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Tips for buying and selling used iPhones

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon offers advice on getting the best price for your old iPhone. And for those looking for a used iPhone, she also offers a few tips to make sure you don't get scammed.

With an Apple announcement expected in the coming weeks, iPhone season is upon us once again. And that means that anxious Apple fans are plotting their best options for selling their old devices to buy the new one.

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I offer some advice to a reader about the best time to sell an old iPhone to get the best trade-in value or price from an individual buyer. But not everyone is in the market for the brand-new iPhone.

Some savvy wireless customers see the launch of a new iPhone as an opportunity to get a bargain on older models of iPhones. And as people resell their used devices, there are also deals to be had on the used-iPhone market. And, alas, there are scammers out there as well. So in this edition of Ask Maggie, I also offer some tips on buying a used iPhone.

Tips for selling a used iPhone

Dear Maggie,
I am in interested in getting the iPhone 5S when it's released. I already have an iPhone 5 now. I was wondering where I am likely to get the most money for my old iPhone, since I'll have to pay full price for the new one. Also when is the best time to sell my old iPhone?



Dear Jeff,
The new iPhone is just around the corner. Word on the street or rather the word from All Things D is that Apple is likely to announce the new device on September 10. This fits with previous expectations for a September or October launch of what everyone's calling the iPhone 5S.

Now that we have a rumored date for the device, the race to trade-in or sell older models is on. Experts from trade-in sites, such as NextWorth.com and SellYourCell.com say that the earlier you trade in your device the more money you are likely to get for it. But there is a balancing act that must take place, because you don't want to sell your old device too early and be without a phone for week or months.

Still, timing the sale of your iPhone trade-in is crucial if you want top dollar. According to data collected by NextWorth preceding previous Apple announcements, an iPhone's decline in value typically starts three to four weeks before the announcement of the new iPhone, as rumors reach their peak.

"There is a predictable 15 to 20 percent value decline seen across all older iPhone models in the six-week period surrounding the new iPhone launch," said Jeff Trachsel, NextWorth's CMO. "No one knows when the next iPhone will be announced, but the best way to get the most for your old iPhone is to lock in quotes now."

To maximize the time people have to send in their old phones, NextWorth suggests trading in your old iPhone as soon as you can. The site has extended its quote window from 21 days to 30 days, allowing customers to lock in peak pricing now. This still allows people to keep their devices for 30 days, by which time a new device should be announced and then available. SellYourCell.com also allows customers to lock in their trade-in values 30 days in advance.

iPhone values start to drastically decline six weeks ahead of the launch of the newest iPhone, according to the trade in Website NextWorth. NextWorth

Where should you sell your old iPhone?
So where are you likely to get the best price on your old iPhone? There are tons of sites available now where you can trade in your old cell phones. I already mentioned Nextworth and SellYourCell.com. But there are others too, such as Gazelle.com and Swappa.com. And some retailers, like Target, also offer trade in programs. And there is a site called uSell, which aggregates several sites and gives you an idea of where you can sell your device.

When I checked out these options, prices varied widely. I priced out the sale of a 32GB iPhone 5 on AT&T and found that prices varied between $279 through one trade-in company listed by uSell and $700 on eBay or Craigslist.

uSell, the aggregation site, tended to have some of the lowest trade-in values. But compared to other trade in sites, the prices didn't vary too much. For example, the highest trade-in value on uSell was $315 for a 32GB iPhone 5 on AT&T in good condition. Nextworth.com's trade in value for the same device in good condition was just a dollar more.

But is that really the best price you can get for your used iPhone? The quick answer to that question is no. While trade-in sites offer a convenient and hassle-free way to get some value out of your old gadgets, they tend to offer consumers about $200 to $300 less than you'd likely get if you sold the phone directly to someone on Craigslist or eBay.

uSell shows trade-in values from several trade-in companies. CNET/Marguerite Reardon (screen shot)

In fact, Gazelle, which buys phones from individuals via its trade-in site and then sells them directly to consumers on its eBay store, puts a big mark-up on the devices it resells. For example, on Friday Gazelle quoted a trade-in value of $310 for a used 32GB iPhone 5 from AT&T on its trade-in site. But in its eBay store, the company listed the price to buy that same version of the phone considered to be in good condition for $558.

"Consumers will always do better if they sell their phones directly to someone else," John Marks from SelllYourCell.com said. "But of course, there is risk to doing it that way."

Indeed, selling your device on Craigslist, eBay or some other way directly to a consumer looking for that same device will net you more cash. A quick look on Craigslist and eBay show that the 32GB iPhone 5 is listed for sale between $400 and $700. And if Gazelle and other resellers are pricing these devices at $558, you can bet that you'd be able to get as much for the same device as well.

Of course, selling a device yourself takes time. And there is some risk and hassle associated with it. Selling items through Craigslist will likely mean that you may have to field e-mails and phone calls from prospective buyers who may want to haggle over the price or who aren't serious about buying your item.

And if you insist on being paid in cash and in person, you have to deal with people who flake at the last minute and simply don't show up. If you accept payment electronically through PayPal or some other method, or you sell the device through eBay, you have to make sure you really get the funds from the buyer. And then you have to send the device to the new owner.

For many people, reseller sites are a simpler, hassle-free way to sell their device and make some cash, which they can put toward the new iPhone.

What should you do?
Well, first you have to ask yourself whether you want more money or less hassle? If you want less hassle and you're willing to forgo a couple hundred dollars, then go with a reseller site. As I mentioned there are several reputable firms. There is also uSell, which will give you prices from several different trade-in sites. Because prices vary on these sites, I'd check them out individually to see which one gives you the best price. And since many of them allow you to lock in pricing now for 30 days, you will be able to get a good price for your phone and also hang onto it until the new iPhone is available.

But if you really want top dollar for your device and you're willing to live without your phone for a month or longer or if you have a backup device you can use until the new iPhone 5S is released, then try selling the phone yourself on Craigslist or eBay. You will definitely get more money for it than you would by selling it on the trade-in sites. And the sooner you sell it, the more cash you'll get.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck!

Tips for buying a used iPhone

Dear Maggie,
I am a Verizon Wireless customer. And I'm thinking of switching to T-Mobile's new no-contract plan. I don't need to have the latest and greatest cell phone, so I am thinking that I might buy a used smartphone so I can take advantage of the low-priced no-contract service. I know there's a new iPhone coming out, so I'm thinking that maybe I'll get an older model of the iPhone. What do you think? Is this a good idea and where should I buy my used smartphone? Is there anything I should be aware of before I buy a used phone?


Dear Trish,
If you're willing to live with an older device, buying a second-hand phone could be a good option for you. If an iPhone is what you want, I'd wait at least a month until the new iPhone 5S is announced.

As I mentioned in my previous answer, as the launch of the new iPhone approaches, the cost of the older iPhone 5 will drop considerably. This is good news for you and others in the market for a used iPhone or even for folks who want to buy a new iPhone 5. In the past, Apple has dropped the price of the previous generation iPhone by $100.

While $100 is a good discount, you may even find a better deal if you buy an iPhone 5 used. Again, prices of the used models should drop as well by at least $100 if not more. There will be tons of people trading in their older iPhones in order to get the new one, so the increased supply of these devices should help push down prices.

Where should you buy your used iPhone?
Just as there are several places to sell or trade-in smartphones, there are lots of places to buy them as well. Wireless operators sell used devices. Craigslist and eBay are also good places to start looking for used devices. On eBay you can buy from the trade-in site Gazelle, or you can buy from another retailer or individual on eBay. There is also a website called Swappa.com, which allows individuals to buy and sell used smartphones. This site claims to be safer than buying devices from Craigslist and eBay because the site reviews all devices that are bought and sold and checks to make sure the devices haven't been reported lost or stolen.

If you decide to go the eBay or Craigslist route, be careful of scammers.

Just as with anything you buy from eBay, it's important to check on the seller's history and rating. Avoid sellers who score low and have poor records.

Craigslist can also be a hotbed for scammers. And if you think the deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. When dealing with Craigslist purchases, it's best to meet the seller in person to exchange the money and the merchandise. This way, you can check out the condition of the phone for yourself. Of course, be careful when doing this. Meeting in a public place is a good idea. If that isn't an option, ask for pictures of the device and ask a lot questions about the history of the device. People who are legitimately selling their device should be honest and forthcoming about how long they've owned it etc.

Another thing to be concerned about when buying a device on eBay or Craigslist is that the device you're buying has not been reported lost or stolen. You also want to make sure that the last owner of the device has paid his phone bill if the phone was bought as part of a carrier contract. Some wireless carriers are starting to blacklist devices that have been reported lost or stolen or that are attached to bad accounts. Once a device is blacklisted, carriers won't allow it to be activated on their networks.

Every device that is sold comes with a unique identification number or serial number. You can use a free service, such as the one on the Swappa.com website to check to see if the phone you're planning to purchase has been lost, stolen, or is blocked because of an unpaid bill. If you're considering buying a device from an individual ask for this number so you can check. Refurbished devices sold by the carrier or through a reputable reseller should already be vetted to ensure it's free and clear to sell.

In summary, buying the previous version of an iPhone new or buying one refurbished can save you some money. But wait until the new iPhone is announced. And if you buy a used phone from someone on eBay or Craigslist, be careful.

Those are just a few tips for buying a used smartphone. If other readers have additional tips or suggestions, it would be great to hear from them in the comments section following this post.

Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.