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I bought my current laptop, a 2011 Macbook Pro, on Craigslist almost four years ago. It was only a year old at the time, and I saved around $600 compared to buying new. It even came with some aftermarket upgrades, including a solid state drive.
To this day, I couldn’t be happier with my purchase, which I used for all of my work.
It wasn’t easy to get, though. I met with multiple people offering laptops that turned out to have problems, and emailed many others too late to make an offer. But eventually I found a good deal.
Here are some tips I picked up during my quest. I’ll be focusing on Craigslist, but the advice isn’t specific: if another site is the main classified service where you live (for example, Kijiji in Canada) the points outlined still apply.
Work Out What You Need First
Before you even start looking for a used laptop, you have to figure out what you need. What will you be using the laptop for? What are the hardware requirements for the software you want to run? Do you have a specific size in mind? How much are you willing to pay? Are there brands you prefer?
You need to work out at least a few of these points before diving into Craigslist, because otherwise the sheer volume of laptops offered are going to overwhelm you. Many of these are underpowered and aged, so you need to work out your baseline to eliminate weaker devices.
My advice: create a document with two lists. One of things your new laptop needs to have, another of things that are nice but not deal-breakers.
A few examples, just to give you ideas:
- If you want to upgrade to Windows 10 right after your purchase, you need to ensure the laptop is already running Windows 7 or 8 and as such entitled to the free upgrade.
- If you want to run the latest version of Photoshop on your laptop, you should check Adobe’s list of requirements and not consider any laptop that doesn’t meet them.
- If you intend on gaming at all, make sure the specs are high enough to run the games you like.
- If you want to carry your laptop around with you, make sure it’s not to big to fit in your bag or heavy to carry around comfortably.
Which factors matter are going to vary depending on your use case, of course. The important thing is to think this through so you can filter out the laptops you do and don’t want.
Get Alerted About New Posts Quickly
Now that you’ve got a better idea of what you want, it’s time to dive in. Go ahead and open your local Craigslist, then head to the Computers section. Open a few laptops that look interesting, then see if the specifications match up to your lists of needs and wants.
If you don’t find things that match your needs, that’s okay: we’re playing the long game here. Someone will eventually offer what you’re looking for, and when that happens you’re going to want to be the first person to find out. We’ve shown you how to be a boss on Craigslist using IFTTT, and I highly recommend you follow those instructions to set up searches with a few of your key terms.
For example: if you want an i7 processor, search the computers section for “i7” and you’ll be notified whenever a new post mentioning i7 processors is posted. If you want a specific model, set up a search for that model – in my case, I used “MacBook Pro” but there’s no reason you can’t set up a search for “Thinkpad”, “Ultrabook”, or “Zenbook” depending on what you’re looking for.
These notifications give you the opportunity to respond to posts earlier than everyone else, which will eventually lead to you landing the laptop you want. But before you get in touch with a seller, it’s important to do you homework.
Find Out What You’re Looking At
If you think you’ve found your ideal laptop, it’s still worth doing some research. Find out the specific model number of the laptop offered – if the post doesn’t include it, email the seller and ask for it. Once you have the model number, it’s time to do some research.
- Search for reviews of the specific model online. Read to get an idea of when it was released, how much it was worth new, and how it was positioned in the market at the time. This also gives you a heads up about any faults the laptop might have.
- Search for the laptop on Amazon, and check out the user reviews. Professional reviews rarely take into account issues that pop up after prolonged use, but disgruntled Amazon users are happy to point them out years later. See if there are any recurring issues worth worrying about, like motherboard failures or overheating.
- Search for the laptop on eBay, focusing on sales that have already happened. This will give you an idea how accurate the price point offered on Craigslist is. If the Craigslist post is a good deal compared to other transactions, great! If not, you might have room to negotiate a lower price.
Basically, you need to become knowledgable enough about the laptop to know what you’re getting into. You also need to make sure you’re not wasting your time, so here’s a few more things to look out for:
- Stock photos of the laptop are an alarm bell. It’s possible the person in question was simply too lazy to take a photo, and instead did a quick search on Google Images. But it’s also possible that there’s something physically wrong with the laptop that the seller is trying to hide.
- Deals too good to be true probably aren’t true. Avoiding scams on Craigslist is your responsibility, and sometimes your optimism can be your greatest enemy. No one is going to sell you a like-new Surface Book for $200, period.
Once you feel confident the laptop is a good purchase, email the seller. Politely express your interest without committing, and be sure to ask any questions you might have because of your research. Then arrange to meet somewhere.
Meet In a Neutral Place
If the laptop is still available, arrange to meet the seller somewhere neutral: not your house, and not the seller’s house. Coffee shops are a good idea, because they usually offer WiFi and electrical outlets (not to mention coffee).
Before you meet, determine how payment will work should you opt to buy the laptop. If the seller is willing to accept a check, bring your checkbook. If the seller wants cash, don’t bring the cash with you to the coffee shop: meeting with a stranger who knows you have hundreds of dollars in case on you is asking for trouble. Instead, meet somewhere near a bank so you can make the exchange after withdrawing. I recommend completing the transaction in the bank itself, because banks tend to have good security. This isn’t to say everyone on Craigslist is looking to rob you, but a little caution never hurts.
When the seller arrives, thank him or her for meeting you, then get to business.
How To Inspect The Laptop
You’re going to want to make sure the laptop is in good condition before you commit, so take your time to check it while asking the seller any questions you might have.
Boot up the laptop, noting how long it takes. Then head to the system information.In Windows, right click My Computer in Windows Explorer, then click Properties.
On a Mac, click the Apple logo at top-left, then click About this Mac.
Make sure the processor and memory information are as promised, and that the hard drive is the right size. Make sure this is the make and model you thought it was. Then get to checking everything else.
- Check the exterior. Are there any dents or scratches? Ask how they happened, because regularly dropping could lead to issues for you later. Does the hinge hold up well? Weak hinges are going to annoy you later, so make sure it’s not a problem.
- Test the input devices. It’s easy to overlook the keyboard and touchpad, but these are the part of the laptop you’ll be directly interacting with every day. Do the keys react well to your touch? Does every key still work? Is the touchpad in good working order? Do multi-touch gestures work the way they should?
- Do some web browsing, to get a better feel for how everything reacts. Is the WiFi card working? Does scrolling keep up? Is typing comfortable? Are the speakers working?
- Examine the display, making sure there aren’t dead pixels or color problems.
- Open a few applications, just to see how quickly they open and how they react.
- Click the battery icon while the laptop is unplugged, and make note of how long the operating system estimates it will last on the current charge. Also make sure the charger is in working order.
There might be other things you want to check, depending on your needs. Don’t take all day with this – a battery of benchmarks is probably overkill. But make sure you feel confident that everything is in working order, and that the initial post advertising the computer was accurate.
Don’t Be Afraid To Negotiate
If something isn’t as outlined in the initial post, don’t necessarily walk away: you might be able to talk the seller down to reflect the change. And even if everything is as advertised, you might have noticed the same laptop sold for less on eBay. Mention this, and suggest a lower price. In many cases people are planning to accept less than they advertised, and it never hurts to ask politely.
If you don’t feel confident about the laptop after looking at it, you have no obligation to buy it. Walk away, because there will be other laptops to check out later. You want to be sure, because there’s no warranty or customer service to contact later if something goes wrong.
When You Bring The Laptop Home, Wipe It
If you come to an agreement, congratulations! You’ve got a new laptop. But before you start using it, consider wiping the operating system. You never know what kind of malware the previous owner might have picked up, and it’s best to just start clean.
We offer guides for doing a clean install of Windows 8.1 and fresh installing OS X on a Mac. Both articles are a little dated, but perfectly outline the basic process of installing a fresh operating system on your computer.
What Used Laptop Buying Tips Do You Have?
I’ve put a lot of thought into this article, and did everything I could to let you benefit from my experience. But I’m sure lots of other people have equally useful experiences to share.
So I’m asking: what tips do you have for buying a used laptop? Let’s talk about them in the comments below. I’m really looking forward to the conversation.
Oh, and one thing to note: Macs hold their value longer than PCs, which makes buying them used tricky sometimes. If you want a good deal, you’re going to need patience! Don’t give up.