There's a huge market for refurbished iPads and with the possibility of a new one just around the corner, that market's only going to get bigger.
Generally speaking, something that's refurbished -- aka a refurb -- is a used product that's been tested or otherwise reconditioned by the manufacturer or a third party for resale. It could be something that was returned under warranty for a defect or maybe its box was damaged in shipping or it was a retail floor model used for demonstrations.
Going the refurb route can not only save you money compared with new models, but you can also get cheap older iPads that might no longer be available, but still meet your needs. Plus, it keeps perfectly good tech out of landfills.
Still, buying something stamped "refurbished" can be a dicey proposition because the word can mean different things to different retailers. What good is saving money if you're just buying someone else's problems?
The key to getting a great refurbished iPad is to buy from a reputable retailer that clearly details not only what condition the refurb is in, but its own return and warranty policies. In this case, the best place to start is with the manufacturer.
Check Apple first
There is a whole section of the Apple Store dedicated to its certified refurbished products. (It's a bit hidden. Just scroll down to the site navigation at the bottom of any page and look for Refurbished and Clearance under the Apple Store heading.)
Getting a refurbished iPad direct from Apple is the safest and best option. Not only do its prices tend to be the best, but Apple puts in a new battery, gives each a new outer shell and fully tests them. They're put in fresh boxes with Apple's own accessories and a 1-year warranty is included, as are free shipping and returns. You're essentially getting a new iPad at a discount and that is awesome.
What's not awesome is that you're at the mercy of what Apple has in stock. Because supplies are limited and it doesn't offer many older models, the exact iPad you want might not be immediately be available -- or ever again. Current models are your best bet, but even those can be hard to come by. Looking for a refurbished iPad 2 to give to your kids? Forget about it.
Then check everyone else
Here's where things can get confusing. If you search for "refurbished iPads" you'll turn up a lot store options -- from big retailers Best Buy, Amazon, Walmart and Newegg to smaller sites that specialize in selling used products like Gazelle -- and then there's the shopping minefield that is eBay. They all have different standards for refurbished gear and have a range of return guarantees and warranties available for the refurbs they sell. Also, while you might be buying from Walmart or Amazon, that's not necessarily who's selling you the iPad.
Best Buy is the second best buy
If you can't find the iPad you want from Apple, check Best Buy. Look for models listed as "Open-box Excellent Certified." It's basically Best Buy's version of what Apple offers minus the new battery and shell. They include a 1-year warranty and are eligible for Apple's extended AppleCare coverage. The discounts aren't huge, but it's something.
For deeper discounts, Best Buy also offers older refurbished iPads that are "repaired and restored to a like-new state." A 90-day warranty is included and the refurb is also covered by the store's return and exchange promise. The benefit here is that, should something go wrong, you can actually go into a store instead of trying to handle things online or on the phone.
Be careful with marketplace sellers
Walmart and Newegg sell refurbished iPads. They also have third-party sellers, as does Amazon, using their sites to do the same. The problem here is that warranties and return policies can differ between the two.
For Amazon, stick with iPads sold under its Certified Refurbished label. To get this designation, they have to be "tested and certified to look and work like new by a qualified manufacturer or a specialized third-party refurbisher." On top of that, they include at least a 90-day warranty and are backed by Amazon's return policy.
Newegg lacks a certified label like Amazon, but it has a protection policy in place for buying from third-party vendors. That said, I would lean toward iPads sold by Newegg first since these include a 90-day warranty (which isn't a given with its marketplace vendors) and a 30-day replacement return policy. Otherwise, be sure you check the warranty and return policies for the seller before you buy (there's a tab with this info on each product page).
Finding this information for Walmart's marketplace sellers requires a bit more effort: You'll have to click on the seller's name. But frankly, you're better off sticking to those sold and shipped by Walmart simply because you can walk right into a store if you want to return it within your paltry 15-day window.
Go with Gazelle for straight-up used
Gazelle buys and sells all manner of used mobile devices including iPads. Its products are "certified pre-owned," which means they receive light refurbishment including a 30-point functional and cosmetic inspection and a factory reset. The return period is a scant 30 days.
The nice part of shopping on Gazelle is that it grades its devices -- excellent, good and fair -- so if you don't mind a cosmetically imperfect device, you can save yourself some extra cash.