Tips for Buying Consumer Electronics on eBay

Hand holding credit card and wallet by laptop
••• Johnnie Davis/ Moment/ Getty Images

Consumer electronics are amongst the most popular items purchased on eBay. According to some, there are better electronics deals to be had on eBay than just about anywhere else in the world. According to others, there is so much consumer electronics fraud on eBay that it’s better not to risk trying to make a purchase at all.

In fact, both can be true, depending on how you search for items and whom you ultimately decide to buy from. Here are some tips that can help you to be successful with your eBay electronics shopping experience, beginning with tips to help you actually find items you might like to bid on.

Start With a Clear Idea of What You Want

Despite evaluation-oriented features like eBay reviews and guides, eBay isn’t a particularly good place to learn about the types of item you’d like to buy. Do that elsewhere—at your local electronics store, for example, or in consumer electronics magazines. Not knowing what make, model and general types of features you’re looking for in a consumer electronics item is a surefire way to have a poor buying experience on eBay.

Know What It Should Cost

It’s important to know what price range you’re looking at so that you can spot a too-good-to-be-true deal if you run across one. Having price ranges in mind is also helpful in narrowing your search since searches for consumer electronics items can quickly grow out of control.

Use eBay’s More Advanced Search Tools

Indeed, there are so many consumer electronics items and sellers on eBay that if you just search for “plasma tv” or “ipod,” you’ll receive such an endless barrage of items for sale that you’ll be almost immediately overwhelmed. Use multiple and exclusive keywords to search more specifically for only the features, specifications, make, or model that you want.

Survey eBay’s custom search options to see if you can refine your search even more by price, location, or other auction details. Include search terms that describe specifications that are important to you—for example, not just “ipod” but “new black ipod nano,” not just “plasma tv” but “used 26-inch sony plasma tv.” Consider also using eBay’s product finders for the type of item you want to buy, for the most specific possible set of results.

Narrow Yourself to a List of Potential Winners

Use the auction watching features on eBay to bookmark a few (at most five to ten) auctions from different sellers that may fit the bill for you, so that you have a manageable number of options to decide between. Only watch those that are really what you’re looking for—right make, right manufacturer, right conditions, right auction terms and details, and right price range.

Of course, searching for and finding potential items to bid on is only half the battle. It is equally important that you are careful about the items on which you choose to bid and the seller(s) with whom you choose to transact. Keep reading for tips on actually making your purchase once you've found a selection of items you're interested in.

Once you have a list of five to ten items that meet your requirements and price range, you’ll need to actually decide where to place your bid. More often than not, this comes down to balancing your need to get the best price against your equally important need to buy from a reputable, conscientious seller. Here’s how to choose.

  • Don’t just take the lowest priced item first. This is a common mistake made by eBay beginners, and one of the biggest mistakes you can make. Read each of the item listings in question carefully to extract as much information from them as you can. Give more weight to sellers who describe the item’s condition in detail (“new in box,” or “used but functional with some scratches”) than to sellers who don’t say anything at all about its condition. Read warranty, return, and shipping policies carefully to see how complicated things will be in each case if you receive a defective or unsatisfactory item.
  • Check the seller’s feedback. Checking the feedback of each of the sellers in question is perhaps the most important step in deciding which auction to bid on or which item to purchase. As a general rule, never buy from any electronics seller whose feedback isn’t above 97 percent, and give strong preference to sellers over 99 percent. Actually read the feedback comments from other buyers and watch for complains related to shipping practices, item quality, or anything else that raises a red flag. Consumer electronics items are high-value items; it pays to be extra-careful with your seller selection since any loss may be large.
  • Don’t bid on auctions with obvious warning signs. Check each listing carefully for anything that indicates that there may be something wrong with the listing or seller or that indicates that the listing in question may be fraudulent. Keep in mind the old adage that “if it seems to good to be true, it probably is,” and avoid buying anything expensive from a seller that is outside your home country. Even if you receive a working item under such circumstances, most consumer electronics manufacturers will refuse to honor any manufacturer’s warranty for items bought outside the market to which they were originally exported.
  • Buy from credit card-friendly sellers and be careful about shipping. Because of the high value and typical fragility of consumer electronics items, it’s the process of completing the transaction is more risky and more complication-prone than it is for many other types of items commonly bought and sold on eBay. Avoid sellers who don’t either accept PayPal or give you some other method by which to pay with a credit card, since credit card purchases are typically protected by the card issuer. Be sure that your seller is willing to pack the item well and that he or she offers a delivery method and tracking that you can easily work with—it wouldn’t do to have your new $3,500 consumer electronics item delivered to your doorstep and left to sit there outdoors until you arrive home from work seven hours later!

    , your credit card issuer, and the shipper in question if the item arrives damaged, fails to arrive when expected, or arrives in a condition other than the one expected. eBay, credit card issuers, and shippers all impose limits on the amount of time that you have to lodge any complaint that you may have, so your ability to seek recourse in the event of any problems is limited to a short period of time following the sale.