How I Bought A Good Laptop on eBay

As I mentioned, I’m now the proud owner of a MacBook Pro. I bought a MacBook new last year and loved it, but needed some more graphics power to do serious picture editing. I couldn’t afford a new MacBook Pro, however, so I started looking around for a used one.

I ended up with a great machine and I believe I got a good deal on it with a little work and some patience. There are certainly a lot of bad deals to be had, so perhaps the principles I followed can help you avoid some mistakes and hold out for the best deal.

Here’s my advice:

1. Look at places other than eBay. eBay has become so popular that there are people who are willing to pay crazy prices for stuff, probably just to feel the gratification of winning an auction. However, you can often find better deals on stuff from people who want to sell something quick and avoid the eBay fees. I always start with Craigslist and just check out what’s there. Look also for other sites that have classified ads – some blogs are starting to do this, along with some online merchants. If nothing else, just look at the selection and asking prices to get a good idea of the market.

2. Know the cost of a new one. When looking at used stuff, especially high-demand laptops like a MacBook Pro, it’s easy for the items to get bid up to a very high price – so high, in some cases, that it’s almost better to buy a new one.

I knew that I wanted a MacBook Pro – 17 inch was my first choice but I would settle for a good 15 inch. I checked around and found out that there were $150 rebates on new MacBook Pro’s, so I could get a new 17 inch core 2 duo for $2650 from Amazon with free shipping and no tax. Thus, it didn’t make much sense to pay $2500 for a used 17 inch core duo (which you can easily do on eBay). Similarly a new high end 15 inch MBP I could get for $2350 on Amazon.

I thus had my upper limits and decided that a good used model would have to come less than $250 off the new price to be viable. In other words, if a used one were within $250 of a new one, I’d buy the new one.

3. Know the specs. This is one of the most important things you can do when buying anything on eBay. For Macs, there are relatively few possible configurations that Apple offers, so it’s a bit easier than with PC’s. However, there are some important differences that aren’t always obvious between the models that you need to know to evaluate what you’re getting.

On the 15 inch MBP, there are currently 3 major revisions (A, B, C). Revision C, the current one, has the newer core 2 duo processors, while revisions A and B have the original core duo. Now, in each revision, the 15 inch model came with 2 choices of processor – Rev A had 1.83GHz or 2.0GHz; Rev B had 2.0GHz or 2.16GHz, and Rev C offers a 2.16GHz or 2.33GHz. So, if you see a 2.16GHz MBP, you’ll need to figure out if it is the high end Rev A or the low end Rev B.

Since the main difference between the high end and low end versions (other than the processor) is the video RAM (256M vs. 128M), it was very important to me to get a high end version with the additional VRAM. The best place I know of to see the details on all the revisions and models of Mac gear is the MacRumors guides pages – I used the one for the MacBook Pro and referred to it constantly as I looked at various offerings.

4. Always engage the seller. Always ask the seller a question, even if you think you know the answer. Usually there will be something you want to clarify about the listing, but even if there isn’t, it’s important to personally communicate with a real person who will potentially receive a large amount of your money.

You’ll be able to gauge how responsive they are, how polite or professional they are, how much they really know about the item they’re offering, etc. When communicating with the seller, be polite and courteous yourself and assume the best in the other person. But, keep your antennae up for anything that doesn’t make sense or suggests the person may not be 100% legit.

Remember that people get scammed all the time and the scams usually aren’t very sophisticated – a simple honest question and answer will keep most scammers away from you.

5. Check the serial number. An honest seller should give you the serial number of the Mac they’re selling if they believe you’re genuinely interested. If they don’t put it in their listing, ask for it.

Then, go to the Apple support site and enter it in. This will tell you 3 things: 1) whether it is indeed a valid serial number and a legitimate machine, 2) whether the basic specs the seller is quoting are true (be careful, though, as the Apple support site can be wrong about some things – the serial number on my new machine says it has a glossy display, when it really has a matte), and 3) the purchase date and when the 1 year standard warranty coverage will expire – you’ll have to buy AppleCare before that date if you want to extend the coverage.

Another interesting thing to do with the serial number is to use the Chipmunk web tool that some people in the Netherlands have setup that will decode your serial number and tell you the date it was made, the factory and possibly some other items.

6. Calculate your total cost. You’ll see a lot of choices on eBay of models that will come with different options – e.g. the amount of RAM. I wanted a full 2G of RAM, so when looking at systems that had 1G (the standard amount for the high end revision B model, which is what I ended up buying) I knew I’d have to add another 1G and so I added that cost to what I’d pay on eBay.

I created a spreadsheet on Google Docs where I tracked listings and added in the extra costs to get the machine to the baseline I wanted. I then compared the listings based on the final adjusted cost to see what kind of deal I was really getting. Also, don’t forget to add in the shipping cost.

7. Look for Buy It Now’s. On a popular item like a MacBook Pro, the auctions can get bid up right at the end. Some sellers add a Buy It Now option at a certain price, and they have an option of allowing you to make a counter offer. You should look at the newly listed items to find listings that others haven’t seen yet and you may be able to take advantage of a decent Buy It Now price or find a seller who is willing to negotiate with a counteroffer.

8. Look a lot and be patient. I actually became a bit obsessive over looking at eBay listings – looking at least twice a day for new listings and comparing the adjusted prices. I used RSS feeds on Criagslist as well to keep track of MacBook Pro’s being offered there.

I watched items and saw what the winning price was and compared it to the specs of the particular laptop. I looked it over and over and over until I knew exactly what was the lowest price I’d seen on a particular model, and what was the average price for that same model. I then knew right away what was a good deal and what wasn’t.

9. Buy based on market price, not original price. Remember, the price you pay for a used item should have absolutely nothing to do with what the seller originally paid for it. The price you pay for something used is determined by what someone will pay for it today.

The MBP’s with the core duo processor went down in market price when the new core 2 duo models were introduced, even though the new models had the same price as the previous models had. So what the person originally paid for it has nothing to do with what it’s worth today.

10. Most importantly, remember that if a deal seems too good to be true, it is. If you see something that is about 50% of what the going price is, then it’s most likely a scam. On a popular item like MBP’s where there are new ones being listed every day, you’re not going to see a huge variation in prices on legitimate items – the market just won’t allow it. Now, you may have a buddy that will sell you his for 50% of the market value, but that’s something different and just between you and your buddy.

I learned some of these things the hard way, and some I didn’t really think about until I completed my purchase. I think they helped me get a good deal on my MBP and maybe they can help you too.

You have any other tips? Let me know!
This article also appears in Matt’s NontrivialExercises blog.

1 thought on “How I Bought A Good Laptop on eBay

  1. Chris Marshall Post author

    Excellent advice. I use eBay a lot (Apple 23″ Display and Nikon D80 for example) and have the added ‘fun’ of looking at UK, US and Spain as well.

    I would stress that the sellers feedback is worth looking into AND email some of their previous customers as well to see how they were treated, if the product lived up to expectation etc. AND make sure you say that you will leave positive feeback once you have received the product – the guys wanting to build up their profiles really appreciate knowing this, and receiving the feedback.

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