To buy or not to buy refurbished?

An Apple iPhone 4GS.

Tess Vigeland: Buy local isn't the only consumer rallying cry you'll hear these days. "Buy used" is another one. And not just used but refurbished. Stuff that's been returned to the manufacturer for some reason, refurbed and resold at a discount.

Our own Nancy Marshall-Genzer became an expert after shopping for a cell phone.


Nancy Marshall-Genzer: Now, I do have a bit of history with refurbs. My husband, Jan Genzer, started buying refurbs long before we were married. He sat down at our kitchen table with me recently to reminisce.

Marshall-Genzer to husband: Honey do you remember your first refurb?

Jan Genzer: I think everyone remembers their first refurb.

His was a piece of broadcast equipment for a new radio show he was starting. That was back in '93. There've been many more refurbs in his life since then.

Jan: I couldn't begin to quantify the number of refurbs that I've acquired over the years. My favorite refurbs? That washer and dryer. Those are really -- those are really good.

Sound of washer and dryer

Good and durable. He got them as refurbs more than 10 years ago -- nd they're still going strong.

We also have a refurb lawn mower. My husband loves refurbished auto parts. His laptop is a refurb. And he just got a refurbished iPod Touch. He's trying to turn me into a refurb fan and has already started indoctrinating our two-year-old twin boys.

Jan: Now, say refurb. Refurb.

Toddlers babbling

Jan: Who can say refurb?

So, as I shop for a new cell phone, I have a long family tradition to uphold. I have my heart set on an iPhone. Of course, my husband wants me to get a refurb.

That would save money. Refurbished products are up to 70 percent cheaper than new ones. I like that. But they usually have been returned to the manufacturer for some reason. I don't like that. So I asked Jack Gillis for some advice. He's with the Consumer Federation of America.

Jack Gillis: About one in five products that we buy is returned. And the vast majority of those returns are not for reasons of defect. They are simply because we didn't like the item, we decided we didn't need the item.

Gillis says some things classified as refurbs aren't actually factory returns. They might have been floor models, overstock. Or open box, with the box slit open but the product inside never touched. But Gillis says, if a refurb was returned after someone bought it, you may have a short warranty.

Gillis: That warranty may be beginning when the original person purchased the product. So therefore you won't get as much time on the warranty. It might be worth it to take that gamble. But beware, if it doesn't have a good warranty, there's a potential problem for you down the road.

Gillis says you're more likely to have problems with something that has lots of moving parts, like a washing machine or lawn mower. There are fewer things that can go wrong with electronics. Gillis says, beware of refurbs sold "as is." Meaning they have no warranty and can't be returned. That got me to thinking. Are there a lot of problems with refurbs?

Katherine Hutt: The complaints that we've been getting on refurbished products has been growing. It peaked in 2009. We got over 3,000 complaints that year about refurbished products.

That's Katherine Hutt. Chief spokeswoman for the Better Business Bureau. Guess what refurbished products got the most complaints?

Hutt: We get the most complaints about refurbished cell phones.

Oh great. But Hutt also says that's not surprising.

Hutt: I think that's not reflective of the cell phone refurbishers as much as it's reflective of how often we replace our cell phones. We replace our cell phones more often than we replace our TVs.

So there are a lot more refurbished cell phones floating around to complain about. And Hutt says complaints about all refurbs have flattened out after that peak in 2009. That's good news. Still, I'm wavering. Trying to decide between refurb and new. There's absolutely no doubt in my husband's mind.

Jan: I've been very fortunate in my experience with refurbs. But I think they're less likely to give you problems than buying that new stuff.

Marshall-Genzer: So, honey, would you be horrified if I bought a new iPhone?

Jan: If that's what you want. I'll still love you. But I think you should try really hard to find a refurb iPhone.

So, I started looking for a refurbed iPhone. But you know what? They're really hard to find! I guess everyone's figured out that refurbs are a good deal. So, I had to buy a new iPhone. My husband is still speaking to me. My kids are delighted with any new gadget.

But I do have to keep my phone away from them. It does have a full warranty. But unfortunately, it doesn't cover natural disasters like a toddler temper tantrum.

Sound of toddler screaming and crying

I'm Nancy Marshall-Genzer for Marketplace Money.

About the author

Nancy Marshall-Genzer is a senior reporter for Marketplace based in Washington, D.C. covering daily news.

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