Bargain Hunting? How to Avoid Used Laptop Headaches

Laptops are expensive. One way to get around this is to buy a gently used laptop. But what happens when you buy a dud? There’s no store to take it back to and you may be past the original warranty (usually only one year).

Since buying a used laptop could quickly turn from saving money into creating problems, let’s explore the ways you can protect yourself from used laptop headaches.

Where you buy from:

There’s a few different places you can go for a used laptop but one thing you need to be certain about is the seller. Remember, a “new” or one year old laptop at a ridiculously low price is almost guaranteed to either be stolen, broken in some way or just a ploy to get you alone at night in a creepy neighborhood with cash in your pocket. Steer clear of criminals.

The more reputable places to find used laptops are:

eBay: Ebay has few advantages. First, there’s a great selection and tons of laptops. Paypal is a huge plus for dealing with money transactions and any problems or disputes that may arise. Most of the time you can get a reasonable price, however in an auction situation you’re going to have to set a maximum amount you’re willing to spend. Check out the seller’s feedback ratings and other auctions. You want someone who either specializes in selling laptops or someone who’s selling one of their older, personal machines.

Many things can go wrong with an eBay transaction, use their feedback system to vet your seller and if problems occur, don’t be afraid to dispute the transaction and request a chargeback. Paypal is great in these situations. Also, avoid purchasing a laptop from foreign sellers.

Repair Center: Many times a computer repair shop will rebuild broken laptops and sell them at a discount. Check your local listings (or Google Maps) for one. Try to find one that specializes in Apple repairs otherwise their selection might be limited to Windows machines. To avoid any sort of problems, make sure they have a good return policy, or guarantee their work if something goes wrong with it. Research their repair service. If they do low quality work, you may be headed for trouble.

Off Lease: Many companies or large educational institutions will lease laptops for a few years. When the lease is up, they re-lease new models. The leasing company then sells them in lots to resellers. 99% of the time, what you’ll get with an off-lease laptop is a PC. You also won’t have any way of knowing who used it and how they treated the laptop, or how many times it had repairs done. Make sure the seller has a good guarantee. Many, many of the laptops for sale on eBay are sold off-lease.

Private Seller: One of the best ways to get a good used laptop is through a private seller, if you know they take great care of their computers. One of the biggest used laptop headaches can also be from a private seller who sells you a dud with no guarantee. All sales are final with a private seller so be sure to check that laptop thoroughly for damage. And remember, if the seller is pushy or really working hard to unload that laptop on you, its not a good sign. Also steer clear of the brand new / in box laptop that’s at a huge discount. It may be stolen.

Craigslist: Craigslist is a great place to find all sorts of used stuff. However when it comes to laptops, there’s many reasons to be careful. There’s the outright scams, stolen computers, and ploys to get you alone at 3am in a seedy area of town with $500 in your pocket. There’s really no way to vet your seller and when you do find a good one, its the same as finding a private seller – no guarantee and no way of knowing how they treated their used Mac.

What to look for / What to avoid:

Know the market:

A big observation that I’ve noticed with private sellers, Craigslist / classifieds and used laptops – they don’t really know “the market”. To put it bluntly, this means that they want to sell you a 10 year old G3 still running OS 9 for $500. Know the market. A laptop depreciates fast, almost to the point where after 5 years its basically worthless, obsolete or unusable. Just because your seller paid $2000 for that laptop a decade ago, doesn’t mean its worth $200 now. Expect a 20%-25% depreciation rate. So a $1,000 brand new MacBook four years ago should be priced around $200. You’ll see many laptops in the 8-10 year range priced this much. Avoid that headache, and anything advertising itself as “vintage”.

Laptop Age:

Anything over 5 years old is on its way to obsolescence. Unless you need a very old laptop to run some very old operating system (nostalgic for OS 9?) avoid buying anything 5 or more years old. Think about how long you need this laptop for. If you need it for 4 years, that 5-6 year old laptop will be 10 by the time you’re done with it.

I’m not saying a 5 year old laptop is useless, its just that it’s:

– Not worth very much money.
– Not going to run new software.
– Not going to handle new hardware.
– Not under any warranty.
– Not worth fixing if something goes wrong.
– Likely to have issues.

Stick to MacBook / MacBook Pros that are around 3 years old and factor in 20-25% depreciation when looking at prices.


Look closely at the condition of your used Mac. Specifically look for:

– Does it boot up and run or Kernal Panic every 2 minutes?
– Cracks along the edges indicating possible drops.
– Look for any damage and then look again for any damage.
– Check out the hinges and how it opens / closes.
– How does the CD drive work? Can you insert / eject a CD without problems?
– Battery life. An older laptop usually means older battery that needs replacing.
– Battery shape. Is it snugly fitting or is it bulging and doesn’t quite fit?
– Backlight condition. Does it light up brightly enough for you? Does it flicker when you move the lid?
– Open up System Profiler and check specifications. Does it have what it’s supposed to? Check RAM, Drive Size, Processor Speed.
– Check all USB, Ethernet, Modem and Video ports. Do they work?
– Does it include a Wireless card? Does it work?

If something doesn’t look right, by all means pass on it. Remember, $250 for a used laptop plus another $100 for more RAM and a battery plus $500 or more in headaches / repairs means you should’ve bought yourself a new MacBook.

Easy fixes for normal wear and tear:

As iBooks, PowerBooks, MacBooks and MacBook Pros age, certain things are going to need to be replaced. The most likely and normal replacements are the Hard Drive and the Battery. Even with the best of care a Battery will age and after 4 years its not going to hold much charge. Plan on replacing the battery unless it has already been.

Hard Drives also will go bad with age, depending on their level of use / abuse. In an older laptop, the internal Hard Drive is also tiny. You’ll want more space. With MacBooks, this is an easy replacement and nothing to worry about. With iBooks, PowerBooks and the older MacBook Pros, this is not an easy replacement, requiring a nearly full tear-down. It will cost more then the laptop is worth to replace the drive. However if the drive is in good shape and you just need more space, an external hard drive will easily solve that problem.

If the older Mac came with a tiny amount of RAM, you’ll want to upgrade this as high as it will go. Also the older style charger may not be in the best shape and may need replacing.

Overall decision:

If you really are considering a used laptop, make sure you “price” in all of the upgrading, condition, possible obsolescence, and likely future repairs. Walk away if its not worth it. If buying on eBay, don’t overbid and vet your seller / laptop before bidding. If its a private seller and you really can’t afford much, talk them down to a reasonable price ($20 for that turd, I mean, G3 from 2002). If its in bad shape, walk away and find another.

Remember, if you’re going to wind up spending $1000 on that 6-8 year old iBook, you should have bought new instead. Sometimes a bargain really isn’t a good deal.

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