(Washington Post illustration/iStock/Washington Post illustration/iStock)
Technology columnist

Gadget-shoppers, take a lesson from the fashionistas: “Previously loved” iPhones are in vogue.

I know “refurbished electronics” sound about as sexy as hand-me-down Crocs. But smart fashion hounds seek out good deals at consignment stores. And in the era of $1,000 — or, even, $2,000 — smartphones, used gadgets are having a renaissance, too. It’s good for both your wallet and for the Earth.

And I bet you couldn’t even tell the difference.


Can you spot the difference between these iPhone 7 Plus phones? We couldn't either. They're both refurbished: the one on the left purchased from eBay, and the right from Amazon. (Geoffrey Fowler/The Washington Post)

Hidden behind the hoopla Silicon Valley generates about the latest and greatest, there’s a giant economy of reused phones. Apple, Samsung, phone carriers and retailers are offering big trade-in deals for older models. Then they spiff up the used stuff, often with fresh batteries and exteriors, and sell it for 15 to 40 percent off — if you know where to look.

One in 5 phones sold to Americans in 2018 were used, and it’s a growing share of the market at a time we’re buying far fewer phones, according to Counterpoint Research.

A third of that is officially refurbished gear, sometimes called certified pre-owned or CPO. It’s just like the real thing, because it is the real thing, often including the standard one-year warranty. (These are also the devices companies give out as warranty replacements.) The tricky part is, you have to buy from a reliable source.

To figure out how to do it right, I went on a shopping spree. I bought a bunch of like-new iPhone 7 Pluses with 32 gigabytes of storage, $569 new, from Apple’s “certified refurbished” online store, from eBay, from Amazon and from refurbished store Back Market. The products all arrived in great shape, but with wildly different warranties, packaging — and prices. There are now places to find used gear that check it’s not stolen, and don’t make it feel like you’re buying out of the back of a creepy van down by the river. (Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

No, refurbished electronics aren’t for anyone who has ants in his pants about owning the absolute latest. But you can already find last fall’s iPhone XS on some sites, and there are great deals for laptops and tablets, too, from companies including Microsoft and Dell.

If saving money isn’t enough motivation to go refurbished, you could also pat yourself on the back for helping the planet. Seriously: Don’t hug a tree, buy a used iPhone. The energy that went into manufacturing smartphones for the last decade exceeds all of India’s annual electricity use, according to Greenpeace. Making new phones also requires vast quantities of water and conflict minerals.

Tech companies could help the problem by designing devices to be more easily repaired and recycled. For consumers, the best way to stem the environmental damage is to buy less new stuff.

One reason there’s a thriving refurbished market is that tech companies are making devices that run the latest software longer. On phones, Apple does this best: Its iOS 12 runs on the iPhone 5S from 2013. (Samsung’s latest update only supports phones back to the Galaxy S8 from 2017.)

And for many people, the latest hardware options just aren’t that appealing, with rising prices and ho-hum new features. I’m a tech columnist, and even I am still happy with a 2012 MacBook Pro I use for everyday work. (Buying used are among the few ways to get Mac laptops with older-style keyboards, or an iPhone SE, the last “small” phone Apple made.)

What everyone fears is getting a dud. In my shopping experiment, in which I focused only on the “mint” or “pristine” iPhones, everything arrived in such good condition that I couldn’t tell them apart. But I learned a few important questions any defensive shopper should ask: What is the warranty? What state is the battery in? And what’s the reputation of the people you’re buying from? These are especially important if you’re buying from an anything-goes marketplace like Craigslist, where I also recommend asking sellers for a product serial number. (Before you buy, you can look up serial numbers on sites such as Apple’s check-coverage tool to see if it is still covered, or even stolen.)

So which store is best — and worst? Like all deal hunting, it depends on how much work you’re willing to put into it, but also if you’re willing to risk a shorter warranty. Here’s what I learned shopping for a like-new iPhone 7 Plus from five of the most-popular stores, ranked best to worst.

Apple Certified Refurbished

Amount I saved: 16 percent, $479

Warranty: One year, provided and serviced by Apple, on everything

Likes: It’s a no-brainer to make the company stores from Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and Dell your default place to start shopping. Apple, for example, not only tests and cleans everything it sells but also throws a new battery and outer shell into every refurbished iPhone and iPad. Products ship in a new box you’d feel great about gifting. And best of all, the stuff in the store comes with the exact same warranty as new items — a year of service.

Dislikes: The company stores are likely to save you the least money. And items can flow in and out of stock erratically.

Back Market

Amount I saved: 18 percent on an Apple-certified model, $469 plus shipping

Warranty: One year, provided and serviced by Apple, on my deal (but 6 months for other merchants)

Likes: With backing from Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury goods company, Back Market makes buying refurbished easier by removing some of the risk and guesswork you’ll find on other marketplaces. It grades products for quality ranging from “Shiny” to “Stallone,” and includes standard minimum 6-month warranties on all products. And it is the only U.S. marketplace that sells Apple-certified gear, including the same Apple warranty as buying direct.

Dislikes: Back Market was the slowest to ship me the used iPhone, and also has a limited selection of certified Apple products. Its selection of gear refurbished and guaranteed by third parties is decent, but savings aren’t as great as some competitors.

eBay

Amount I saved: 35 percent, $370 plus shipping

Warranty: One year, provided by a third-party refurbisher, on my deal (but varies by listing)

Likes: By far the largest marketplace for used electronics in every condition. It’s also where you’ll find some of the best deals from companies that sell truckloads of used gear they test and refurbish themselves. My iPhone 7 Plus, pretty much indistinguishable from the one Apple sold me, came with a one-year warranty provided by the refurbisher. EBay makes it easy to see the reputation of a seller, so stick with ones who have lots of reviews and satisfaction levels in the high 90s. (EBay also promises to get involved in disputes.)

Dislikes: It’s a lot of work for newcomers to navigate through listings to find the best deal. My purchase came with a one-year warranty, but no information on how I’d actually take advantage of it if, say, the screen conks out in nine months. My purchase also arrived in a box I wouldn’t want to gift, and with a charging cord not made by Apple.

Swappa

Amount I (would have) saved: 39 percent, $347 plus shipping

Warranty: 30 days provided by a third-party refurbisher, on my deal (but varies by listing)

Likes: Swappa is like a safer version of Craigslist. It verifies each listing before it goes up, including asking for photos and checking the IMEI (a kind of serial number) on smartphones to make sure they haven’t been stolen. You pay merchants via PayPal, and the site takes a cut. Swappa doesn’t get the traffic of eBay, but it is popular among third-party refurbishers because its fees are lower. The site lets you check the ratings for sellers and also ask questions before you buy. Swappa says it has an over 90 percent transaction success rate.

Dislikes: Swappa leaves it up to you to determine which products to trust, so it’ll take more work. (I recommend asking sellers about battery health and, for products other than phones, also for a serial number.) While Swappa had the greatest discounts, the best listing I could find for a “mint” iPhone 7 Plus came with only a 30-day warranty, along with 6-months of fraud protection for doing the transaction via PayPal. (I didn’t buy the phone for my test because there was no return guarantee.)

Amazon Renewed

Amount I saved: 37 percent, $359 plus shipping

Warranty: 90 days, provided by refurbisher or Amazon, on everything

Likes: The world’s largest online store has a department that takes some of the guesswork out of finding the exact model you’re looking for. Amazon vets sellers, and offers a 90-day warranty on all of these products. My order came with clear instructions on how to get service from the company that refurbished my iPhone.

Dislikes: Amazon’s warranty is lackluster, given what’s available from some eBay sellers. Also, Amazon promotes the merchant with the lowest price, but if you dig in for details some of those sellers have customer satisfaction ratings below 90 percent — a level I wouldn’t accept on other marketplaces.

Read more tech advice and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler:

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Hands off my data! 15 default privacy settings you should change right now.