What to watch for when buying a used iPhone

If you lose or break your iPhone, youre on the hook to replace it. That doesnt 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 arent 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.

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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 didnt want to spend $650, and Im not upgrade eligible for another nine months, so I couldnt 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 Ive 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 youre in a similar situation, Im 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 youre under contract, find an iPhone that already works on your network. Its easier. You might be able unlock the used iPhone that you buy, but that doesnt work reliably. You can, of course, always decide to leave your current carrier, but youll likely be charged an early termination fee (ETF), which can often run in the hundreds of dollars.

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

Consider which model you need: The older the model, the less youll 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 sellers 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.

On the upside, these sites generally include a return policy of some kindan important safety net when dealing with used items. Amazon.coms 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.

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