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Buying second hand for university? What you need to know

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REFILE - CORRECTING CONVERSION Bundles of second-hand books are placed on the back of taxi, to be brought out to sell, at the Sunday Book Bazaar in Karachi February 23, 2014. Dozens of stalls are set up every Sunday morning offering unwanted second-hand books to keen readers who can't afford to buy new or imported books. The variety of books sold range from politics, history, literature, science, mathematics, religion, anthropology, sports, entertainment and modern fiction to children books. Prices can start from as low as 10 Pakistani Rupees ($0.10) to 1000 Pakistani Rupees ($10.00) depending on the subject or the condition and rarity of the book. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro (PAKISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY)

With school just about to start up, university and college students know that one of the best ways to survive on a budget is to buy second-hand. They might want to take a few cues from Portland’s Ryan Finlay, who’s mastered the madness of online classifieds.

In fact, the former contractor and father of five, who runs the ReCraigslist website, makes his living buying and selling other people’s stuff , mainly appliances.

His advice for people wanting to save money and avoid scams is to think like a detective.

The right questions to ask

“Ask lots of questions,” Finlay says. “If possible, always call the owner of the item before setting up an appointment to go see it. It’s easier to feel a person out when you’re talking with them rather than just emailing back and forth.

“Ask if there are any issues with the item, and then be quiet,” he adds. “Let the seller talk. If you start off by asking very specific questions, sellers will often give very specific answers, which might not include everything you want to know. Finish off by asking more specific questions that are important to know. Write the questions down beforehand.”

Whether you’re seeking a functioning microwave or cappuccino machine, Finlay reminds that the devil is in the details.

“You want to buy from the type of person that you would have wanted to own the item before you,” he says. “Pay close attention to the wording they use when describing the item. Why are they selling it? Does everything work well? Can you test it out before buying? Oftentimes people will say an item works, which is part of the truth, but they won’t go so far as to say everything works, or it’s in excellent condition. Other times the descriptions will be really short, which should be a red flag that they aren’t telling the full story.”

He says to scrutinize photos, too. Are there messes in the background? Does the item look like it has been well-cared for? “You don’t want to buy things from people that don’t keep their belongings in good condition,” Finlay says.

Patience pays

With so many ads being posted on sites like Craigslist and Kijiji — the latter gets 1.5 million ads every week — it pays to be patient and persistent.

“The best way to find deals is to check the site often,” says Kijiji Canada community relations manager Shawn McIntyre. “Our app is great for that too. If you’re looking for a great deal on a piece of furniture or electronics, check the category as many times as possible. The greatest deals will come up at the top of that search every day. The best deals tend to go very quickly.”

Browse a variety of ads -- including those on eBay, Facebook groups, and local newspaper online classifieds -- to get a sense of what’s available and to gauge the current market price.

“If you’re seeing an iPhone4 that’s $100 less than anywhere else, you might want to take a few extra precautions,” McIntyre says, urging people to try an item out before buying.

“When buying electronics, turn on the device and test buttons and switches,” he says. “For furniture, check for features such as sturdiness and if things like the drawers are correctly aligned.”

Be especially careful buying electronics.

“It can be hard to detect certain problems with electronics via the brief inspection window,” Finlay says. “Defects don’t always immediately show themselves.

“Also, find out how much you can get the item for refurbished or from online deal sites,” he adds. “I bought a MacBook Air this past year refurbished direct from Apple, and it was barely priced higher than what they were selling for used on Craigslist. Plus, you can often still get the item in warranty when buying refurbished. Electronics tend to depreciate quicker than many sellers are willing to acknowledge, making it so there aren’t as many good deals as there should be.”

Where to meet?

There are different perspectives on where to seal the deal: a public location or the seller’s home.

“Everyone needs to carry out transactions in a way they are comfortable with,” Finlay says. “I recommend meeting at the seller’s house. No homeowner is going to give out their address and have a buyer come to their house and rob or scam them," he says.

“When people get robbed or scammed during transactions it’s always in public parking lots where there’s no recourse and the getaway is quick,” he adds.

A public meeting spot means you can't properly test the item you're buying. It also puts extra pressure on the buyer to purchase the item since the seller had to take the time to get there.

Kijiji’s McIntyre, meanwhile, suggests a public venue. “Meet in-person to see the product and exchange funds,” he says. “Always meet in a public place with many people around, such as a coffee shop.”

What’s commonly accepted, however, is the importance of using cold, hard cash. Cheques or online payment services leave you vulnerable to fraud or identity theft.

Other advice? Don’t hesitate to negotiate. And even if you’ve gone to the trouble of meeting someone in person and have tested an item out, if it doesn’t seem right, walk away.

“You aren’t going to regret acting on your intuition,” Finlay says.