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Description: A PC that has been previously used by someone else, and is being sold by that person for any of a myriad of reasons. The system itself can be any kind of PC: retail, configure-to-order, build-to-order or other; modern or ancient, powerful or past its prime. Usually, older machines are sold by those who are buying new machines rather than upgrading them. Sometimes systems will be sold for any of hundreds of other reasons, however, ranging from business liquidations to estate sales.
Advantages: The main advantage of a used PC is that you can get one very inexpensively. PCs depreciate rapidly in price, which works to your advantage when shopping used. They also usually already have an operating system and software installed on them, and are "ready to use" except for any customizations you may need to make. Sometimes you can upgrade a used machine to a level equal to some new machines while saving hundreds of dollars.
Disadvantages: There are plenty of disadvantages of used systems compared to new ones. Obviously, they aren't new machines so they are usually slower, typically have less memory, and usually less storage capacity. They may have flaws or problems that detract from their usability, and they have a higher incidence of failures than most newer machines. You may not get everything that comes with a new PC; for example, the system manual may be missing. The software on the system may be older and you may need to upgrade it. You have to "make do" by finding a used system that is "good enough" for your needs since you obviously can't pick something "ideal".
Notebook Availability: There are plenty of used notebooks on the market today. Since notebooks are, in general, more prone to damage or problems than desktop machines, you must be especially careful when buying these used.
Most Common Sources: Most used PCs are sold by individuals to others in the same geographical area; you can find used PCs listed for sale in the local classified section or sales periodical. Some local PC shops sell PCs used. Online, they are often sold at auction sites or on Usenet.
Recommended Uses: Anywhere that a PC must be purchased on a tight budget. Used machines are especially worth considering if you need a less-powerful system for a specific purpose. For example, if you need a second system for running educational software for small children, or to act as a print server, or just for connecting to the Internet, you don't need the power of even a low-end new PC. For half the money you can get an older system that may even be of higher quality than buying a "super-cheap" new PC.
Cost: Usually between $500 and $1,500, but often even less than $500.
Special Considerations: The biggest problem with used PCs is that many are ridiculously overpriced, because most people who sell used items price them compared to what they cost when they were new. PCs typically depreciate by as much as 80% to 90% after a few years, and PC sellers have a hard time accepting that, so they try to get more than the PC is worth. (It seems counter-intuitive, but when you see an ad for a used PC that says "cost $2,700 four years ago, now only $500", it could easily be a very bad deal!) This usually corrects itself over time when the seller gets no interest in the item for sale, but make sure you don't overpay. Compare the value and utility of the used PC to what a new one would cost, and pay according to that; what the original owner paid for the system has no relevance.
Obviously, use the same precautions that you would in buying anything used: thoroughly examine the device and check it out in every way possible. If you aren't very familiar with PCs, have a friend inspect the system for you (much the way you would take a used car you were considering to a trusted mechanic). If buying online, buy from a reputable seller willing to guarantee at least that the system is not DOA.
Finally, and I realize this is a personal matter, but be careful when buying or selling from or to friends, relatives and co-workers. Sometimes disputes occur if something goes bad shortly after it changes hands. If you are PC-savvy, watch out for selling computers to acquaintances, as you may unintentionally become a free technical support department for life. This warning doesn't apply to selling to friends and family since you're going to be stuck doing that for them regardless and it might actually be easier if you are at least familiar with the system. ;^)
Next: "As Is" Retail PCs