Want a Good Deal On a Computer? Two Words: Buy Used

That dream computer has all the right features but the price is out of reach. What do you do? Consider buying "almost-new."

These are machines that customers have returned and the company has refurbished. Or they're new but discontinued models. The savvy buyer can pick up a computer with all the bells and whistles of a new machine and save a bundle in the process, typically 25 percent or more.

Such deals are available because a new industry is springing up: the used-computer business. It's so new that quality varies widely. But with some care and research, you can get a great deal.

Russ Shaw has. The employee-benefits attorney in Cleveland has bought or helped buy at least 25 "almost-new" computers for family, friends, and clients. His source: JEM Computers Inc., a Cambridge, Mass., outfit that has been in business five years. "Prices have been phenomenal," Mr. Shaw says.

For example, a year ago his wife bought a $1,200 laptop computer that was selling for $2,700 new. One of his partners just got a computer for half the sticker price of a new machine. Of all 25 machines, only one has ever had a problem, he says. And JEM offered to reimburse him immediately (but ended up replacing a bad battery instead).

JEM has also started a Web page (www.jemcomputers.com) that includes a discount "basement" of special deals. If the item hasn't sold after one week, it's marked down 10 percent; after two weeks, 20 percent, and so on. After six weeks, the company donates the products to charity. Shoppers can register to have automatic alerts e-mailed to them when the price of a particular product is about to drop.

The business "has become much more organized just in the last year," says Ed Samp, JEM's president and chief executive officer. Computer manufacturers are eager to unload customer returns and discontinued models. By using JEM and similar companies, they can still make money without having these discounted models compete directly with sales of new computers.

Consumers, too, are beginning to warm to the idea. JEM's sales have doubled in the past year and Mr. Samp expects them to more than double in 1997. Rumarson Technologies Inc., which sells "almost new" computers from its offices in Kenilworth, N.J., has seen sales triple in the last 12 months. "We're in an exponential curve," says Michael Doron, vice president for new business development at Rumarson.

Although the company sells primarily to businesses, schools, wholesalers, and overseas channels, consumers can find its current deals on the Internet (rticorp.com).

Of course, buyers should be as wary of used-computer dealers as they are of used-car salesmen. A company can claim a machine has been "refurbished," but there's no industry standard for what that means. The technology is typically a step or two behind the cutting edge. And these companies are mail-order outfits, not local dealers you can look in the eye.

So, if you're a first-time computer buyer, you're better off buying a new machine locally. If you're familiar with computers and interested in discount machines, make sure to buy brand-name merchandise that carries a warranty and a money-back guarantee. Big manufacturers are anxious to protect their reputations and will go to great lengths to take care of any problems that might arise, Samp says.

Get to know and trust your salesperson before making a purchase, advises Shaw. That will help if problems arise after the warranty expires. A good salesperson is eager to help longtime customers, even ones who like bells and whistles at cut-rate prices.

* Send comments to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my "In Cyberspace" forum at www.csmonitor.com

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