Do you find yourself looking wistfully at the screen and counting the zeros on the latest Apple price tag? You’re not alone if you struggle to afford the new, super-resolution iMacs and MacBooks. But there is a savior, and it comes in the form of refurbished products.

Here’s what you need to know when buying a refurbished Mac — either through Apple or another retailer.

What does refurbished actually mean?

First things first, let’s be clear: Refurbished is not the same as resold. Resold just means that someone is selling the same item again, often used, with all the problems that entails. Refurbished means that the Apple product in question was sent back to (ideally) a professional because of a minor issue, or because it was no longer wanted. Any malfunctioning parts are replaced, the product is given a once-over to make sure that everything is shiny and working right, and then it is repackaged to be sold again.

Because refurbished Apple products cannot be sold at MSRP, they are typically sold at a discount, which means you save money while buying a product that is often just as good as new.

Apple manages its own refurbished store, complete with its own Certified Refurbished designation, which means trained professionals ensure every device functions properly before putting it up for sale. The store offers the highest quality, so you’re essentially getting a machine that barely differs from a new model. Many people think of it as an instant discount option when shopping for a new Apple device — as long as inventory is in stock.

A caveat applies, however, in that it’s unusual to find recently-launched Apple products that have been refurbished, given they likely haven’t come back yet. Typically products have to be out for at least a few months before any refurbished Mac deals hit the market, and these will be quickly snapped up. The greatest range of products will probably be between one and two years old. It’s difficult to find refurbished Apple electronics beyond a few years old.

Buying from Apple

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If you want to buy straight from the source, then head over to Apple’s Refurbished section. Purchasing directly from the manufacturer is a great way to go when it comes to refurbished items because you know they have been professionally inspected, fixed, cleaned, and repackaged by people with experience in those specific electronics. Apple even backs these products with the same warranty you’d find on a new Mac, and you can further insure your device with AppleCare. Below are some additional notes to consider:

  • Both pre-owned and once-defective models are available, and Apple guarantees that all products meet Finished Goods testing. The discounts on the Online Store are a bit underwhelming, though. The average discount rate hovers around 15 percent, which is good but doesn’t exactly get hearts thumping. Some discounts can be as high as 25 percent, however, if you get lucky.
  • It’s not just about Macs: Macs and MacBooks are some of the most popular options, but Apple sells refurbished models of just about everything in the company’s arsenal, including Apple Watches and iPhones. The website’s left-most menu shows what’s available and what isn’t, but keep in mind that inventory can change quickly, especially for popular products.
  • Refurbished items become extremely popular when a new Apple product comes out. Sure, it takes a while for refurbished versions of new products to hit the digital shelves, but consumers immediately begin wondering if they can get an older model for a cheaper price, which drives them to seek refurbished products. In other words, availability tends to be scarce and competitive immediately following an important Apple release.
  • The cheaper models tend to be the most in-demand. For example, iPads with just Wi-Fi are hard to find, but those with cellular data options are more common, and so on.
  • Free shipping and returns apply to all these products.
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Choosing the right vendor

There are options beyond the Apple Store if you’re looking to grab a refurbished iPad or iMac. Many third-party vendors — including eBay, Amazon, and Best Buy — specialize in refurbishing, and you can find them across the internet. These stores don’t always offer products that have been refurbished by Apple itself, but they can provide used products that have been fixed up. Also, you can often find better discounts through a third-party retailer than you can through the Apple Store.

Trust is paramount here. Don’t just type a search into eBay and look for the best possible prices — that’s a quick route to scams and disappointment. Instead, look for quality brands that offer well-reviewed refurbished items. Some of the more common retailers include:

Other World Computing: OWC specializes in used computers, and tends to shy away from smaller Apple devices. The good news is its prices are generally lower than that of Apple’s, and there’s a two-week return policy. The bad news is that the products are not inspected or certified by Apple.

Mac of All Trades: Mac of All Trades offers some of the best deals in the Mac world. Quality can sometimes be an issue, but there is a 90-day warranty and expedited shipping, which makes this a great alternative to the Apple Store. Keep in mind, however, that inventory tends to be in high demand, so options are limited.

Amazon: Amazon is a great place to find online options collected from a variety of vendors, including Apple R Us and Open Electronics. Always look for a high user rating before you think about buying, however, and keep in mind that many of the available models only differ slightly, so it can be difficult to find what you’re looking for.

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PowerMax: PowerMax is a Premier Partner with Apple for Macs, iPads and iPhones, and provides a 120-day warranty for used Macs. The site is harder to navigate and use than something like the Apple Refurbished Store, however, so some patience is required.

Best Buy: Best Buy also offers a limited number of refurbished Macs through its own program. They’re frequently sold out, but if you’re a Best Buy customer and can get loyalty points or other benefits from buying, it’s definitely worth a look.

Signs of a good deal

Price is one of the most important factors of a sweet deal, but there are other signs of a smart buy. Whether searching the Refurbished section of Apple’s website or exploring other vendors, here’s what to watch for:

  • Warranties and return policies: A warranty provides some protection if your refurbished Mac unexpectedly bites the dust after you get it, saving you from wasting too much money. A great example of this is Apple’s one-year warranty for refurbished goods. Thankfully, other vendors offer similar lines of protection.
  • Testing: You want to buy a Mac from a company that offers product testing. Apple is the best at this, but other vendors also offer their own — albeit not brand-certified — testing procedures to ensure the utmost quality.
  • Hands-on examination: This often isn’t possible when buying online, but if you’re perusing local dealers, make sure you can examine and test the product yourself. Doing so will allow you to look for any obvious problems before buying.
  • Original materials: The original box, instructions, and accessories are a great bonus. A reputable refurbished product should have these, as the like-new experience is part of what separates a refurbished model from its used counterpart.
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Signs of a bad deal

If you decide to utilize lesser-known parties on eBay, Amazon, and other corners of the web, here are the signs that should sound the alarm in your head:

  • No warranties or guarantees: If a vendor doesn’t offer any type of protection or return policy, back away slowly. Likewise, if the warranty is extremely short, it suggests the dealer doesn’t trust that the products they are selling are reliable. You are rolling the dice here, except the dice are made of money.
  • No pictures:  If someone isn’t posting real pictures of a product and isn’t a trusted vendor, don’t trust them.
  • A model that’s too old for you and Apple: While you may be able to get an older product for less money, that doesn’t mean you should. Older products stretch the meaning of “refurbished” because they usually lack support for the latest MacOS features and come with aging components. If you’re considering a so-called refurb that’s more than three years old, ask if the battery has ever been replaced. You should also check Apple’s “Vintage and obsolete products” page to check if the device you want to buy is no longer supported by Apple.
  • Refurbished goods that aren’t refurbished: Sometimes a store says “refurbished” but it really means “used.” This is common among smaller vendors on Amazon and eBay. Go with a store that actually refurbishes products and don’t put too much trust in the nomenclature.

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