Tips and Red Flags for Buying Refurbished Goods on eBay

Find out what sellers mean when they say, "refurbished"

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With its array of sellers peddling refurbished goods, eBay is one of the all-time great resources for deal-hunting shoppers. eBay is flush with products that have been gently used, but not "used up."

Why Frugal Shoppers Enjoy eBay

Gadget, phone, consumer electronics shoppers, and upgraders aren't the only shoppers that use eBay to save money. Just about any frugal person who's willing to buy used or refurbished in order to save cash has probably considered buying, or actually bought, their desired item on eBay at one time or another.

Most of the time, eBay purchases of the used or refurbished variety go very smoothly, provided that shoppers check seller feedback, don't have unrealistic expectations and are aware of the ins and outs of shopping for particular kinds of goods.

Every now and then, however, things can go awry—particularly frustrating when the item in question is being sold as refurbished. In fact, there's a broad swath of product quality territory covered by the word "refurbished" and this ambiguity can lead to some unexpected problems.

Here are some of the things you should know and do when shopping for refurbished goods on eBay.

What to Watch Out For

Though shoppers often imagine that refurbished means "a step above used" or even "almost new," there are some potential pitfalls surrounding refurbished goods—particularly in electronics or mechanical items—to be aware of:

"Refurbished" might simply be another word for "used." Some sellers engage in the shady practice of selling any used item that works as "refurbished."

"Refurbished" might mean seller- or third-party repaired. Not all refurbished goods on eBay have been "refurbished" by the original manufacturer. In some cases, refurbished goods may have been refurbished by a third-party specialist; in some cases, refurbished goods have been repaired by the seller themselves.

"Refurbished" doesn't mean "as new." While in some cases refurbished goods can be restored to and shipped in new-item condition, along with new packaging and all accessories, in many cases, refurbished goods do not include original packaging and/or accessories.

"Refurbished" can mean "unrepairable in the future." In cases in which a seller or third-party refurbisher has refurbished goods, non-OEM parts or non-factory techniques can mean that the item or product can't be serviced by others down the road. This may simply be because the manufacturer will refuse to work on items refurbished by other companies, or it can be because the item has been altered in ways that make it more difficult to repair.

"Refurbished" might mean "gray market." In some cases, sellers of refurbished items are actually selling international versions of products that were also released in the U.S. Though consumers often aren't aware of the fact, many kinds of goods (digital cameras, multimedia and entertainment equipment, phones and computers, some kinds of tools, etc.) are produced differently for different countries' populations, to conform to local regulations.

In some cases, refurbished goods on eBay are international version items that have been shipped in from overseas markets that may or may not be compatible with your home and the goods in it.

They also may or may not be serviceable in your country.

What to Ask Before Buying

For these reasons, if you're considering buying a refurbished item on eBay—particularly if it's an expensive one—you should ask a few questions before you place your bid.

Has the item been restored to factory-new specifications/condition? This question helps you to understand more about the condition of the item you're about to buy and whether it really has been "refurbished" or is closer to "used but functional and cleaned up."

Who refurbished the item? Be willing to pay more for items that have been refurbished by the manufacturer, less for items that have been refurbished by a third party refurbishment specialist and the least for items that have been refurbished by the seller themselves, unless the seller is precisely such a specialist.

Is this item covered by a warranty? What kind and for how long? Note here that a warranty is not the same thing as a return policy. Find out whether anyone is guaranteeing the product's condition and functionality, and if so who and for how long. Place a premium on manufacturer warranties here, even if they're comparatively short.

Third-party warranties from "warranty companies" can be suspect and "seller" warranties that simply amount to verbal promises shouldn't add much, if anything, to your bid.

Is this item fully serviceable by any repair center in my country? This question helps you to understand whether the item may have been altered in some way by the refurbishment process. If the answer is that only the seller or their authorized shop will be able to repair the item in the future, steer clear.

Is this item fully compatible with accessories, software, etc.? The answer depends on the kind of item in question. Your goal, however, is to ensure that the version of the item you're getting will work with common accessories available in your country and that it can accept the software, firmware updates, phone carrier and more.  

Is the serial number still valid/do all serial numbers match? This question helps you to avoid "Frankenstein" items that are actually repairs in which many broken items have been combined into a single working one. While there's nothing wrong with buying an item like this per se—if it works, it works, after all—such items are better described as "repaired" than as "refurbished."

Many authorized service centers and manufacturers will refuse to work on items that are actually a combination of parts that have been assembled piecemeal from multiple devices.