Photo by Youssef Sarhan on Unsplash

If you want to be the proud owner of an iPhone XS, it'll cost you. Buying the sleek new model direct from Apple will run you about $1,000. But if you buy one second-hand, you could find the same device for nearly half the price. The rub: Buying used smartphones can be risky business. Due to scams and carrier limitations, you need to do some serious research, hope for the best, and prepare for hitches before (and sometimes, after) you lay down your hard-earned cash. That doesn't mean you shouldn't consider purchasing a used smartphone—which could save you hundreds if you know what you're doing—especially as the new year rolls around.

"When supply outstrips demand there are bargains to be had," Matt Barker CEO of second-hand camera marketplace MPB tells Gizmodo. "January just after the new year is the best time to buy... the supply of second-hand gadgets surges after Christmas as unwanted presents get sold."

If you're looking for a used smartphone sold directly from the seller, head over to Swappa, the online gadget marketplace, or even eBay. Craigslist has seller-direct options as well, but the lack of public reviews makes it harder to vet the seller. Meanwhile, Gazelle and Best Buy work with third party intermediaries who verify the phone's condition, but that can makes the prices steeper. (Note: we're not talking about refurbished phones, which usually are factory direct models that come with a warranty and an even higher price-tag.)

So say you've found a used smartphone at the cheapest price possible. How do you know it's going to be scratch-free, reliable, or generally in working order? You don't. But you can do some homework before you make your purchase.

Step 1: Really examine the listing

Listings for used phones bare some telltale signs of reliability. You want to make sure your seller has plenty of legit, positive feedback from buyers, and real photos of the individual product—not just shots ripped from the original retailer. "Look for five-star reviews, and avoid listings with stock photos," writes Popular Mechanics' Alexander George.

Step 2: Know the code

A crucial step in your purchase is obtaining the IMEI (International Mobile Equipment Identity) code, which can be found on both IOS and Android devices and included in your seller's listing. (If your seller doesn't list the code, you can ask for it directly.) When you enter the code either into Swappa's code checker, or on your own mobile carrier's code checking page (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all have one) you'll be able to find out whether the phone is able to activated. If it was lost or stolen and someone is attempting to resell it, chances are it will be locked by the carrier. That means you'll end up with a device that's unusable.

Step 3: Check with your carrier

You also want to confirm that the phone you're purchasing is compatible with your carrier (regardless of what the listing says), which you can do by visiting their website or calling them up and reading them the IMEI code. They'll be able to detect if the device is compatible with your plan or not.

Step 4: Ask the seller a few more questions

Don't be shy about asking for additional information, like whether or not the device includes the original headphones, charger, etc. You also want to get any details about scratches and other possible exterior or interior hiccups with the phone before you decide to make your purchase. If the price is too good to be true, there's usually a reason.

Finally, check that the seller has a solid return policy—this will save you big if your phone isn't up to snuff. "You've got to know who you're buying from, so you have recourse if something goes wrong" Dillard tells Digital Trends. "If you buy second-hand from a retailer, make sure they have a good return policy."

Step 5: Pay with extra security

Before you decide on a payment method, consider where and how you're making your purchase. "Experts recommend looking for trusted payment gateways, including Braintree and PayPal, and buying from stores that use services like CheckMEND to flag up stolen goods," writes Gizmodo's David Neild. "Buying with a credit card rather than a debit card can give you some extra protection in terms of getting refunds for faulty goods—check with your credit card issuer to see if anything like this is available for you."

Step 5: Seriously inspect your new smartphone

If you can meet a seller in person to examine the phone before you make the purchase, you can decide if it's worth the money, or even negotiate a lower price if you spot any inadequacies. If that's not an option, you should still scan the phone like a human x-ray machine, looking for dinks and damages, once it's arrived via mail and you're holding it in your hands.

"Obviously, scratches, dents and cracked glass will be evident by handling the phone," Ben Edwards, chief executive of used-tech marketplace Swappa tells the New York Times. "Water damage is harder to spot from the outside of the phone, but every phone usually does have one or two moisture indicators — sometimes behind the battery, sometimes in the SIM card tray. That's one of those things that should be checked once you've got the phone in hand." You'll also want to charge the phone and insert your own SIM card.

If there are unexpected issues, you can contact the seller for a refund or discount, or if you used a credit card with protection, you can dispute the purchase.

Step 6: Restore Factory Settings

The final step is to restore the factory settings on your phone. This isn't just to wipe the slate clean on a used phone, but to check that the device isn't still linked to any cloud accounts that will disrupt your service. Once you're able to login to all your own accounts you will be rewarded with a new-ish smartphone you don't have to pay off for the next hundred years.

Subscribe to PayPath Newsletter
PayPath
Follow Us on

I thought I had a pretty good handle on my finances out of school. I worked several jobs while attending university and had little to no problem managing my income. However, once I graduated, I realized how much more complicated personal accounting could really be.

There were so many variables I needed to keep track of. Biweekly bills, monthly charges, and general necessities amounted to a heap of confusing numbers that were often impossible to decipher. The funniest part was that I was actually trying to do this by hand (I don't know what I was trying to prove to myself, either).

After messing up for the 17th time, I decided to give Microsoft Excel a shot. I used Excel a bit in school and I knew all the big-wig finance people used it, so what could I possibly have to lose? The answer is about six hours of my precious time. Excel isn't much of an improvement over handwriting and it's still dependent on the user to manually input all of the information. It's like doing everything by hand with the slightest help, meaning that it still required a tremendous amount of time and concentration. Well that was all for nothing, I guess.

It's sort of funny. I was certain that I could manage my personal finances with ease, when it's practically a full-time job. I was already stressed out enough with my first job and I knew I didn't have enough time to give my finances the attention it deserved.

That's why I decided to try out a budgeting app. My best friend told me that he uses an app called Truebill to manage his finances. "What does it even mean to manage your finances?" I asked him. He told me that Truebill was the personal financial assistant I wished I could have. It could aggregate all of my account information into one place and give me specific insights and actions.

I loved the idea of having full control over my finances, especially during a time of financial uncertainty, and I realized that Truebill would be the easiest way to accomplish this. The user interface is incredibly simple and intuitive, so it doesn't even feel like a finance app! Truebill offers a multitude of features, with their most popular being the ability to cancel subscriptions with the press of a button.

Okay, I had no idea how many subscriptions I was still subscribed to. In fact, I wasn't even using a quarter of the subscription services I was signed up for. Subscription boxes, streaming services, my old gym, and even an old subscription to my favorite magazine--it was all there and I was livid. How could I let myself waste all of this money and how did I never catch this? Thank goodness for Truebill.

Truebill also offers bill negotiations. There is a 40% fee based on how much you save and Truebill even claims that there is an 85% chance that they'll be able to lower your bill once a negotiation is requested. Why wouldn't I take them up on this? There was zero risk and I would only have to pay once my bill was lowered (which means that I would be saving money regardless).

More standard features of Truebill include the ability to generate a credit report on-demand and even request a pay advance. I only used the pay advance feature once when I wanted to buy a gift for my mom, but didn't have enough cash in hand and Truebill automatically reimbursed itself when I got my next paycheck.

The credit report is another fantastic feature and practically taught me what good credit meant. Truebill's credit report basically shows you which financial decisions have the most significant impact on your credit score and ways that you can improve your credit month-over-month. I've never had such control over my credit and it feels good.

I'll be the first to admit that I was extremely naive coming out of school. I figured that as long as I was attentive, I could manage my finances with ease. We manage money to some extent throughout our entire lives, but once you're thrown out on your own, it's a completely different story. With Truebill, I've finally been able to take control over my finances and stay on top of all of my responsibilities.

Update: Our friends at Truebill are extending a special offer to our readers! Follow this link to sign-up for Truebill.