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Quick Tips for Computer Buying on eBay

Know what you want, search smart, and make sure the software's legal

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People are aghast when I tell them that for the last ten years I’ve bought every computer I’ve owned on eBay—without a single unhappy transaction or a single problem of any kind. Yes, it is possible to buy something as complex, fragile, and expensive as a PC on eBay, so long as you approach the problem with some basic sound techniques.

  • Know exactly what you’re looking for before you begin to search. This can’t be overstated, given the wide range of computers on eBay and indeed the wide range of computers out there in the world today. Do you want a desktop or a laptop? Do you want a PC or a Mac? Do you want an all-inclusive package with every imaginable accessory and feature or just the bare bones machine and nothing else? Or is price the most important factor to you of all, no matter what you get? All of these things need to be decided before you start to search on eBay, or you’ll be wasting time combing through a massive list of search results without any particular goal.

  • Search smart for just what you want. If the configuration of the machine is the most important thing to you, use the eBay product finder for the computing category on eBay that matches the type of computer you want to buy. If price is also important to you, scroll down on any search results page and use the custom search options on that page to narrow your search by price.

  • Know what you need to have included. Do your homework beforehand to know what is and isn’t supposed to come with the machine you want, or alternatively, what accessories you do and don’t need. Make sure that the listings you’re interested in include the things you want—power cords or AC adapters, batteries, CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, or other types of disk drives, and so on. Don’t assume that something other than the box itself normally comes with a PC—most of the time the opposite is true. Many eBay sellers even ship computers without operating systems (i.e. without Windows—computers that won’t start without extra work and special software). If the seller doesn’t list it, don’t expect it to be included.

  • Check condition carefully. When buying a used computer, buy only from sellers that carefully describe the item’s condition and that include photos of the actual unit in question—many computer resellers on eBay sell off-lease corporate machines that may come with blemishes or damage that varies from machine to machine. If things like battery life, screen brightness, loose hinges, or keyboard stiffness are important to you, read the item description carefully to see if these concerns are addressed and if they aren’t, contact the seller to ask about the condition of the item in question. Don’t bid on items for which you can’t get a satisfactory answer.

  • Check legality carefully. Be sure that any included software is legally included and licensed for the machine in question, or you could find yourself in legal hot water right alongside the seller. Be very wary of auctions that include lots and lots of big-name software “already installed” on the computer for a very low price—chances are the software isn’t legal and that you’ll be breaking the law every time you use it.

  • Check feedback and look for warning signs. In addition to all of the computer-specific checks, it remains every bit as important in computer buying as anywhere else to check the feedback of your seller and to look for warning signs that might indicate that the auction in question isn’t on the up-and-up.

  • Beware of shipping costs. Computers tend to be reasonably large, nominally heavy, and fragile enough to require lots of extra packaging material for shipment. For this reason, computer shipping costs can often run quite high, anywhere from $20-40 for a laptop or notebook system to over $100 for a fully configured desktop system. Be sure to account for shipping costs in your budget as you comb through auction listings.

  • Check shipping methods and tracking availability. Since computers are amongst the most commonly stolen items and computer boxes tend to be rather conspicuous by their size, shape, and markings, be sure to buy only from sellers who ship via methods that you can receive in person—for example, services for which a tracking number is available so that you know when to be home to receive the item, or services for which a signature is required. If in doubt, ask the seller whether such methods are available before you bid. After all, you don’t want your laptop sitting on your driveway in a giant “Dell Laptop” box over the weekend while you’re away.

The two most important things to remember about buying a computer on eBay are very general in nature. First, don’t try to buy a computer on eBay before first becoming educated about the type(s) of computers you might like to buy and the types of features you’re interested in; to buy what you don’t understand on eBay is just as dangerous as is buying what you don’t understand anywhere else. Second, when it comes to pricing and included features, remember the saying: “if it seems to good to be true, it probably is.”

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