Buying advice for buying a refurbished laptop. If you are in the market for a used laptop, you need to read this. (See also: Budget laptops buying advice.)

It's the time of year when people start asking the tech journalist of their aquaintance one of three simple questions: what laptop should I buy, what tablet should I buy, and who are you and why are you hanging around outside my house? In this article I'm going to take a look at the first of these, and give some laptop buying advice. But advice on specifically one question: should you buy a refurbished laptop?

The simple answer is, in many cases: yes. But with some important caveats. (For more, see all of our laptops buying advice.)

Should I buy a refurbished laptop? General buying advice

When people ask for advice on buying a laptop the first thing I ask them is what it is for. Almost always the answer is some variant on the following: web browsing, some office work, home work, games, watching TV and movies from the web. Unless the gaming part of that list refers to high-end titles that require a powerful discreet graphics card, in most cases a pretty standard laptop will suffice. And in those cases I would always ask how much the customer wants to spend, and then work out the minimum spec required. Generally speaking, if you know what you are looking for specs wise, the more you pay the better a laptop you will get.

I also always suggest aiming for a well-known brand, as that tends to take care of build quality and aftersales support. And then, the final part of the jigsaw is from where you buy your laptop. You may pay more to buy from an established, nationwide retailer, but you are also paying for the peace of mind of knowing that if something goes wrong you will have somewhere to turn. You don't get that from a man in the pub.

All of these factors remain true when buying a refurbished laptop. In fact, they all become even more important. But you can also save some money, and which of us can say that isn't important these days? (See also: Windows 8 touchscreen laptops: buying advice.)

Should I buy a refurbished laptop? What you need to know

More correctly, buying a refurbished laptop will allow you to get a better specification for the same price. Or rather, you can get a better laptop than you would for the same price buying new. But there are some things of which you should be aware.

Unfortunately, there is no official definition of the term 'refurbished', which means you have to have your wits about you. Indeed, expect to see variations on the term if you shop around. 'Refurbished', 'remanufactured', 'reconditioned'... we've seen them all. They all mean the same thing, basically, but some laptops are more refurbished than others. Generally speaking you should expect a laptop carrying any of those terms to be wiped and reinstalled, physically cleaned, and inspected so that it is known to be working well. Ultimately until you have your hands on your refurbished laptop you won't be able to tell just how refurbished it is, but there are a few things you should do before you buy. (See all budget laptops reviews.)

Should I buy a refurbished laptop? Before you buy

Basically, you need to get down in writing exactly what you should expect. The specification details should be written down, but you also want something in writing about the condition of the laptop. And make sure you have a warranty and guarantee that makes it clear who is responsible for the replacement or repair of your laptop if it goes wrong.

Things to consider: if you buy from a bricks-and-mortar store you will have somewhere to take back the laptop if it breaks. But you will have to be quicker about returning it if you don't like the condition when you get it home. Buying online or via phone you can return the device for up to 30 days, with no quibbles allowed. If you buy from an individual you must agree between you what are the terms of sale. If someone sells you a laptop 'as seen' you are on dodgy ground if it breaks after a fortnight. As I said at the outset, buying refurbished can get you a better spec, but you are taking more of a risk.

Finally, always use a credit card to make major purchases - you can always pay off the balance immediately so it doesn't cost you any more. Bankers get a bad wrap these days, but if you buy with a credit card and something goes wrong it is the bank's money no yours. They will refund you and chase whoever sold you the laptop for repayment.

Should I buy a refurbished laptop? When you get your laptop

Immediately check that it is what you agreed to buy, that it works, and that it is in the condition you expected. Be especially careful to check that no-one else's user details are on your laptop. It is much easier to address problems if you return your laptop immeditately, unused.

Be sure to store all the documentation that comes with your laptop. What happens if you have to reinstall any software that comes with your laptop? You should have the install keys for any pre-installed software, and if you don't you should find out why before you get comfortable with your new PC.

Should I buy a refurbished laptop? Final thoughts

You definitely canget a bargain buying refurbished. Personally I'd always want to buy from a reputable, large company from whom I know I could get redress if something went wrong. If I was in the market for a Mac I would definitely buy refurbished from Apple, for instance. It's a great way to get a bargain.

But make sure you know the risks, and follow the advice outlined above. There is always a risk when purchasing anything - in effect - second hand. And PCs and laptops are very complex machines.

Finally, as ever - if a deal looks too good to be true it probably, no definitely, is. Happy hunting. (See also: What's best: laptop or iPad?)