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A guide to buying and selling used electronics

In today’s technology-addled culture, where newer, faster, and shinier are as much cultural watchwords as popular idioms, we often forget that sometimes, the best gadgets aren’t necessarily the latest or most expensive. And courtesy of a booming market for used electronics, it’s easy to snag a swank smartphone or PC without short-circuiting your budget. Buoyed by services such as Gazelle, TechForward, and NextWorth (which all offer cash or credit for pre-owned gizmos) and by online vendors like eBay and Craigslist, your next high-tech obsession could be just one click away. Here’s everything you need to know in order to score a digital deal without experiencing any frustrating glitches.

While it pays to read the fine print, definitions can vary between providers. In general, refurbished usually refers to products that have been returned to a store or that have undergone minor repair (rather than being pre-owned), and they often operate as good as new. (Issues may simply have been cosmetic; e.g., fixing dings that occurred during shipping.) These items are frequently offered with active warranties, albeit typically from the retailer. Factory refurbished goods have been restored to manufacturer standards by an authorized service center and are often backed by manufacturer warranties. Conversely, reconditioned goods have been used in the past and restored to resalable conditions and thus may lack these safeguards.

Items with moving mechanical parts (Blu-ray and DVD players, and especially handheld devices like digital cameras/ camcorders and older hard-drive-based digital music players) often suffer due to fragility, making them tricky buys. In all cases, it’s best to stick to models that are being resold within six to 12 months of initial purchase and that are backed by a 90-day warranty minimum. But used plasma and LCD HDTVs, home-theater components, cell phones, PCs/ laptops, video-game systems, and flash memory–based MP3 players (e.g., Apple’s iPod) can all make good acquisitions, so long as you cop relatively recent models. (Remember: Features constantly change and prices drop, meaning yesterday’s bargain could be tomorrow’s bummer.)

After researching a given product to identify common user complaints or known malfunctions, the first thing to inquire about is: Was/is anything wrong with this particular item? If so, what, and how does that issue potentially affect performance? What risks am I taking? Next, determine who performed any repairs -- the manufacturer or a third party -- to assess reliability. Also crucial: Does the product come with a warranty, how long does it last, and who backs it? Getting your hands on the devices whenever possible is vital, too, and you should never buy hardware without a clearly outlined return/ exchange policy attached. Favor vendors offering extended warranties; it shows they have confidence in the product. Watch out for cheap deals on eBay.

Retailers like Best Buy, RadioShack , and Sam’s Club may provide tempting electronics trade-in programs, but auction sites, online retailers (Amazon.com, NewEgg.com, etc.), and manufacturer outlets (e.g., those offered by Dell, HP, and Gateway) still dominate the market. Wherever you purchase from, whether buying used video games and consoles from GameStop or cell phones from ReCellular, always read the fine print carefully for potential warning signs like product defects and issues that fall outside of warranty coverage. If possible, check seller feedback ratings, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Buying with a credit card can also provide purchase protection, while insured shipping helps guard against sellers knowingly sending nonworking items.