Is it smart to buy cheap electronics? You dream of having a home with the latest technology, but your budget keeps those dreams in check. Cheap home electronics look like a ready answer, but here’s the best advice that you’ll ever receive about them: Buy electronics cheap, don’t buy cheap electronics.

Cheap electronics are cheap for a reason. Often they have inferior components, poor workmanship or out-of-date technology. In some cases, they’re bootleg models that carry no warranty or stolen goods that can lead to legal complications down the road. You’re always better off looking for a bargain than taking a deal that’s too good to be true.

Know Your Brands

You see a Sony LCD TV advertised for $2,500 and think, “I’m just paying for the brand.” While this is sometimes true, the price more often than not reflects the quality of the electronics. Televisions, DVD players and computers all have specially designed chips and circuits that contribute to performance. Different brands also have different service histories, so you can use brand names to limit your choices to companies that make reliable products.

Within a brand, there are sometimes differences in quality. Not every Samsung LCD TV has the same electronics, so you might be able to save money by choosing a device that doesn’t have all the latest features. There are also value brands on the market, such as Vizio, Element and Coby. Some of these companies provide excellent value, while others create products prone to technical problems. Vizio Plasma and LCD TVs, for example, are noted for their excellent picture, but their sound systems are inferior to other sets. Diligent online research will help you find these value brands. Pay particular attention to customer reviews to see how these products perform in the home.

Never buy a product with a brand that you’ve never heard of, especially if it’s offered at a price that’s far lower than similar models from brand-name manufacturers. Best Buy and Circuit City have their own in-house value brands, and these may offer good values. If you see names like “Sonny” or “Parmasonic,” you’re looking at bootleg products made on the cheap by unscrupulous manufacturers. They won’t perform well, and they may not conform to standards set by the US Government for safety and energy use.

Finding Cheap Electronics

There are several ways to get great deals on electronics. Before you start looking for those steals, start out by researching what you want to own. An electronics investment should be made for the long run think five years and it’s better to have the features you desire than it is to get something just for the sake of having it. For televisions, think about screen size, resolution and response rates. For computers, think about processor power, RAM and hard-drive space. For DVD players and DVRs, think about playback features that you consider essential.

With your list of requirements in hand, you’re ready for some bargain-hunting. Here’s where to look:

  • Craigslist. Buying used can be a great way to get electronics at prices far below retail. You’ll want to ask a lot of questions and be sure that you can try out the electronics before you buy them. In other words, deal locally, not through the mail. Check listings toward the end of the month, when people are moving and may not need or want to take their electronics to a new home.
  • Open-box deals. Major electronics retailers sell off floor models, customer returns and refurbished electronics at discounts off the regular retail price. This is a hit-or-miss proposition, and you may need to haunt your local retailers for a few weeks to find a good buy. Open-box purchases won’t come with a box, but they’re eligible for extended service plans and should include everything that came in the box. If you find a remote control or cables missing, you should ask for a steeper discount on the purchase. Most stores will give it to you. Some retailers will even exchange an open-box purchase for a boxed version if you get the item home and it doesn’t work properly.
  • Closeouts. Retailers need to get rid of old stock to make room on the shelves for new models. If last year’s technology meets your needs, you can get savings of 30% or more. In general, the time to look for these deals in stores is late spring and early summer, as most manufacturers roll out their new models between June and September.
  • Web sites. Some retailers offer bargain pricing on older models or overstock in their warehouses. Compare the prices against retail offerings to make sure you’re getting a deal. Internet-only businesses have lower overhead costs than retailers and can offer savings of 20% in some cases, but be sure that your savings won’t be offset by high shipping costs.

Cheap Electronics Deals to Avoid

In addition to avoiding products from unknown brands, there’s a few other sources of cheap electronics that should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. If you see extremely low prices in these situations, walk away.

  • Online auctions. As a general rule, it’s advisable to only buy electronics in person or from a well-known online retailer. Auction sites are a haven for people selling stolen goods, and some buyers have been visited by police looking for stolen merchandise. Legitimate deals can be found, but you’ll want to shop carefully.
  • Get a free Nintendo Wii! There’s no shortage of these promotional offers floating around online. In some cases, you’ll need to buy products and magazines you don’t need to get the free product. In other cases, you’ll need to sucker friends and family into completing the same offers to get your reward. When you add up the time and money spent getting your “free” product, you’ll discover that you would have been better off buying one at retail.
  • Rent-to-own. Do the math on these rent-to-own deals and you’ll find that they’re no bargain. The come-on is a “low weekly rate” on that big-screen TV you want. The reality is that you’ll wind up paying 5 to 10 times what it would have cost to buy the item in the first place. Take that weekly rental cost and stick it in a piggy bank until you can afford the item.
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