Dennis, this is an excellent question and one with several answers. I’ll try to break things down here in a way that covers most of the opinions out there either for or against buying secondhand laptops.
First, there is a difference between refurbished and secondhand. While they generally mean the same thing, a factory refurbished MacBook has been through Apple’s rigorous refurbishing process, which includes adding a one-year warranty to each and every MacBook sold through the refurbishing program. That warranty means that Apple will service the MacBook should anything go wrong within the first year, which is a guarantee you won’t get buying one secondhand from a private interest.
To make things easier, we’ll just concentrate on what you should (or shouldn’t) do when buying a MacBook secondhand from an individual versus a retailer.
Do You Trust the Seller?
So many people get disappointed after buying something on an auction site or through Craigslist only to discover that the previous owner didn’t take good care of the item at all. Laptops may appear to look great in the tiny photographs on the site, but what you may not see is the months or even years of rough treatment the internals have endured. Even if everything works, the head on the hard drive or even the motherboard may be on the brink of failure.
On the other hand, if I’m buying form a reputable person, I may be more willing to trust them to take good care of their equipment. For example, if Chris Pirillo (LockerGnome’s founder) were to sell his MacBook Pro, I know for a fact that it would have been kept in a protective shell, frequently cleaned, and very well maintained throughout its time at the Pirillo household.
eBay has the slight advantage of a ratings system for sellers. If you’re buying from someone with a near 100% approval rating and quite a few transactions under their belt, you can generally expect the MacBook to be in fairly good shape. Granted, this is no guarantee.
Buying a laptop sight unseen isn’t something I’d recommend under any circumstance. Yes, you do this a lot when buying through retailers, but a person-to-person transaction is a little different. If you’re buying from someone local, you may want to pack a flash drive with CineBench on it when you go to look at the computer.
Benchmarking and Testing
An honest person will allow you to check out the computer before handing over your cash. If someone doesn’t like the idea of me, a potential buyer, checking out the About screen on OS X or running a benchmark program, they probably have doubts about the system’s ability to complete the test.
Plug your USB flash drive in every USB port on the machine, and test it. This will make sure that the USB ports are good, and nothing is worse than a bad USB port on a laptop. A lot of the time, these things go bad and the owner never realizes it because they don’t use that particular port very often. When they do, they blame the gadget that’s plugged into it rather than the port itself.
When running your diagnostic program (or benchmarking tool, if you prefer), listen to the fans as they kick in. The point of stressing the computer out during the initial evaluation is to make sure that not only can it handle being put to the test, but it allows you to listen for any telltale squeaks or hums in the fans. This can be an indication of a bearing on its way out, and a potentially costly repair depending on which MacBook you’re looking at. Fans in laptops aren’t easy to replace, and I’m not a fan (pun intended) of buying anything that is giving me red flags in that regard.
A MacBook comes with a one-year manufacturer’s warranty. This is transferable with a simple phone call from the original owner to Apple letting Apple know the new owner’s name and address. This isn’t someone often done, and I’m sure Apple will service a MacBook under warranty without this call if you asked nicely.
AppleCare is also transferable, once. The original owner can call Apple and have this plan moved into another person’s name one time during the life of the policy. That means an existing AppleCare agreement can indeed be a value add to the deal, and shouldn’t be overlooked when considering the value of the laptop.
Before you part ways with the seller, make sure they call Apple and do this. It’s much easier than simply hoping that they keep up their end of the bargain. Be patient, this call can take 20-30 minutes on a busy day.
I’m not a big fan of buying used laptops. Even though I know desktop computers are also quite prone to abuse and failure, I feel more comfortable recommending a used desktop over a laptop. If you have to buy a used MacBook, make sure there is either a warranty or an existing AppleCare plan in place just in case what you bought doesn’t quite survive the trip home.
People are asking a lot of money for used Apple computers, even years after models have passed their prime. The funny thing is, there is a big difference between what people ask for something and how much they will actually get for it. I recently sold my 2010 iMac for about half of what I paid for it retail. By eBay standards, I should have gotten 90% of the value back, but I don’t think my conscience would have agreed.
Take some time to evaluate what the system you’re considering purchasing is actually worth, and go from there. You may find that a refurbished MacBook with the exact same specs can be picked up for about as much as someone will ask for it secondhand. If you ask me, refurbished MacBooks are worth a lot more than ones that are used.