How To Buy a Used Smartphone Without Getting Screwed
Buying a used smartphone can save you some money, but it obviously involves a few risks-like making sure it's in good condition (and that it isn't stolen). Here are some tips I've learned after buying many used phones.
Smartphone makers release new models every year. Since people always have the itch to upgrade, you can get a fantastic deal on a used smartphone as long as you're willing to forego the cutting edge. The "latest and greatest" is not always all it's cracked up to be
Still, buying a used smartphone means you have to do your due diligince. For one, warranty is usually out of the question, or it will at least be significantly reduced. Second, you need to ensure everything is working correctly. And finally, based on these, you have to get the right price.
Research for the Right Price
The point of buying a used smartphone is to get a good price, so you need to put in a little research first. To get the best deal, you need to see how many people are selling that smartphone right now and at what price. To do that, search for the handset on eBay, Craigslist and Swappa. You will come across enough listings, but there are a few things to note:
- Make sure it's unlocked. Craigslist and eBay have plenty of people selling locked smartphones, which cost a little less than what you would look for.
- On eBay, check only the Buy It Now prices, not the current bids. Bids can tell you how much people might be willing to pay, but I have found it a better way to go by what sellers look for.
- Don't note the median price, note the prices of what you are looking for. Used smartphones come in various levels of condition, so you need to actually click those links and read the description to know whether the condition meets what you are looking for. Once you find such items, note their prices as that's what your reference is, not items which are in better or worse condition.
- Check the price of what a new phone costs with similar specifications. If you're buying a one-year-old smartphone for a price where you can get a similar new phone, the deal isn't worth it because you lose out on warranty.
- Make sure all the accessories are intact. If they aren't, find out what it would cost you to buy each accessory and use that as a bargaining chip to reduce the price.
It pays to think like a smartphone seller when you are looking to buy. Our article on selling a smartphone
Where to Buy
Figuring out where to buy the phone is tough-there are pros and cons to each option, as you might imagine. Personally, I only buy in-person, since I want to inspect the phone-but you'll get a much better selection buying online. Here are some tips for each.
Try a Social Network
I've personally bought or helped friends buy over 20 used smartphones at this point and the best source, in my opinion, is to find someone selling it on a social network. That's not to say you won't get a great deal on Craigslist, eBay or Swappa. But for used smartphones, having some sort of link with that person helps a great deal in establishing trust. And this works both ways. Remember, a good seller wants a clean and fair transaction too, he doesn't want you to be unhappy nor get caught up in the hassle of you trying to reclaim money.
Buy Online at Swappa
If that doesn't work for you, then I'd go with Swappa
In all cases, if you're buying online and can't meet in person (see below), make sure you buy from someone with a return policy in place. Not only does this give you room to return it if the phone isn't as described, but it also is the mark of a good seller who is confident in their product.
If Possible, Meet In Person
That said, if you were my friend and asking me for suggestions about buying a used phone, I'd strongly advise against picking it up online and insist on an in-person meeting. For me personally, it's a dealbreaker.
Take it from someone who has been burnt: you don't want to buy a used smartphone online and have it shipped to you, without checking it out in person. Whatever photos you see, even if the other party is willing to do a video call, are not a guarantee of what you are finally going to receive in the mail. There are enough scammers on eBay and Craigslist who know just how to word their item descriptions so that on paper, they're in the clear. And once that happens, eBay and Craigslist will wash their hands off the matter with no chance for a refund.
So if you can find a good enough selection on social networks or Craigslist, insist on meeting in person. Also make sure you meet during the day and in a well-lit area. Apart from the safety of the matter, this is also important since you get to inspect the phone carefully and thoroughly, so you don't miss out on details that might not be as visible in a dimly lit bar.
Negotiating The Deal
Before you actually meet the other person, negotiate the price of the phone based on your research and how the seller has described the phone. In general, cosmetics take a back seat to functionality in such negotiations. So "faint scratches on sides" won't reduce your price much, but "scratches on screen" can let you negotiate a bigger price drop.
Also let the person know that you plan to thoroughly check the phone first, inserting your SIM, checking the cables, etc. I have found this to be the easiest way to weed out an honest seller from someone who's trying to pull a fast one. The more detailed you get about the checks you are going to run, the better-the scammer usually runs away at this point while the honest seller is fine with everything.
And at the end of this negotiation, make sure you tell them that this is the price based only on description, and that it might change once you actually inspect the device. It's easier to enact this with an in-person meeting, of course. This is just a precaution though, don't use it as an excuse to be an ass and bargain just because you think you can get a better price than what you negotiated. No one likes that guy.
How To Inspect a Used Smartphone
At the meeting (or when you get the phone in the mail), you need to bring a few things with you:
- Your own chargeing cable (if you don't have the compatible one, borrow from a friend)
- A laptop
- Your SIM card or a friend's, which can fit into the phone. Read up what type of SIM the used phone needs so you aren't stuck with microSIM card when the phone uses a nanoSIM.
- A microSD card (if the phone has a slot for it)
Once the seller hands you the phone, you should run a bunch of checks.
- Physically inspect the phone. Watch for damage to the body, like dents and scratches, as well as water damage. Be especially mindful of scratches on the phone and on the camera lens at the back. Take your time with this, don't rush it. The folks at PhoneBuff have a quick video showing the labels on the battery and back panel that you need to check for (shown above). If you are buying a unibody phone where the battery can't be removed, the water damage indicator is usually placed in the SIM card slot. The best way to find out the place of the indicator on your model is to google it.
- If It Opens, Open It. Any flap, cover, port that can be opened-like a push-pin slot for SIM or microSD cards-needs to be tested so open it and check that it's fine.
- Check all the ports. Pop your own headphones into the handset and check if they are working. Connect the charger cable you got to your laptop and see if it's charging by that port. If it charges by laptop, it's going to charge by wall socket. Then run these checks with the packaged accessories too.
- Pop in your SIM card. Make a call, send a text, and browse to your favorite website. It's the best way to check those parts of the phone are working well. If the phone is locked to a network and your SIM isn't from that carrier, you'll find out immediately with this simple test.
- Run the service code test. Each smartphone has a service code that you can use to access a special menu to check whether different parts of the phone are running. Google it to find the one for your device. For example, typing "*#0*#" (without the quotes) on the Samsung Galaxy S3 will start the LCD Test to check different aspects like your touch screen, dimming, speaker, cameras, receiver, vibration, RGB, sensors, and more. Go through each test to make sure the components of the phone are working fine.
The Final Negotiation
If everything has checked out and you are ready to hand over your cash, try one final negotiation tactic. What's the right amount to ask for a reduction? After successfully making a deal with several used phone purchases, I believe I've cracked it: negotiate as much as the price of buying a new case.
Since this is a used phone, warranty will be an issue and it's best to put a case on it that protects the device for long-term usage. So the amount to negotiate equates to the case you want to put on it. If the seller already is throwing in a sturdy case, just be happy with the deal.
It's important not to overreach in the final negotiation. You want to leave on a good note, so don't ask for the equivalent of a $80 Lifeproof Nuud case for the iPhone. A good, fair transaction leaves both parties happy, and gives you a better chance of contacting that person after the deal is made, just in case something goes wrong.
And remember how I said it's best to look for deals on social networks? Since the seller and you have friends in common, don't be an ass by being a tough negotiator. If you're getting a fair deal, take it without trying to look for an edge. In my last few deals, the result of this simple extension of courtesy has been that the seller has offered to let me try the device for a couple of days and with a money-back guarantee if I wasn't happy with the phone.