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If you’re the geek type, like myself, you like the idea of owning the latest and greatest Android devices. In reality, sometimes our own budgets can get in the way of this goal, especially for those of us that prefer not to tie ourselves down to a carrier contract in order to qualify for subsidized pricing.

For those of us that are bargain shopping for our next Android purchase, some of the usual routes include buying mid-range devices that still offer a fair punch, keeping an eye out for sales, finding a deal on manufacturer refurbished device, or buying “new in box” versions of last-gen flagship devices. One other way to score a good deal is to consider going the “used” route.

Used. There’s just something about this word that seems to have a negative connotation, as in “we’ve used it up, it’s no longer good”. That’s probably why so many retailers that sell used products (games, hardware, cars, etc) tend to use the word pre-owned as an alternative. Scary word aside, buying used doesn’t have to be a bad experience. Personally, I’ve bought a number of used devices online over the years, mostly as secondary phones and tablets or to gift to friends and family. Almost every time, the experience has been positive.

Wait… Almost every time? Yes, that’s right. I have ran into troubles before, but I learned from them. If you give the process of buying a used phone or tablet due diligence, things can still go wrong but there are many steps you can take to lower the likelihood of an incident as well as ensure there are still a few options for recourse in the event you do run into trouble.

The above tips should help you through the buying experience, and while written primarily with phones in mind, most steps should also apply to tablets. Without further ado, let’s jump right in.

Table of contents:

  1. Know what you’re looking for
  2. Where to buy from
  3. Meeting in person
  4. Inspecting the phone
  5. Negotiating the price
  6. Wrap up

Know what you’re looking for

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Pretty obvious first step, right? You need to know what you’re looking for before you start buying. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to have an exact model picked out, though.

Start by deciding the minimum specs you are looking for, the minimum Android OS you’re willing to live with, what sizes you are looking for, and the maximum budget you have to spend. This should give you an idea of what to look for and should help you narrow it down to just a small handful of handsets. You may find that your specs goals are too lofty considering your budget, and so adjust if necessary.

How do you know how much you should be paying for a used phone? Research! You’ll want to hit Swappa, Ebay, Craiglist, Amazon and just about any online source you can think of where they have used phones for sale.

How do you know how much you should be paying for a used phone? Research!

Pay careful attention to condition, not the median price. That scratched up beater of a Galaxy S4 on sale for $149 (buy now price) on Ebay shouldn’t be compared to the mint condition Galaxy S4 on Swappa going for $300. Compare mints to mints, goods to goods, etc. Figure out what makes a phone mint, good, okay and poor and decide on a minimum quality you want to be looking for — from there, you can quickly figure out a fair price. Likewise, make sure the phones you are looking for aren’t just the same condition, but they are both either locked to same network or both unlocked, depending on what you are looking for.

Want to save even more money? Timing is everything. Generally speaking, you’ll get a better deal on a phone that was released to six months ago then one released 5 months ago. At a year, the pricing goes down even further than a phone that’s ten or eleven months old. And even bigger jump occurs once the phone has been on the market for two years or more. Also, if possible, time your buys with the release of new iterations of the device. If your heart desires a used Galaxy S5, wait until the Galaxy S6 has been announced, or better yet until it’s been on retail shelves for a few weeks. Same goes for the Galaxy S4, it will likely be even cheaper once the GS6 hits.

Where to buy from

Have a good handle on what you are looking for, and roughly how much you want to spend? Now you need to figure out the best source to buy from. There are a ton of places to do this, though in this article I’ll only focus on ones I’ve had personal experience with. That said, I invite readers to share other useful retailers and online classifieds that they’ve dealt with in the comments below.

Swappa

swappa

Swappa is my absolute favorite place to go when looking for used phones, or even offloading ones I no longer want. What makes this site so compelling? It’s easy, there’s less BS to deal with and — as long as you are careful — odds are you won’t get screwed when dealing with Swappa.

Swappa requires sellers to verify that the phone in their pictures is really in their possession by requiring them to put a piece of paper with an identification number on it within the photos. Beyond that, they run ESN checks and personally approve every listing before a seller’s item can be bought.

Swappa also integrates with Paypal, a service most of us on the web already have set up. Furthermore, if you do end up with a phone that doesn’t meet its description, Paypal is usually pretty good about refunding you.

Things to consider…

  • Swappa tends to have pricer phones than sources like Craiglist and Ebay, probably in part because there is usually less risk. You’ll have to decide what’s worth more to you: keeping risk low, or getting the best price.
  • Careful on buying from Swappa sellers that have no stars. The ONE time I did this, the person never shipped the device and it took months of attempting to contact them and dealing with Swappa/Paypal before I got my refund. I’m not saying all one star sellers are scam artists, but those with several successful sales under their belts are probably more trusthworthy — though they also tend to charge more than one-star guys!
  • Paypal is good about giving money back, but it takes time. As mentioned in the point before this, it took like a month and half or so (maybe slightly longer?) to get my money back. So if you absolutely have only a set amount of money and need a phone right away, keep in mind that if you do have to get a refund, you may be without a new phone for a while if things go wrong.

Ebay

ebay for android

I’ve only bought three phones from Ebay, and tend to use it as an alternative if I can’t find what I’m looking for on Swappa or elsewhere. That said, Ebay can actually be a great place to get a phone and tends to have some of the cheapest pricing around.

Like Swappa, there’s Paypal protection that can help you get your money back if you get scammed. Buying from Ebay is also pretty easy, as long as you do some research on the phones and seller before you commit.

Things to consider…

  • Check that ESN! Ask the seller if you’ll be able to check the ESN independently before buying. Some will allow it, some will not. It’s up to you to decide how much risk you want to take in this situation.
  • Careful on picking a seller. Make sure they have a good rating, and check out what they’ve been selling. If they sold 10,000 Pampered Chef items and this is their first phone, keep that in mind. You want a seller that has successfully sold mobile devices in the past and not someone who generally specializes in something else. Why’s that? They should (hopefully) know what to do to ensure a good buying experience for their customers.
  • Grill them with questions! Paypal is good about refunding you money if a product isn’t as described, but many scam artists know how to get around this by using vague wording and answering questions carefully. Ask about ESN, ask about scratches, hardware damage and basically anything you can think of. If their responses are vague, ask for more details. For example, if you ask about physical appearance and they say it has “a small scratch on the front of the screen”, make sure to follow up with “So the back and sides are all scratch free without any blemishes?”
  • Be sure to make sure there is a return policy, if not that means you will be dealing solely with Paypal if things go wrong.

Craiglist

craigslist

I’ve only dealt with Craiglist once, purchasing a used Nexus 7 (2012) as a gift for a friend. It went well, but I’m still leery about using Craiglist for mobile devices. The reason is that you have to make a judgment call on the person’s listing quality, and then if you meet you have to quickly do your best to judge the phone and the person selling it (shady people tend to sell shady things…)

Things to consider…

  • Check the ESN. Also be sure to place your own SIM card into the phone to ensure all is working.
  • Remember that even if a phone works with your SIM card and appears perfect, it could still be flagged as stolen (or for non-payment) latter. That means you need to feel that this is an honest person listing the phone, and sometimes it is hard to make that judgment.
  • Make a mistake? You’re on your own. There’s no protections once the purchase is made.

Social networks, word of mouth, etc.

Facebook apps

Ask your friends and family if they have, or know anyone that has, an older phone that they’d be willing to part with for cheap. You can do this by calling or texting people, or use social networks like Google+ and Facebook.

Often times, these types of deals can give you the lowest pricing out of any of the other options mentioned.

Things to consider…

  • While buying from a social network can be safe, it’s important you trust who you are buying from. Stick to “true” friends and family if possible, and not the friend of a friend of a friend. Knowing where they live doesn’t hurt either. ;)
  • Make a mistake? You’re on your own. There’s no protections once the purchase is made.
  • Check the ESN. Also be sure to place your own SIM card into the phone to ensure all is working.

Going to meet in person? Here’s some tips for before the meet-up

Going with an Ebay in-person pickup, Craiglist, a social network or other source that calls for an in-person meeting? Honestly, in some ways this is best because you actually get to look at the phone before you say yes, instead of relying on pictures. Before you set the meet-up, here’s some things to keep in mind:

  • Before meeting, let them know you will want to insert your own SIM, you’ll want proof it can charge, proof it can power up and you’ll be checking to ensure its in 100% working order at every level. If they seem cool with it, you found someone who is either trustworthy or very confident they can scam you even if you are as thorough as you can be.
  • Make sure you meet in a public location as opposed to a home, when possible. It should also be during the day for both safety reasons and because it makes it easier to see the phone.

Inspecting the phone

Samsung Galaxy S5 Sport Review Burgundy-4

At first glance this section might seem to apply only to those buying in-person. While these are certainly great steps for buying in person, they are also useful for the moment you get the phone in the mail. Following these steps helps you detect problems early, so you can either deny buying the phone if you are looking at it in person, or begin steps to get your money back if you already bought the device.

Stuff to bring with you for the inspection:

  • Bring a battery pack or a laptop, as well as a charging cable
  • A MicroSD card if the phone has a slot for it
  • Headphones
  • An active SIM card that is compatible with the phone you are testing
  • A flashlight

Before you even boot the phone up, give it a visual examination. Start with the screen, how scratched up is? If the phone has physical keys, are they in good condition (press in okay, etc). Is the front camera’s glass cracked or damaged in any way? Next, move to the sides, checking for scratches and dents, testing the buttons out for how well they click and press. Finally move to the back, checking the camera for scratches or a broken lens, as well as scratches and other damage to the back.

If all looks good up to this point, remove the back if it has a removable back. Check the battery and other components. Also make note of whether or not the battery is original or a 3rd party battery. This can make a very real difference on the negotiation price. Be sure to open all slots for microSD and SIM, check for visible damage signs. Speaking of checking for damage, don’t forget about water damage!

Following these steps helps you detect problems early, so you can either deny buying the phone if you are looking at it in person, or begin steps to get your money back if you already bought the device.

All phones should offer a water damage indicator sticker somewhere, sometimes within the headphone jack, the SIM slot or somewhere behind the backplate on phones with removable backs. You’ll want to research where the sticker is found for the phone you are looking for before meeting up. Seeing the sticker can sometimes be hard, and that’s where a small flashlight comes in handy.

Now it is time to put in the SIM card and microSD, and turn the sucker on. Be sure to mess around with the phone’s software, get a feel for how fast it is, how the UI layout is (if it isn’t stock, etc). Make sure you feel comfortable with the phone. Also send a text, make a call and browse the web to ensure the SIM card is working in the phone. And be sure to make sure your microSD card is recognized and working fine. While you are at it, check out all the ports. Plug in them headphones, test the sound with a song, a Youtube clip, whatever. Plug in your own charger cord to either your laptop or a power pack to make sure it is charging. Check any cables they’ve included as well — though if they aren’t working, as long as yours are, this probably isn’t a massive deal.

Everything going well? Good stuff. Now let’s run some more tests. First, use an online tool to check the ESN. Swappa has a good free one, even if you aren’t using Swappa to buy the phone. Also be sure to run a few service codes, which give access to hidden testings menus for the phone. You’ll need to use Google to search for exactly what the code is, as it differs from device to device.

For example, using *#*#4636#*#* on my Nexus 5 brings up a menu that lets me look at detailed Phone Info, Battery Info and more. There’s also tests for checking sensors and more.

Negotiating the deal

Money

For those buying online, you’ll only have one chance at negotiations. For those that are buying in person, before setting up the meeting you’ll want to mention the price you are willing to pay — provided the phone meets set expectations when you see it.

To figure out this price, you’ll want to look at the description in detail, as well as all pictures. Factor in their online rating (if applicable) as well into your pricing decision. Keep in mind that little tiny scratches won’t affect pricing much but bigger dings and scratches on the display are bigger negotiating points. Biggest point, make sure it meets the quality you are looking for, and not just the price.

Feel the person isn’t being reasonable? Walk away. There are plenty of phones online, so take your time. Buying too quickly or settling “because you need a phone” are sure fire ways to end up with a raw deal in the long run.

For those buying in person:

Once you are on scene, you’ll want to thoroughly inspect the phone as mentioned in the section above. If you find any discrepancies, you need to gauge how major they are. If they said no scratches and there are plenty, walk away. If they said light stratches on the display and at least one is more “medium”, bring it up and try to negotiate a slightly better price if you still feel it’s worth buying.

Wrap Up

If you take your time, watch out for shady characters, inspect the phones (in pics, in person, or both) and are firm on what you are looking for, we guarantee you’ll end up with a positive experience. Okay, so that’s not true. There are no guarantees in buying used, and it’s important to remember that. Even with protections in place, there’s a small chance you’ll get scammed and never get your money back.

Don’t let that scare you away! I know many people who buy used phones all the time online and have never ran into a problem, including myself, and I know of much fewer incidents where folks have ever ran into any scams where they couldn’t retrieve their money.

Hopefully the above gives you a good idea of what to look for and where to buy. Did I miss some important hints or tips? Let our readers know about your own suggestions in the comments below.

Andrew Grush
Andrew is one of the three Managing Editors of Android Authority, primarily responsible for the overseeing of US team of writers, in addition to several other projects such as VR Source and more. He loves tech, gaming, his family, and good conversations with like-minded folks.
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