What to watch for when buying a used iPhone

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If you lose or break your iPhone, you’re on the hook to replace it. That doesn’t mean you have to buy a new one, though. There are plenty of used iPhones available on the market, and given that some people go so far as to buy a new iPhone every time Apple releases an update, many aren’t even that heavily used.

Recently, I found myself in need of a new iPhone. Rather than pony up for a brand new model, I entered the potentially shady world of the used iPhone market. I learned that if I used common sense—and sought out return polices—it was possible to find a worthy replacement from the scores of phones available for resale.

Sizing up the situation

Mobile carriers heavily subsidize the new iPhones customers buy with a contract. A 16GB iPhone 4S may cost $200 with a two-year contract, but that same phone without a new contract costs a whopping $649. Likewise, an 8GB iPhone 4 costs $100 with a contract, but will run you $549 without.

I didn’t want to spend $650, and I’m not upgrade eligible for another nine months, so I couldn’t start a new contract. That meant I needed to find a used phone.

My criteria seemed simple: an iPhone in good condition that would work as well as I’ve come to expect from my previous devices: reliable cell network reception, a battery that can go a day of use without recharge, and no scratches that mar the visibility of the screen.

If you’re in a similar situation, I’m glad to report you can find a used iPhone in good condition. Here are some of the things to look out for as you shop.

Before you buy

As you start looking for a used iPhone, keep these things in mind:

Stay in network: If you’re under contract, find an iPhone that already works on your network. It’s easier. You might be able unlock the used iPhone that you buy, but that doesn’t work reliably. You can, of course, always decide to leave your current carrier, but you’ll likely be charged an early termination fee (ETF), which can often run in the hundreds of dollars.

Check warranty and support status: If you’re looking for an iPhone that is under warranty, enter the serial number at Apple’s site to find the current support and service status of the unit. (Not an option if you can’t get the serial number before purchase, of course.)

Consider which model you need: The older the model, the less you’ll pay. The iPhone 4S costs a premium on the used market – usually $350 or more. I found that a used iPhone 4 usually costs $80 to $100 less than a 4S; an iPhone 3GS was a similar amount less than the iPhone 4.

Buying options

I found three kinds of sources for used iPhones: local sellers, auction sites, and fixed priced sites. Each had its own pros and cons.

Local sellers: This group included friends and friends of friends, but mostly relied on Craigslist. I saw the cheapest prices here, but I also encountered the shadiest practices. Those listing the cheapest phones rarely responded, and I wondered if they were just collecting email addresses for spammers.

Friends who bought iPhones through Craigslist told me that they later found some flaws with the phones, such as the phone not receiving calls well. So be cautious: Question the seller’s motivation for part with a phone in good working order. In the world of local sellers, if a deal looks too good to be true, it probably is.

Fixed-priced sites: These are sites where the seller sets the price, like the used section of Amazon.com, or resellers such as CowBoom or GameStop. I found the most expensive prices at these sites.

Cow tip: Sites like CowBoom sell used and refurbished devices like iPhones.

On the upside, these sites generally include a return policy of some kind—an important safety net when dealing with used items. Amazon.com’s Marketplace comprises a mix of reseller companies and individuals, but all come with ratings to help assess trustworthiness, and Amazon.com guarantees the quality of the product will match the description.

Auction sites: On auction sites, bidders set the price based on demand—the more people who want an item, the higher the price goes. After watching several auctions, I found that most phones end up selling within a $50 range and were almost always less expensive than fixed-priced sites—and sometimes even less than what local sellers were asking. Auction sites also offer the additional advantage of seller ratings, so you can see what kind of person you’re doing business with.

Auction sites that let individuals list products, like eBay, are more risky than sites that run their own auctions, like Cowboom (it offers both fixed price and auctions). Cowboom also offers a return policy for its auctions, while eBay leaves that up to the individual.

Trust, but verify

When you first get your hands on the iPhone, you should run it through a checklist to figure out if it’s up to snuff. If you’re buying from a local seller, you may not get the chance to do all these, but some examination is better than none. Here are some things to look for:

Examine the exterior and connections: Look for scratches or chips in the glass. Does the dock connector show noticeable wear? Plug it into charger to make sure it will take a charge. Listen to music through the headphone jack.

Look at the display: Check for dead pixels or color issues. The easiest way to do this is probably to visit the iPhone Dead Pixel Tester, which lets you set the screen to a solid color and make sure there are no stuck pixels.

Surf the Web over Wi-Fi and the cell network: Ideally use the phone in an area where you know what kind of coverage you used to get.

Make a call, send a text: See how the phone handles common tasks and ensure the cell connection and antenna work.

Take a picture: Make sure the image doesn’t show any visual oddities like smudges.

Battery assault: You can quickly check the battery's most recent charge in Settings -> General -> Usage.

Check the battery: In Settings -> General -> Usage, check the time since last full charge. If you have a return option, charge the phone to full then use it normally for a day or two. See if you are getting the battery life you expected.

Caveat emptor

For me, Cowboom turned out to be the best option – though my experience wasn’t without issue. I bought an iPhone 4S through auction and, while physically flawless, I received a phone whose battery just wouldn’t hold up under normal usage. After troubleshooting the issue for a week, I sent the phone back to Cowboom using its return process. I was refunded my money within a few weeks, no problems.

I also bought an iPhone 4 from Cowboom, and it performed as advertised. I’ll use that one until I’m eligible for an upgrade through my cell carrier, then maybe I’ll sell it on Craigslist. Or eBay. Keep an eye out for it. I’ll make you a good deal.

[Michael Gowan is a freelance writer and Macworld contributor.]

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