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Tips for shopping for budget- and eco-friendly refurbished products

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Betting that her pet photography business would rebound post-pandemic, Denver-based photographer Karen Hoglund began to upgrade her tools in spring 2021, including cameras, a desktop computer and software. Her budget, though, didn’t leave much room for the MacBook Pro laptop that she wanted for in-home visits with clients. So she turned to OWC, a website she had used before, where she found a refurbished one at half the price of a new model.

Refurbished products are increasingly popular among budget-minded and eco-conscious consumers. “Buying refurbished not only allows consumers to buy a great product at a great price, but [it’s also] a way to reduce your environmental impact by using a device given a second life,” says Serge Verdoux, chief commercial officer for Back Market, an online marketplace for refurbished electronics.

“Our reason for being is to make a ‘like-new’ shopping experience for secondhand goods,” says Barruch Ben-Zekry, chief executive and founder of Out&Back, a shopping platform for new and used outdoor gear. The trick to buying something refurbished is to know what you want and from whom you are buying. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Learn the lingo. A “refurbished” item — sometimes called refurbed, reconditioned, recertified or remanufactured — is a product that was either pre-owned or used as a display model, then returned to working condition and sold for a reduced price. “Open-box” means someone bought the item and returned it — barely touched — to the store or manufacturer. Typically, refurbs are categorized as being in “excellent,” “good” or “fair” condition. You’ll want to check the seller’s site for category definitions.

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Know where to look. Check out backmarket.com, refurb.me or gazelle.com. These companies vet and handpick sellers. Manufacturers such as Apple, Samsung, Dell, HP and Dyson also sell refurbished products, though some sites make it difficult to find them, because, understandably, they want you to buy new. To save time, search for a company’s name and “refurb.” Also worth a look are retailers such as Amazon (under “Amazon Renewed”), Best Buy and Target. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

You may also find specialty refurb marketplaces: Out&Back, for example, sticks to outdoor gear, while GoodBuy Gear focuses on baby and children’s items. Scott Henke of Onsite Consulting in Denver says to consider reputable, local companies with bricks-and-mortar storefronts. “These are places you can come back to if something goes wrong, and you know they will refund your money if you’re not satisfied,” says Henke, whose business has refurbished and sold more than 2,100 computers in the past three years.

Buy with confidence. Sure, you can get a deal on eBay or Craigslist, but buying from a manufacturer or professional refurbisher should guarantee that the item and any accessories have been cleaned, the parts replaced and the item repackaged. Computers will have had their data wiped and their keyboards and batteries inspected. They often are loaded with updated software. If even one component can’t be fixed, it isn’t put up for sale. In short: It is 100 percent functional.

Note whether the refurbishment is “certified,” which means the product has passed vigorous testing and complies with certain standards, such as batteries being replaced if their charge is less than 80 percent of their original capacity, says Simo Elalj, founder of RefurbMe, a clearinghouse for refurbished Apple products. Plus, you are protected by both a warranty and a return policy.

Get the most for your money. Discounts vary, but they can range from about 15 to 60 percent or more, depending on the age and cosmetic condition of the item. The newer the product, the smaller the discount. “Still, a computer that’s five years old is just as good as new at one-third to one-half the cost,” Henke says. “It may not be as fast as the latest model, but most consumers won’t notice the difference between a half-second and one second to perform a task.” Back Market sets limits on the age of products it sells, Verdoux says. The sweet spot for many electronics is about five years, because computers and smartphones much older than that may no longer be compatible with current apps. However, for outdoor or baby gear, older items that didn’t get much use and are in top condition may score you a great deal.

Carefully review the description. As with any purchase, it’s all about combing through the details. Although sites may list item highlights in an easy-to-read format, it’s critical to scour the full description and inspect every image. If an item has a specifications list, read that as well, because you can garner important information, such as a device’s operating system and software. “It’s okay to ask questions of the seller,” Ben-Zekry says. “For instance, ‘Tell me more about the condition.’ ”

Understand your return options. When buying something that has been refurbished, confirm the product has at least a one-year warranty in case something goes wrong. No warranty? Walk away. Henke warns that some computers look good in photos but could have water damage, causing them to fizzle out after delivery. You also want to know the seller’s return policy. Back Market has a 30-day no-questions-asked policy. Out&Back offers the same. Avoid products that are shipped from abroad, because it can be a hassle to return them if there are issues, Elalj says.

Shop beyond electronics. Although smartphones and computers make up the bulk of the refurb market, there are other options. You’ll find headphones and high-end Bluetooth ear buds (meticulously cleaned and sanitized), electric bikes and scooters, drones, GPS watches, air purifiers, security cameras and more. Out&Back carries refurbished tents, backpacks, sleeping bags and outerwear such as insulated jackets, shells and ski/snow pants. GoodBuy Gear stocks strollers, nursery furniture and more. Hoglund has even found some factory refurbished photography lights.

Take your time. Knowing the exact configuration and specifications for that MacBook Pro she wanted allowed Hoglund to bide her time until the right one popped up. “Think through exactly what you want,” she says. “You don’t have to settle for the first item you see.” Sites such as RefurbMe allow you to set alerts when a specific item becomes available or a price drops. You may even want to set up alerts at multiple sites, so you can compare products and prices.

Denver-based writer Laura Daily specializes in consumer advocacy and travel strategies. Find her at dailywriter.net.

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