Why your next phone might be a refurb

Julio Franco

Posts: 8,675   +1,549
Staff member

It wasn't all that long ago that savvy consumers were reluctant to buy refurbished electronics. As recently as 2012, MacWorld called the world of refurbed iPhones "potentially shady," while one Lifehacker writer cautioned readers that her "personal experience buying refurbished gadgets has been a horror story."

But recently, there's been a surge in people buying refurbished smartphones. And tech experts have changed their tune: CNET's Rick Broida famously declared that shoppers should opt for a refurb Apple product over a new item "every time."

Factory-refurbs with manufacturer warranties can be an affordable, reliable option — and demand is growing.

Our friends at DealNews have long been fans of the noble refurb. When backed by a proper warranty and a return policy, a refurbished smartphone can save you a ton of cash over a brand-new model. But even knowing what a great deal a refurb phone can be, we're still a little surprised at just how popular refurbished smartphones have gotten recently. So what's behind this shopping trend?

Refurb demand to double by 2017

A recent Gartner survey found that the demand for refurbished phones will grow to 120 million units by 2017, a business that will be worth about $14 billion. This is up from 56 million units in 2014. In essence, the refurb market is expected to just about double in only a few years' time. According to Gartner, over half the people buying refurbs are getting a new phone because they want access to new features, or they "just want" that new device feel.

Those figures are in line with trends that resale services like Gazelle are seeing. According to Gazelle's Kevin Walther, market research has found that about 40 million U.S. consumers would consider purchasing a used smartphone. Since Gazelle launched its certified pre-owned smartphone store in October, the company has seen month-over-month growth of about 20%.

4 things that are driving consumers to refurbs

Need a Device

A quarter of all customers surveyed simply needed to replace a device that had been lost, stolen, or damaged in some way. And over half of customers surveyed were opting for refurbs as a low-cost device to give to a child or other family member.


About a third of customers simply wanted to upgrade to a newer phone. There's a cyclical nature to the smartphone marketplace. Smartphone manufacturers tend to release new phones yearly, but customers are often tied into two-year contracts. According to a study from Recon Analytics, the average American consumer will upgrade to a new smartphone every 22 months or so.

That means there are a lot of relatively new phones available as refurb models. For people who don't need the fastest processors or the latest features, a refurb smartphone still has a lot of useful life left. Refurbs are also a nice option for people who want the flexibility to upgrade their phones more frequently than every two years.

Lower Rates

A great blog post over at The Frugal Girl outlines another huge benefit of buying a refurb phone: lower monthly bills. The post explains how one family pays a mere $21/month for their two refurbished smartphones. For people who want to go the pay-as-you-go route, a refurbished smartphone can save you a ton of money, particularly if you are paying more than $100 per month with your current plan.

For more on saving on your phone bill, check out our guides to reducing costs, comparing providers, and Verizon's latest rate cuts.

Environmental Reasons

Another, admittedly less-common, reason that some people are buying refurbished smartphones is the environment. While the Gartner survey was quick to point out that only a small number of used smartphones end up in an official recycling program, nearly 64% of old smartphones get "recycled" by people who give them to others directly, or those who participate in some kind of refurb trade-in program. Those who are environmentally conscious feel good about buying a phone that might have otherwise been discarded.

Refurb deals are plentiful, too good to miss

There's another factor at play here, too. As retailers and carriers offer better deals for your used phone, people are upgrading even more frequently. That means more refurbished (and better) phones are hitting the market every time a new device comes out.

For example, I personally traded in both my iPhone 4s and the iPhone 5s not long after the new generations debuted, just because the trade in offers at major retailers (Best Buy and Staples, respectively) were so good. So when people like me trade in their still very new phones for the very latest and greatest, bargain hunters can get a great deal on a phone that's been gently used.

In addition, more people are flocking to refurbished smartphones because there are simply more places to buy such devices. Carriers like Verizon and AT&T both have refurb programs, and so do online retailers like Amazon, eBay, and Overstock. National retailers like Best Buy and GameStop also sell refurbished devices.

All refurbs are NOT equal

It is very important to note that when we discuss the advantages of refurbished electronics, we are talking specifically about factory-refurbished items from the manufacturer, or those from an authorized reseller (which are often listed on the manufacturer's website). This will ensure that the refurbishment was actually worthwhile, and more importantly, that a warranty is still in effect and backed by a reputable source.

We have noted before that third parties on sites like eBay and Rakuten can sell so-called refurbs that may be simply used, grey market, or even a knock-off.

Readers, have you ever bought a refurbished smartphone? Did you have a like-new experience, or did you get stuck with a lemon?

And for more on buying refurbs, be sure to check out our guide to refurbished electronics, and our list of the top brands for doing so.

This article originally appeared on dealnews. Republished with permission. Tucker Cummings is a dealnews contributor who firmly believes that paying full price is for suckers. She loves to write about technology deals and money-saving tips for students. Her work has also appeared on Yahoo! TV, Lifehack.org, DAME, and American Gentleman. In her spare time, she also writes short fiction.

Image credit: Mobile phones background by Maxx-Studio

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Posts: 631   +278
TechSpot Elite
The contract on my Refurbished S3 Mini runs out in July, and I don't know whether it's clogged up with updates, if that's how the phone actually is or whether it's just slowing down to die now, probably a combination of all three, but it's getting pretty slow now. Get a refurbished high-end because it'll probably perform much better in the long run.


Posts: 8,645   +3,286
I'm aware there are great deals to be had in the 2n hand market but truth be told, I've never bought anything 2nd hand in my life apart from a '71 Ford Escort 1100cc in '05 for a song (it was a clapped out old rust bucket by the way) which I restored to original stock showroom condition and can easily sell it for more than 60X it's original brand new sticker price but I won't, I've only ever bought brand new stuff, even my house that I still live in was newly built when I bought it over 30 years ago.
I guess I just don't like taking over someone elses stuff.


Also don't forget the looming shortage of rare earth. Demand currently outpaces supply of this element. We will have to look to the moon to keep up this level of consumption.


Posts: 16,131   +4,901
During, and prior to the early 90's, electronic equipment factory warranties were much longer than they are now.. Consequently, the cost of servicing those warranties was recycled to the consumer via much higher prices. As the industry's manufacturing abilities advanced, dropping costs still further, it has become more practical, to simply throw many items away.

But, refurbished item are showing up more frequently. Much of the items are likely not even damaged, but are bad returns brought on by consumer stupidity, simply having bought the wrong item, stepping up to a better item, or not knowing how to operate the item in question, and returning it on the basis of that alone.

One area where buying refurbished items is not the best of ideas, is where the returns were caused by design defect(s), some of which are not entirely possible to remedy.

I've purchased several Nikon DSLR camera bodies recently, which are backed and ostensibly done by Nikon USA. What I have found, is that many to most of these, may not have ever been in the hands of consumers. IMHO, (and observation), these cameras may simply be overstock of discontinued items, which Nikon is eager to rid themselves of.

The only catch with these refurbs is, the warranty is shortened to 90 days, parts and labor. Which goes right back to what I said earlier, about warranty service being in large part responsible for the cost of the items to consumers.

Since a thousand dollar DSLR still can't be considered, "disposable", I'm thinking everybody wins here.


Posts: 3,023   +1,195
I've bought 5 used phones from kijiji.
HTC Touch Diamond, iPhone 4, Samsung Galaxy S, LG P930, and my current Note II, and never had a problem with any of them. I've had the Note II for over a year now (same battery).

I did have to RMA two RAM kits, a video card, a motherboard, and an H100i - all bought new.



Posts: 350   +85
Refurbished, used, 2nd market has been in Asia due to the fact that there were no subsidies and people were paying full price for the nice new phones - especially feature phones that were getting smaller in the mid-2000s. This also gave the consumer much more cash when they turn in those phones.

With less contracts in the US wireless industry, I see the refurbished and 2nd market steadily increasing.


Posts: 16,131   +4,901
Also don't forget the looming shortage of rare earth. Demand currently outpaces supply of this element. We will have to look to the moon to keep up this level of consumption.
"Rare earth", isn't "an element", it's a group of elements, which are difficult to refine from one another. I strenuously doubt the moon is in a position to help with that issue.

Besides, "rare earth elements", aren't rare at all, just very difficult to isolate.


Posts: 323   +100
My current one almost was a refurb. There's too many huge phones on the market so I picked an HTC Desire C as it was one of the smallest smartphones I could get on a contract at the time, though I did consider picking up a SIM only and hunting down a refurb (Sony Experia M was one I considered I think)


Posts: 615   +88
MY new phone would never ever be a scummy second hand piece of crap. If can't afford a new phone then I can't afford a phone. Refurbed phones are always scratched up and caked in scumm even professional refurb ones.