Elizabeth Chamberlain, director of Sustainability at iFixit, which publishes free guides and sells parts and tools for home repairs of electronic products. iFixit.com
Over the past several years, the public has grown increasingly comfortable with the idea of buying refurbished goods. The trend got a real boost during the financially uncertain days of the pandemic, and with the more recent onset of inflation, it has really taken off. In 2021, growth in shipment of refurbished smartphones grew by 15%, compared with only a 4.5% increase for new phones.
Yet many consumers still can’t quite bring themselves to pull the trigger on purchasing pre-owned goods. After all, doesn’t “refurbished” mean there was something wrong with the item? Doesn’t it mean there are no consumer protections…or that the product will wear out more quickly than a brand-new one?
The answer to these questions is “no.” Buying refurbished can be just as safe as buying new—and in some cases, safer. Here’s what you should know…
Why buy refurbished. The main reason is obvious—to save money. Whether you’re purchasing a clothes dryer, a cell phone, an electric drill or a gaming console, you can pay 15% to 35% less for a refurbished item than for a brand-new one, without sacrificing quality. Example: A recent glance at two reputable purveyors of refurbished goods showed a Samsung Galaxy S21 phone that went for $800 new (with a 12-month warranty) was available for just $352…and a Dyson v10 Animal vacuum cleaner for $300, down from $500 new (with a two-year warranty). Both refurbished models came with 12-month warranties.
Another reason to buy refurbished: It is good for the planet. Keeping electronics out of landfills—and generally reducing consumption—is a boon for the natural world. A recent study by Microsoft found that repairing instead of discarding its Surface Pro 8 laptop computer resulted in 92% less waste and lowered greenhouse gas emissions by 89%. Also: Americans tend to keep their smartphones for about 30 months. If we all held onto them for one more year, that would have the same environmental impact as taking 636,000 cars off the road. Buying refurbished means reducing demand for newly manufactured products, and if you’re looking for a positive environmental impact, consider that manufacturing one smartphone releases as much carbon dioxide as 34 years of using the phone.
Even companies and manufacturers benefit from sales of refurbished goods—it allows them to tap into a pool of consumers they might miss out on. That’s why so many of them—Nintendo, Apple, Dyson, Dell, Canon and others—have their own platforms for selling refurbished products.
What are the drawbacks? There really aren’t many. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a product where you should be hesitant to buy refurbished. Here are the most common worries people have when it comes to purchasing refurbished goods and the reasons why they’re not really problems after all…
Warranties: While it’s true that you usually won’t get the manufacturer’s warranty when you purchase a refurbished item, that doesn’t mean you’re left completely unprotected. The most established and reputable purveyors of refurbished goods offer their own warranties. And in fact, some offer a suite of warranty options.
Outdated goods: It’s a myth that buying refurbished means getting last year’s model. After all, goods are surrendered to refurbishers for all kinds of reasons. Example: Maybe somebody just received the hot new phone as a gift but didn’t like the color. When it gets returned to the store, it may enter the “refurbished” market even if it requires no repairs. Buyer’s remorse, wrong style, wrong color, sudden disliking, whims, all result in quick turnarounds of the very latest items. There’s no reason to think that buying refurbished means getting something somebody used for years until it was worn out. In fact, there are some certifications for refurbished tech that are a bit like CarFax. Examples: Back Market uses Phonecheck, which produces a device history report including repair history.
Less reliability: Many consumers fear that they’re buying “damaged goods”—that a refurbished item is likely to fail sooner than something straight from the factory floor. In fact, when it comes to electronics, the opposite is probably true. Studies show that the failure rates of these goods follow a “bathtub curve” over time—brand new, they fail at a rate of 2% to 3% within the first 30 days (experts refer to this as “infant mortality”). Some are shipped “dead on arrival”…others experience catastrophic failures early in the life cycle. After this fragile break-in period, the failure rate drops down to 0.5% and remains there for the bulk of the product’s life. Only toward the end of life does the curve climb back upward again, finishing out the bathtub shape. When you purchase a refurbished item, you’re skipping that dangerous early stage where “infant mortality” is so high and entering the life cycle at its lower-risk sweet spot.
Fewer choices: You might have to do a bit of hunting to find a refurbished version of exactly what you want, but refurbished marketplaces are booming and have more offerings all the time.
Social stigma: Many people can’t get over the fact that buying something “used” just doesn’t feel right. That mindset is partly the result of constant advertising that makes us crave shiny new objects.
Also: Manufacturers actively discourage the idea of repairing items because it is more profitable for them if we buy new. Studies show that people choose to replace their products when confronted with repair estimates that would amount to 50% of the cost of a new item—and it just so happens that repairing a cracked cell-phone screen tends to come in at about half the cost of a new phone.
Purchase safely. Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent to CarFax or Kelley Blue Book when it comes to most refurbished goods, except for the example mentioned above. That means you won’t get a rundown of the device’s history, nor will you know exactly how much you should be paying for a refurbished version. Your best bet is to look around to see what the item is fetching on various platforms.
Nor is there an industry-wide seal of quality. Individual retailers do have their own in-house certifications, but there’s no independent body looking over their shoulders. That’s why it’s so important to purchase from reputable sources. Far and away, the easiest way to buy with peace of mind is to purchase from one of the two leaders in the refurbished marketplace—Back Market and Decluttr. Both have staked their reputations on selling expertly refurbished goods with warranties, internal quality controls and solid return policies.
If you’re shopping for a specific brand, try a web search using the brand name plus “refurbished” to see if the manufacturer has its own refurbished sales platform. You may be surprised at how many do. The fact that these outlets need to protect their brand reputations works in your favor, as does the likelihood that genuine parts were used during refurbishment.
Use caution around otherwise reputable online retailers such as Walmart, Amazon and eBay, since quality will depend on the individual sellers and not the host platform. When you’re shopping refurbished from one of those outlets, be certain to read reviews of the seller and not just the reviews of the product you’re interested in.
For local purveyors of refurbished goods, check with your Better Business Bureau, Yelp reviews and word of mouth.