smart spending

Save money on reconditioned items

Highlights
  • What's reconditioned or refurbished?
  • Rules of thumb for reconditioned purchases
  • Consider the downsides

You've got your eye on a pricey new Dyson vacuum cleaner, but the cost sends shock waves rippling through your budget. If you could snag that Dyson for a little more than half-price, would you go for it?

Sure you would. And if high-end vacuums aren't the only budget bombs on your list of wants, take heart and grab that debit card -- you can also purchase state-of-the-art televisions, MP3 players, computers, stand mixers and hundreds of other products at jaw-dropping discounts. What's the catch? Look for factory reconditioned or refurbished items, which offer deals at a fraction of retail value.

What's reconditioned or refurbished?

No matter what you call them, they're really the same thing. This merchandise -- we'll call it factory reconditioned to avoid confusion -- can be nearly anything that's available to consumers, from sewing machines to electric shavers to car stereo systems.

Factory reconditioned products have been previously sold and returned. The reason for the return varies -- wrong color or model, not working, missing a part or the customer simply changed his or her mind. Open-box returns are also sold by some companies under the factory reconditioned umbrella. The name says it all: The original box has been opened and the item returned, many times without use or noted defects.

Almost all reconditioned items, such as computers, go back through the quality control process. The item's inspected the same as a brand-new one, then reboxed and resold. But lest you worry unscrupulous manufacturers sell reconditioned merchandise as new, that's a legal no-no. Buy from a well-known manufacturer and you can score big on savings, while remaining confident that what you're getting is first-rate.

Jonni McCoy, author of the book "Miserly Moms" and founder of miserlymoms.com, says that worries about the economy are leading many to look for savings in new places. "More people than before are interested in learning frugal techniques," McCoy says.

Take that reconditioned Dyson vacuum, for example. It sold at Target for $599 plus sales tax. The cheapest sale price we could find for that model was $479 -- a one-time offer on Amazon. One consumer bought the vacuum as a factory reconditioned item from Amazon.com for $299, with no sales tax and free shipping. That's a 50 percent discount from the everyday price.

Buyers pleased with purchases

Dyson isn't the only high-end vacuum cleaner maker that sells reconditioned models. James Savage, who runs a site that helps individuals sell their used cars, says he bought an Oreck vacuum and an air purifier two years ago, and has been generally pleased with his experience.

"It looked new when I bought it, and still does," Savage says of the vacuum cleaner, adding that the only maintenance required so far has been belt replacement.

Although Savage says the purifier recently quit, he saved 50 percent by purchasing it reconditioned, and he says the machine ran nonstop 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

"I think that is pretty good for a fan motor to run that long," says Savage.

San Antonio attorney Reba Kennedy says she successfully bought a washer-and-dryer set, a trash compactor and a desktop computer -- all reconditioned. Meanwhile Nevada-based spiritual life coach Stephanie Bell recently sprang for a Wolfgang Puck Stick Blender/Food Processor, which she purchased from Overstock.com, and a TiVo box directly from the manufacturer.

"My experience has been extremely positive. Drastically reduced prices for the same goods always works for me!" Bell says. "Both products arrived in sealed boxes with all the necessary manuals, plugs, etc., and are working properly."

Businesses also cash in

Los Angeles-based Joe Marich is president of Marich Communications, a public relations agency specializing in literary, entertainment and consumer products. Marich says that since opening his agency in 1996, he has purchased only factory reconditioned computer equipment, printers, monitors and scanners.

"When I first opened my company, I really didn't have a lot of money, so factory reconditioned computer equipment was my only real financial choice," Marich says. Now that money is no longer an issue, he continues to buy reconditioned.

"Since opening my company, I figured out that I have saved just over $25,000 by not buying new. For a small company like mine, that is a lot of money," he says, adding that savings like that can be better used upgrading the furniture or phone system, or leasing a better office.

"With computer systems and software getting better and cheaper every year, it just seems like a real waste of money to buy new," Marich says.

Rules of thumb for reconditioned purchases

Just as not every new purchase goes as planned, neither does every reconditioned purchase. Follow these guidelines when buying reconditioned:
  • The best bargains are likely to be found directly from the manufacturer, but don't rule out reputable resellers of reconditioned merchandise. Not every manufacturer offers reconditioned products, so companies like Overstock.com may be your only available resource.
  • Look for products that offer the exact same warranty as a new item. Apple, for example, includes a full one-year warranty on both its reconditioned iPods and computers. If a full warranty is not available, consider purchasing an extended warranty on reconditioned purchases.
  • Keeping warranties in mind, also look for a return policy that includes a full refund. Minimum windows for returns should be 15 days.
  • Remember, reconditioned can mean anything from a complete rebuild to a tiny scratch on the case. If you're buying a gift from an online seller, you won't be able to check for surface imperfections beforehand.
  • Before jumping on a reconditioned product, do your research. DVD players, for example, often sell for so little that it may be as cheap to buy one on sale as to purchase one that's reconditioned.
  • In a nutshell: Avoid undefined or short warranties, questionable retailers (do an Internet search with the company's name and "complaint" in the search box), and second-tier brands, says Brad Wilson, editor in chief of BradsDeals.com, a Web site that compiles deals, special offers and coupons.
  • While buying online is convenient, look for outlet stores that let you examine reconditioned items before buying.
  • Check your credit card terms. Virginian Michael Shannon says he buys everything with his American Express card because it offers an extended warranty on items bought with the card. There are conditions. For example, the cardholder must pay for the entire purchase by using the card and the item must have a valid U.S. manufacturer’s warranty. According to American Express, "Coverage is available for eligible items up to $10,000, not to exceed $50,000 per card account per policy year." Other cards may offer similar deals.

Consider the downsides

Chances are, your reconditioned purchase will look perfect, so most of what you buy will make great gifts, but as noted, purchases may contain small scuff marks or other cosmetic blemishes.

Not all reconditioned items come with warranties. If you have to pay extra for one, weigh the price of the item against the cost of the warranty.

You don't always get to choose colors. Some items are sold like a grab bag -- you get what they send you.

Not every reconditioned item is a bargain. Carefully research the price. Sometimes manufacturers mark down new merchandise in anticipation of the release of newer versions. Compare prices before clicking on "buy now."

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Read the description carefully and make certain your purchase comes complete with all the accessories in the original packaging.

Don't forget that many times, the merchandise you're buying reconditioned has had issues, says Ken Colburn, president of Data Doctors Computer Services. He calls it "pre-broken," although of course, not all reconditioned merchandise has been broken. But Colburn's point is that buying preconditioned isn't without risk.

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