Everything You Need to Know About Buying Refurbished Electronics

You can snag discounts as high as 50% off on smartphones, tablets, and computers, but you've got to do your homework.
Fixing an iPhone

Electronics are pricey, which is why refurbished models can be such great deals. But these devices get a bad reputation because sometimes products labeled as "refurbished"... haven't been. A true refurb has been inspected and repaired so it can function like a new unit, though it may show wear from use. There shouldn't be any functional difference between a refurbished model and a new model — other than price and cosmetics.

SEE ALSO: What Does Refurbished Mean?

Read on for our in-depth guide to buying refurbished electronics, from smart shopping tips to the amounts you can save on smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Getting a Deal on Refurbished Electronics

If you're shopping for refurbs, you'll need to take a little care to get those savings. That means buying from the manufacturer or a reputable retailer, so you know you're getting an item that's actually been refurbished.

A reasonable return policy and warranty are important, too; if your refurb turns out to be a dud, you want to be able to return or replace it. The longer the return policy and warranty, the better. Manufacturers often offer a full 1-year warranty on their refurbished models — just like they do with new items.

But even with a good return policy and warranty, taking care means inspecting your items the minute you get them home. If you notice any damage or missing pieces, you want to take them back before the return period lapses.

Manufacturers often offer a 1-year warranty on their refurbished models — just like they do with new items.

Also, be aware that you won't have as wide a selection as you would if you bought new. Refurbished models are usually a bit older, and they may not be available in the size or color you want. These are certainly inconveniences, but the savings can be worth it. You'll often find electronics discounted by 10% to 50% — some gadgets have even deeper discounts.

Samsung Galaxy S9

How to Buy Refurbished Smartphones

While budget models are out there, it's far too easy to spend almost $1,000 on a new smartphone. However, refurbished smartphones flood the market whenever a new model is released. It's a great way to pick up a fairly new phone at up to 50% off the original retail price.

SEE ALSO: When's the Best Time to Buy the Most Popular Smartphones?

We recommend only looking at phones that are a year or two old — and no older than three. Legacy models will be cheaper, but older phones may not be able run the latest versions of Android or iOS. At some point, every phone gets too old to receive security updates.

Aging phones can also have battery problems, because their lithium-ion batteries naturally wear out over time. Sometimes refurbished phones will have the battery replaced before they're sold, but some won't — Apple is the only retailer we've seen that guarantees a new battery in every refurbished phone.

Though you can expect a refurbished model to show wear, you should inspect it to be sure any scuffs and scrapes are only cosmetic damage. A common complaint with refurbished phones — particularly those refurbished by a third party — is scratches on the camera lens. Be sure to check before the return period runs out.

You can find discounts running anywhere from 20% to 50% off, so it's well worth shopping for a refurbished smartphone. Here are some recent examples of how much you can save on smartphones from Apple and Samsung:

iPad Shot

How to Buy Refurbished Tablets

Tablets don't always have the same predictable release schedule as smartphones, and people don't typically upgrade them as often. That means there's no particularly good time to shop for a refurbished tablet — just be patient and keep your eyes open for a deal (or create an email alert).

Like smartphones, older tablets may have reduced battery life — but it's less of a worry with tablets, which have larger batteries. And because we don't typically use our tablets nonstop the way we do our smartphones, you may not even notice if the battery has degraded a little. Still, as with any refurbished product, check any refurb out to make sure it's working properly when you receive it.

Look for the tablet's original release date or model number, so you can see if you're getting a fairly new model or a fairly old one.

But there's one more thing to be aware of when you're tablet shopping. While most tablets are numbered so you can easily tell older models from newer models, not all of them are.

For example, Apple has called five different generations of the iPad simply "iPad," and it's easy to get confused when browsing refurbs. Some will even be labeled "newest model" when they actually aren't. Be sure to look for the original release date (or, if you can't find a date, the model number) to see if you're getting a fairly new model or a fairly old one.

Tablet discounts are typically lower than smartphone discounts — but you're also more likely to find newer models. You can expect to save between 15% and 30% on old models and new models, as long as you're willing to wait awhile. Here's what you could save on tablets from Apple and Microsoft, at the time of this writing:

refurbished laptop

How to Buy Refurbished Computers

Whether you're looking for a laptop or a desktop, there are plenty of deals to be found on refurbished computers.

However, it can be tough to snag exactly what you want because of the number of models and configurations available. And because computers don't follow an easy-to-understand naming scheme, you may have to do some searching to figure out how new (or old) a product is.

Buying refurbished computers from the manufacturers directly can save you as much as 50% off list price.

All of this conspires to make it more difficult to compare the prices of refurbished and new models. Though retailers may list original release dates or note what generation a product is, you want to pay more attention to system specs like memory, hard drive, and especially the processor.

If you have no clue as to the age of the computer you're looking at, a quick web search for the CPU model — which should be listed with the product information — will give you the processor's release date. That won't tell you exactly how old the computer itself is, but it'll give you a rough idea.

So how much can you save? Even buying from the manufacturers directly can save you as much as 50% off list price. Since buying direct will usually get you a better warranty and a higher-quality refurb, it's hard to justify shopping elsewhere. For example, the standard Apple MacBook starts at $1,299 new, or pay $1,099 for a refurbished unit (15% off) from Apple.

Of course, you can also buy refurbished computers from retailers like Amazon and Best Buy. However, because of the multitude of models, we find third-party sites harder to navigate than manufacturer sites.

But your mileage may vary! Check the Best Buy Outlet and Amazon Renewed to see all your options.

When NOT to Buy Refurbished Electronics

We think it's always worth looking into refurbished products, but you have to do a price comparison. While refurbished models are usually cheaper than new models, sometimes the difference is negligible. Different retailers can also offer significantly different refurb prices, so shopping around is a must.

SEE ALSO: 11 Trade-In Programs That Pay You for Your Stuff

And sometimes refurbished products aren't high quality, depending on who refurbished them. Televisions are a prime example here. While some refurbished TVs are perfectly fine, many shoppers report receiving refurbs with damage to the stands or screens — and these old models may not save you much over new sets.

Buying from a retailer with good reviews and a good return policy will protect you from getting stuck with a refurb that doesn't work. But getting a broken item you have to return is a hassle that may not be worth the savings.

Readers, what have your experiences been with refurbished electronics? Would you ever buy a refurbished smartphone, tablet, or computer? Let us know 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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After forever not-believing-anything-sold-on-eBay, I bought a "Manufacturer Refurbished" Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1" (2014 Edition) at 75 bucks + 10(shipping). The tablet had a screen change and there are some small bubbles where the screen was changed. But it was still in the plastic wrap, everything else including S Pen, charger, cable were in unused conditions, the battery life is amazing. Easily the best 85 bucks I have spent on internet.

(Anecdotes are not statistics and they do not prove a point.)
You should never buy refurbished products from any place other than the original manufacturer. Anything else isn't 'refurbished', it's just used, cleaned at best, and resold. A truly refurbished item has had little or no use, and should be indistinguishable from a new item aside from packaging. These items will often come with a full warranty as if new, such is the case with Apple for instance. The word refurbish means to restore, as in restore to factory new condition. Not 'wipe off the boogers and put in a white box with an off-brand charger'. What a load of BS.
Bought a refurbished Samsung Galaxy S5 last year for just $80 and it's been pretty good. It arrived in such a mint condition that I thought it was brand new. Haven't had any issues with it including the battery. I've even dropped it in the bath tub a few times and it keeps ticking.
Do not trust "waterproof" phones or cameras to still be such if they are refurbished.
Though I prefer brand new or NOS condition, refurbished is my last resort, if I need a certain model or item badly. With that said, I NEVER had any issues with refurbished condition stuff. In fact, my most recent refurbed purchase (a 3+yr old model Nexus 5X, running Oreo 8.1..still supported by Google to this day) was preferable in said condition..the " reconditioning" actually rectified a nagging bootloop issue, so notorious to said smartphone. Now that phone only costed me a mere $95 (as backup daily driver..).
I have a refurb phone and so does my son. We have both had them for over 2 years. Neither has given us any issues. I would buy a refurb again. I could have bought 5 refurbished phones for the price Verizon charges for a new one.
NEVER buy refurbished phones and tablets. These items have a shelf life that cannot be fixed...even by the manufacturer. Smartphones differ, but mine usually last 2 years and then they start to slow down terribly, crash, battery issues. Having one for 2 years is great and time to get another, but buying someone else's trade-in? You are only asking for trouble. Open box is a different deal altogether. I am using an open box right now....still going great after 18 months. Still, beware...processors simply lose their ability to process and batteries simply lose their ability to charge.
Hit and miss for me. Sometimes it is great (PC parts & cell phones) sometimes not (Sony TV). I tend to have the best luck with manufacturer refurbs over used/grey market items. I used to get great low cost deals on Amazon, but most now are negligible in savings, and I pay full cost for warranty... less headaches.
how to know that what does the word refurbish means?
1) returned item
2) open packaged items
3) repaired items
this is what always confuses me
I love a deal and refurbs give me the opportunity to have something that I might not otherwise have the opportunity to have.