Buyback plans may sound good, but approach them with caution

Consumers inevitably experience a psychological pain when buying technology because enjoying a new gadget or TV can be diminished after only a few months when something better shows up in stores.

That's why tech buyback programs, also called buyback insurance, might sound appealing — especially to those who regularly want the latest and greatest. These programs, offered by many electronics retailers, charge you a fee upfront when you buy the item, and then guarantee you can sell it back when you upgrade your cellphone, iPad, laptop computer or other device. It essentially locks in a trade-in value for your gadget if you get rid of it quickly — within two years for most devices.

For example, you might pay $50 for a buyback plan on a $500 iPad. If you sell it back within six months, you get back $250, or a net of $200. If you sell it back two years later, you would net just $50. Many retailers, such as Walmart and Office Depot, offer buybacks through a third party, called TechForward. Best Buy's similar program is run by Chartis WarrantyGuard.

The upsides are that getting rid of a device through a buyback program might be more convenient than selling used electronics yourself. And you might avoid such minor expenses as packing materials and postage. Best Buy touts other advantages, such as peace of mind — knowing you can sell your gadget regardless of supply and demand, and knowing upfront how much you'll get for it. You also get paid immediately, instead of waiting for payment from an individual buyer or used-gear buying website.

However, the advantages mostly stop there.

A major problem with buyback programs is that you're locking in a value for your used device that probably will be lower than its market price — what you could sell the used item for on eBay or one of the many gadget buyback sites, such as That's especially true when you factor in the cost of buying the plan in the first place. Further, if you don't upgrade within the required time frame — two years on most devices — you get nothing back at all.

The quick summary? You pay for the right to sell your gadget for a bad price.

In general, consumer advocates aren't fond of the programs, likening them to extended warranties, which are almost always a far better deal for companies selling them than for consumers.

Consumer Reports examined the plan from Best Buy that started this year. "When you look at the fine details of the Best Buy program, it's not likely to make good economic sense for most of us," the consumer group concluded. "To us, this plan seems more like a way for a retailer to add a higher-profit item to a low-margin sale than a great way for consumers to get a break on new gear."

Here are considerations if you're thinking of paying for a buyback guarantee:

— It's a gamble: You're betting that you can predict the future price of an electronics gadget better than Best Buy and others in the electronics industry. Essentially, you're wagering that your gadget will lose value faster than they expect. You need to consider two dollar amounts. One is your predicted buyback refund, minus what you paid for the buyback program. The other is what you could sell the gadget for yourself. Which will be more? "Consumers can usually get more money selling their electronic item on their own," Consumer Reports says.

— Convenience: It's true that getting some refund is better than simply abandoning a relatively new, functioning gadget and letting it gather dust because selling it is a hassle. But many websites make finding buyers for your device relatively easy.

For example, with used-device buyer, you plug in basic information about your device online and get a price quote. It will send you shipping materials to mail the device. If the item is as you described, they pay you. Typically, you'll get better prices than through a buyback program, spokeswoman Kristina Kennedy said. That's especially true when you factor in the price you paid for the buyback program, she said.

Of course, eBay and Craigslist might require more work, but many people already are familiar with selling in those online marketplaces. has a "Sell Your Stuff" system.

— Payment: Programs vary, but often your refund is paid in the form of a store credit, not cash. So, if you planned to use the money for your tech upgrade, you're locked into buying it at a single retailer — unless you want to go through the trouble of selling your gift card for cash. You can get a check if you buy a plan directly through TechForward, but a different problem arises: You have to wait up to 60 days to get your payment. So if you were going to use the buyback money to upgrade to a newer model, you could be without one for two months.


— Notion of obsolete: Buyback programs might say they are protecting you from technology obsolescence, but that's probably not true. Even rapidly evolving technologies are not obsolete — meaning totally unusable — in the two-year window that buyback programs cover. A 2-year-old phone will still make calls. A computer in its second year will still surf the Web and let you type documents. A TV after two years will still display the vast majority of channels you want. What marketers really mean by "obsolete" is that buyback programs protect you partially from the "gotta-have-its." That's your feeling of inferiority because your first-generation iPad doesn't have a camera or a magnetic cover, or your smartphone doesn't have "4G" speed, or your computer isn't sporting a Blu-ray drive. And don't be confused: Tech buyback is not about protecting you from a product not working properly. That's a warranty issue.

— Condition matters: You must return the device in good working condition with all accessories, such as power adapters and software, cables and remote controls. You might also need original packaging. If you don't meet those requirements, you could get a diminished amount back or nothing at all. And guess who determines whether the device is in good shape? Hint: It's not you.

Also, you will need your original receipt showing you bought the device and the buyback plan.

— Trade-in programs: Retailer trade-in programs are similar, but they don't cost anything upfront and usually accept items not purchased at that store. However, your device can be rejected for any reason, and it might fetch a lower price than with a buyback program, according to Consumer Reports.

— Early upgrade danger: Will a buyback program encourage you to upgrade just so you don't feel like you wasted money on the buyback program? Upgrading unnecessarily might be the program's highest cost of all.

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