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W ith more new computers selling for less than $1,000, why would you ever buy used? Well, as the prices of new computers drop, so do the prices for used ones. Besides, if you just want to write a few letters or send e-mail, or you only need a backup machine when more than one person wants "on" at a time, splurging on a new computer might be like buying a $300 food processor when you need a $2 whisk.

"If you're trying to stay ahead of the curve, I hope you've got an unlimited budget."
Here today, obsolete tomorrow
"In response to all the ads saying you've got to have the latest, greatest machine when you buy a computer, we say hogwash," says Ray Kopczynski, owner of Computer Renaissance, Corvallis, Ore. "If you think this is so, bring us your old one and we'll refurbish and resell it." And with technology rapidly changing, it's hard for anyone to keep up. Every 18 months, computing horsepower is doubling for the same price tag. "If you're trying to stay ahead of the curve, I hope you've got an unlimited budget," Kopczynski says.
     "Someday every computer will be worthless--some sooner than others," says John Hastings, owner of American Computer Exchange Corp. (AmCoEx), Atlanta, Ga. "The more you put in, the more you'll lose," says Hastings, whose company acts as a broker between computer buyers and sellers. His advice: Don't buy more computer than you need, and try to get by with minus-one (the next-to-the-latest) technology.
     Lots of people are heeding this advice. Last year, some 2.5 million consumers purchased used computers for both personal and small-business use, according to a study conducted by Computer Intelligence, a leading source of computer information in La Jolla, Calif. Half the used computers sold in 1996 cost less than $500, and nearly three-quarters cost less than $1,000. By comparison, only 10% of new computers in 1996 cost less than $1,000.

Shop smart
If you're in the market for a used computer, follow the experts' advice: Figure out how you want to use it. Do you want to do word processing, play games, or design graphics? "Tell us what you want and we can tell you what you need," Kopczynski says. "Depending on what you want, a $500 machine may work as well as a $2,000 machine."
     If you want to use a computer to buzz along the information super highway or take advantage of new digital photo technology, you'll need a newer, more-powerful machine. But think twice before you invest a lot of money, Kopczynski cautions. "Some people insist on buying a 200-megahertz computer and end up playing the fastest game of Solitaire you've ever seen."
     If your kids are screaming for the hottest new games, the computer you could buy for your modest needs may be outpaced by their software's requirements. Before you start to shop, check out the "must-have" software's minimum requirements listed on the outside of the package.

Educate yourself first
Visit several used-computer dealers. Do not buy anything during this period--you're simply scoping things out, such as:
  • How knowledgeable are the salespeople? Once you tell them how you want to use your computer, how much help do they offer? "Don't let anyone start talking over your level of knowledge," Kopczynski says. Don't nod your head and pretend you understand what they're saying. If they can't reduce the information to plain language, find another sales rep or a different store.
  • How extensive is the inventory? Do they have a variety of systems and components? Ask about each computer's history--how was it used? If they say it's been reconditioned or refurbished, find out exactly what they did. Take along a note pad and pencil to jot down information, and, if available, get a copy of the computer's specification sheet for any units you're interested in.
  • How long have they been in business? What about their warranty and return policies?
     When you get home, compare your options and then do some research on the models you're most interested in. Ask friends and co-workers about their experiences, and check consumer and computer magazines for reviews--compare performance, repair histories, and warranties.
     Decide on a budget before shopping, and stick to it. Otherwise it's not hard to fall in love with the bells and whistles and lose sight of your needs and your budget, Kopczynski says. And remember, your credit union can help finance this purchase with a personal loan or a credit card.
"Some people insist on buying a 200-megahertz computer and end up playing the fastest game of Solitare you've ever seen."

Get the most computer for your money. "Buy the cheapest computer that does the job today, and sell it or upgrade it next year," Hastings advises. "RAM [random access memory--the memory software uses when you're actually using the software] is cheap today, making it very affordable to add to your computer." If you're interested in playing computer games, ask about replacing the graphics card on a slower computer before investing more money in a faster one.
     At Computer Renaissance, which buys, sells, and trades computers, Kopczynski says you can get a good low-end computer (486 DX/66-MHZ, 8 MB RAM, 300 MB hard drive) for about $400; a low-end Pentium (100-MHZ, 16 MB RAM, 500 MB to 1 gigabyte hard drive) for $800 to $900; or a high-end Pentium (200-MHZ, 32 MB RAM, a 2 gigabyte hard drive with CD-ROM) for about $1,300. A visit to the "Best Deals on the Database" section of AmCoEx's Web site lists a Pentium/166 with 16 MB RAM, and a 2.1 gigabyte hard drive for $950. A 14-inch monitor sells for $199.

     Put your money where your monitor is. "When you buy a computer, what's fast today isn't fast tomorrow, but when you buy a good monitor, that money is not going away," Hastings says. If you spend more than three hours at a shot in front of the screen, Kopczynski recommends a 17-inch monitor. "In the used market, it's hard to find a monitor larger than 14 inches," says Hastings.

Check out the sellers
Once you've narrowed your computer choices, it's time to decide where to buy. Because good prices abound, you can find used computers through private sales, local retailers, chain stores, some manufacturers, universities, your workplace, and Web sites. Before you buy, check out the reputation of the sellers by asking around, and calling state or local consumer protection offices. Make sure you get a money-back guarantee.

Web assistance
Check out Computer Renaissance's Web site to find the nearest computer resale store near you. Visit AmCoEx's Web site to access a database listing some of their best deals, put in a request to buy or sell used computers, find or list information about stolen computers, or download shareware that allows you to calculate the value of any type of used computers goods for selling and buying. To find a comprehensive list of used-computer dealers, use Yahoo's Internet Directory.

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