronics but lately not so much. Many electronics units cannot really be "refurbished" or actually repaired, as they are sealed and with no replaceable parts, so in many of these cases they take the units that have been returned and just check that they power up and if they do then they resell them as "refurbished". If something has a weird problem that only occurs under certain conditions this is probably the reason it was returned in the first place. A problem like that will seldom be caught by the "refurbisher" but the next buyer will see it when the item is sold again as "refurbished".
I do not trust refurbs. I've purchased refurb items that were at a significant discount, however the headache of dealing with multiple returns will quickly make you realize it wasn't a deal... Often when you buy a refurb, they replace it with another refurb. This other refurbished item
Generally, I prefer refurbs where the warranty is the same length as a new product. Dell pioneered this and Apple followed suit. If it has the exact same warranty as a new item but is cheaper because it is a refurb, I have nothing to lose.

For refurbs with short warranties, e.g., 90 days etc., I use a credit card that automatically extends the warranty of ant purchase by up to a year, giving me a 1 year warranty for no additional cost. If I want a longer warranty because a new product comes with more than a year warranty, then I factor the cost of the warranty (e.g., SquareTrade) before buying a refurb. For some goods, its better to buy new and get the longer warranty.
I have had great success buying refurbs from retailers like Newegg and Amazon. These include a router, a GPS unit, a desk top computer, and a couple of Kindles. Recently got a great deal on a refurbished FitBit from Woot. These products have all worked perfectly. My rule of thumb is to only consider a refurbished product if it is at least $30 or $40+ less expensive than a new one, and only from reputable retailers. You can also buy them with a credit card that extends product warranties if the seller only provides 90 days (my AMEX card does this). Fortunately, I have not had to utilize a warranty on a refurbished item.
As for used items, I have done well with amazon warehouse products like gardening equipment. Got a great deal on planters this past Spring. They looked new to me.
Factory refurbished typically refers to when an assembled product fails one or more tests at the factory. A technician troubleshoots and fixes the product and then re-tests it. A refurbished product typically undergoes more tests than a new product during the re-testing.
Some manufacturers offer hands-on sessions with their products (e.g., cameras), figuring that if people try the product, they might buy it. At the end of the session, the manufacturer may refurbish the products by re-testing them and then selling them.
I always try to buy factory or manufacturer refurbished products for the cost savings. However, I avoid 3rd party refurbished products.