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With phones and laptops reaching staggering $1,000+ price tags, it feels like you need to scrimp, save and hunt for coupon codes just to save a few bucks off the latest and greatest phone. But there’s a much better way to save money: Buy a refurbished model instead.
Buying refurbished is one of the clearest and easiest ways you can help the environment right now. Mining some of the elements that go into your electronics might result in significant environmental, humanitarian and even political issues. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK-based charity focused on promoting a zero-waste, or circular, economy, “remanufactured products save up to 98% of CO2 emission compared to equivalent new products,” thanks to decreased mining, refining and machining.
I hate the word 'refurbished'
John Bumstead, longtime MacBook refurbisher
Plus, like cars, many electronics lose value as soon as you drive them out of the proverbial lot. You can save 20 to 50 percent on a working device and resell your old one while you’re at it. In fact, Consumer Reports surveys found that more than 80 percent of people who have bought a refurbished phone were satisfied with the device.
What does 'refurbished' mean?
There are no universal guidelines that define the word “refurbished,” which can make things a bit confusing for anyone looking to wade into these uncharted waters. “I hate the word ‘refurbished,’” says John Bumstead, a longtime MacBook refurbisher based in Minneapolis. “It can mean whatever someone wants it to mean.”
Broadly speaking, he explains, a refurbished product is usually a used or returned product that has been repaired, cleaned up and tested to be in good working order. Since the product isn’t new, retailers don’t price it as new, though it should function just as well. This allows you to get a fully working, virtually new product at a sizable discount.
It may, however, have some minor cosmetic imperfections, and it won’t always come with the same warranty that a brand new product could boast. However, as someone who’s bought many used and refurbished products over the years, I’ve easily saved enough over the long haul to pay for the one or two duds that have come my way. Plus, you get that slightly-warm-and-fuzzy feeling having kept one more item out of a landfill, which is crucial in the age of “disposable” phones and laptops.
Every manufacturer and store is different, however. While you can buy refurbished products directly from the folks who fix them up, you can also buy them from big retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, Walmart, and Target — but you need to read the fine print to know what you’re getting. And some manufacturers refurbish devices themselves and sell directly to the customer.
- When it comes to refurbished products, Apple is one of the best in the business, providing like-new products with good warranties at a discount.
- Amazon calls its refurbished products Renewed, which usually come from third-party sellers on the site. Amazon lays out guidelines that refurbishers must adhere to and covers all Renewed products under a Renewed-only extended return policy.
- eBay is home to plenty of refurbished products from third parties, but they also recently launched a Certified Refurbished program that gets you big discounts on products repaired directly by the manufacturers who make them — with a two-year extended warranty to go with them.
- Unlike Amazon, Best Buy refurbishes most of its products using an in-house Geek Squad team. A few come refurbished by third parties and all are backed by Best Buy’s return policy and a warranty that’s usually shorter than that of a new product.
- Walmart’s refurbishing policies are a bit confusing, with some refurbished products carrying a “Certified” label while others do not, suggesting different standards for each. The return policy can vary from seller to seller.
- Target appears to offer multiple types of refurbished products, including some directly from manufacturers, leaving you to look up their standards individually.
That’s the short version of how you should approach buying anything refurbished from these retailers. To help you navigate the particulars, we dug into their refurbished shelves online, asked retailers directly for guidance and consulted experts on how each retailer approaches its second-hand offerings.
Apple’s Certified Refurbished is the gold standard
It's a weird time to buy a Mac. The latest models use Apple's in-house M1 chip, and they're insanely good, but still very new, so refurbished models don't offer enormous discounts. But older models, while very affordable, are just long enough in the tooth that it's hard to wholeheartedly recommend them (or they'll have Apple's notoriously terrible butterfly keyboard). Still, you can get $150 off a new M1 MacBook with almost no downside, since you're guaranteed:
- A mint-condition, thoroughly cleaned laptop with genuine Apple parts
- The same one-year warranty as a new one
- Plus all the manuals and accessories you’d get with a new model
Amazon's 'Renewed' can mean a lot of things
Bumstead used to sell refurbished MacBooks on Amazon until the retail giant struck a deal with Apple in 2019 that cut many refurbishers off the platform. Around the same time, Amazon also replaced its old refurbishing certification with a new program it calls “Amazon Renewed.”
When you see a product on Amazon that says “(Renewed)” in the product name, it means that product is either refurbished, pre-owned, or open-box, and that it has been inspected and tested to work and look like new. An Amazon spokesperson told NBC News the retailer doesn’t differentiate among products that are refurbished, open-box or returned, and that all are required to adhere to Amazon’s quality standards of “like new.” In other words, an Amazon Renewed product could be any of the above.
Look for a seller that has been around for at least a year and has at least 200 reviews that are 90 percent or higher positive
Dan Vanwijk, director of marketing and eCommerce at TechforLess
What does “like new” mean? First, it’s important to note that Amazon doesn’t refurbish all of its Renewed products. While the company does refurbish its Echo, Fire, Kindle and other Amazon-branded products, most of the Renewed listings you’ll see on Amazon are refurbished and sold by third-party businesses. Each of those third parties, in turn, have their own refurbishing practices, customer service departments and user reviews. Having said that, Dan Vanwijk, director of marketing and eCommerce at refurbisher and retailer TechforLess, tells me that Amazon’s standards are quite clear:
- Items must have no cosmetic damage that is visible from 12 inches away
- The product’s markings should all be intact (with no new markings, logos or other branding allowed)
- And the seller must maintain an internal quality management system that can identify defects in a timely manner.
Amazon also says in its Quality Policy that Renewed products should only contain original manufacturer parts: batteries, screens, speakers and so on. That way, you aren’t duped into buying a refurbished phone with a low-quality, off-brand battery that would present safety issues. Vanwijk says their standards at TechForLess are slightly more stringent than Amazon’s requirements — for one thing, the refurbisher lays out on its site the specific condition of each product, be it open box or otherwise used. but that can vary from seller to seller.
To ensure your satisfaction (and continued patronage), Amazon offers a 90-day Amazon Renewed Guarantee in addition to its return policy, in case the product has problems in the first few months.
“Amazon really has your back when you’re a customer, so consumers are pretty safe,” explains Bumstead. “If you get a machine that’s damaged, or if you have any kind of problem, you can find recourse. Amazon sides with the customer more often than not.” While that’s great for you, the buyer, it can make things difficult for a seller.
But there are other reasons Amazon Renewed is beneficial for shoppers: Namely, Amazon has a huge selection of Renewed products. Their Renewed storefront shows not only electronics like computers and smartphones, but also kitchen appliances, power tools, cameras, headphones and video games — both game consoles and the game discs themselves. Here are some examples.
If you just can’t seem to get your Wi-Fi from one end of the house to the other, a mesh system could solve your problems. Netgear’s Orbi is one of the best options around, especially if you have kids and want robust parental controls. You can buy a two-unit kit Renewed for $209, which is about $120 off the full-price version.
As spring and summer bring pollen and other allergens, an air purifier can help keep the sneezes at bay. Dyson's Pure Cool Link model contains a HEPA filter and smart features like Alexa control, air quality reports, and multiple speed settings. This Renewed model comes with a 6-month warranty and a nice discount over the original list price.
eBay's New Certified Refurbished
eBay has long been home to refurbished products, from manufacturers and third-party sellers alike — including Bumstead himself. In October of 2020, though, eBay also launched its own Certified Refurbished program, which attempts to ensure more rigorous, standardized practices among brands that take part in the program. Instead of third parties, eBay's Certified Refurbished products come from the brands making the actual products, who either restore the item themselves or send it to an approved vendor, then sell it directly through eBay. eBay told me me their Certified Refurbished items should come with "few or no blemishes" and ship in new packaging with original or new accessories. In addition, each item comes with a two-year warranty through Allstate's SquareTrade — a third-party warranty, but one that lasts much longer than most refurbished products you'd buy elsewhere — and eBay's own 30-day return policy and money back guarantee. In other words, you're getting the quality refurbishing of a manufacturer through eBay's easy to use marketplace.
The headphone market is flooded with noise cancelling headphones, but Bose is the brand that pioneered the technology decades ago — and they still make the best pair you can buy. The Bose 700 not only sound great, but they have incredibly powerful active noise cancelling, using microphones to drown out the hum of an airplane or the bustle of a coffee shop. And, most importantly, you can control how strong you want the noise cancellation to be, so you can turn it down if you experience discomfort or headaches on the highest setting. All this for a whopping $100 off, straight from the manufacturer in refurbished condition.
If you're tired of dust, dirt, and pet hair constantly strewn about your living room, it's time to upgrade to a robot vacuum for daily quick cleans. iRobot's Roomba models can range quite a bit in price, with higher end models cleaning in neater rows, intelligently mapping your home, and working with smart platforms like Alexa. If you buy Certified Refurbished from eBay, you can grab the last-gen Roomba 980 — one of their top-end models with all the smart bells and whistles — for half off its original price. I still own the step-down Roomba 960, and if it broke today, I'd grab this refurbished model for $300 in a heartbeat.
Best Buy’s in-house Geek Squad Certified Refurbished
Best Buy also sells refurbished items, both online and in-store. But unlike Amazon, most of their Geek Squad Certified Refurbished products are refurbished by Best Buy staff. This, they say, allows them to ensure a product “works like it’s supposed to and has zero, or very little, cosmetic damage.” Though, “in some cases,” a Geek Squad agent tells me, a “qualified third-party” may test and inspect the device, in which case it won’t carry the “Certified” label on the item’s page.
Refurbished products come with the same return and exchange policy as other products sold by Best Buy. And most products also come with a 90-day warranty — which is likely shorter than the warranty on a new product, but this is also typical for refurbished electronics at other stores like Amazon. Best Buy offers extended warranties on many refurbished products, for a price. I’ve never found extended warranties to be a worthwhile purchase — if you need the peace of mind, it’s there.
The Nintendo Switch is ingenious: You can play it handheld on-the-go, or dock it to your TV for some full-screen Mario. But if you don't plan on doing the latter, the Switch Lite is a smaller, less expensive Switch designed to be used in handheld mode only. Best Buy has three colors — grey, turquoise, and yellow — available refurbished for up to $20 off. Check out the best Switch games to buy right now, while you're at it.
Solid State Drives (or SSDs) are super-fast hard drives that can make an old computer feel like new — or speed up loading times on your old Xbox or PlayStation game console. Best Buy offers plenty of refurbished SSDs at a discount — not a bad way to save a bit of cash.
Walmart’s Obscure Refurbished Categories
Walmart’s refurbished storefront is more confusing than other stores when it comes to their refurbishing practices. But Vanwijk at TechForLess, who sells on Walmart, says their quality rules seem less clear than Amazon’s. Walmart states in its content policies that refurbished items must be in “like-new condition,” but doesn’t go into any detail — the retailer didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. You may find more information on a seller’s individual listing or about page, given that store’s own standards. But I can’t find anything more descriptive, meaning it may be open for sellers to interpret for themselves.
Having said that, Walmart dedicates a seemingly separate portion of their store to “Certified Refurbished” products, with more detailed rules similar to Amazon’s:
- No visible cosmetic imperfections when held 12 inches away
- No scratches on the LCD
- No indentations or dents
- Original manufacturer parts only
- And so on.
But the Certified Refurbished section only seems to constitute a portion of Walmart’s refurbished offerings. Plenty of those other items are missing the Certified tag in the product title, and they’re absent from search results in the Certified Refurbished section. To make matters even more unclear, some items that are in the dedicated Certified Refurbished section don’t say “Certified” in the title — Vanwijk says he wasn’t even aware of any Certified Refurbished program at Walmart, despite the fact that some TechForLess items were listed in that section of the store at the time of this writing (and missing the “Certified” label).
Finally, browsing the Refurbished section shows that the return policy can vary from seller to seller, so if you decide to purchase a refurbished item from Walmart, be sure to check what that seller offers.
For example, Apple’s iPhone 12 Pro costs a whopping $1,000, but last year’s equivalent — the still-fantastic iPhone 11 Pro — starts at $759 through Apple when you buy it refurbished. But if you buy from Walmart, you can get it for far less. This particular model is shipped and sold by Walmart themselves, and is listed "B-Grade" for potential cosmetic blemishes — but should still be in working order. It also comes with 256GB of storage, despite costing less than Apple offers a 64GB refurb. That's a pretty great deal, especially if you're going to cover up those blemishes with a case anyway.
Vizio’s M-Series Quantum is one of the best series of 4K TVs you can buy for the price — I love it so much that I have an older model at home — and Walmart sells a refurbished version of the 58-inch MQ6 model for $358. At nearly $200 off the list price, that's a fantastic deal. It may not beat the pants off higher-end models, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a similarly-sized TV that measures up for this great of a price.
Target’s Manufacturer-, Certified- and Other Refurbished
Target doesn’t appear to have as many refurbished products in its store as other marketplaces, but it does have some. I could not find much information about their refurbishing policies on their site. However, refurbished products seem to carry a number of different labels: Some say “Manufacturer Refurbished,” others say “Certified Refurbished,” and still others just say “Refurbished” or “Reconditioned.” Target did not respond to multiple requests for comment. All the refurbished items I researched came with Target’s standard 90-day return policy, and are eligible for an extended warranty from Allstate’s SquareTrade.
“Manufacturer Refurbished” likely means that Target is buying (or acting as a middleman for) refurbished products that come directly from manufacturers like Samsung, TCL and other brands, or the refurbishers they contract with. That’s nice because you can google that brand’s individual refurbishing policies for more information on its quality standards. Many of Target’s Certified Refurbished listings are sold by third parties. Like Amazon and Walmart, those sellers are probably refurbishing products themselves or buying from another third party who has, adhering to Target’s quality standards (again, in theory — they aren’t very transparent with their requirements).
Of all the wireless earbuds out there, the Jabra Elite 75t are still some of the best around, with great sound, lots of features and a "transparency mode" that lets you hear the world around you. They offer incredible bang for your buck at their list price of $150, so a refurbished pair for $80 is an absolute steal. They're refurbished and sold by Jabra directly through Target, and they're rather active in the product's Q&A section answering questions about the process.
Ninja makes some of the best blenders around, and if you're looking to save a few bucks, their HB100 model is available refurbished from Target through a third-party seller. While it's listed as "Certified" refurbished, Target doesn't list the requirements to be labeled as such, and unlike some other listings, there isn't any information in the Q&A section. Thankfully, you still have Target's 90 day return policy if things go awry, and it can even be returned to a physical Target store.
How to buy refurbished products with confidence
With such sizable discounts, buying refurbished is a fantastic way to save money. But despite what a listing may say, a refurbished item is never a guarantee that everything will work perfectly. If you look at the reviews of individual sellers — even ones with high ratings — you’ll find some customers who received less-than-new seeming products. “Huge scratch on the face,” reads one review for a Renewed smartphone on Amazon. “Charger is broken,” reads another. They’re the minority, but it does happen.
“The problem is, in the world of refurbishing, you have so much imperfect equipment to sell that most sellers are putting grade B or C stuff out there and just crossing their fingers,” says Bumstead. After all, companies like Amazon and Walmart can’t inspect every item its third-party sellers list on the site — though Amazon tells me they do audit their sellers through test buys. Vanwijk also says customers may be unaware they’re buying a refurbished product, which can lead to more complaints for small defects that are within the marketplace’s guidelines.
Before buying refurbished, here are some steps you can take to better your chances at a smart purchase:
- Click on the seller’s name to see their reviews. “Look for a seller that has been around for at least a year and has at least 200 reviews that are 90 percent or higher positive,” recommends Vanwijk.
- Check the seller’s website. “Confirm that they are indeed who they say they are and how they describe their products,” he advises.
- Make note of the return policy covering the item, and who offers it. A return policy covered by the retailer (e.g. Amazon or Best Buy) is usually better than one guided only by the seller.
- Research the warranty — both the span of its coverage and what kind of problems it covers — and which it doesn’t. It’s okay if it isn’t as long-lasting a warranty as might adjoin a new product, but I’d recommend at least a 90-day warranty to cover any short-term issues that may arise.
If you do face any problems, Bumstead recommends contacting the seller directly before you issue a return through the retailer. “The seller doesn’t want to lose the sale, and they’d much rather give you a discount or send you a free charger than have to do a full return,” he explains. “Chances are, the seller will bend over backwards rather than have a customer that could leave damaging feedback.”
Remember, despite the shorter warranty and occasional issues, the long-term savings from repeatedly buying refurbished can be very worthwhile if you have a little extra patience. And the planet will appreciate the effort, to boot.