This is a column I wrote for a local newspaper that will never see the light of day. <long, sordid story removed for the sake of brevity> There is no sake to let it continue mouldering in my archives.-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=Some people call me cheap. I drive a used car. I read used books. Ilisten to used CDs. Heck, many of my clothes are used. But even though Ilike to save money by buying used, I generally draw the line at used foodand computers.

The Bargain Corner of this newspaper is replete with used computer systemsfor sale, most retailing for $250 (the maximum asking price allowed in thatsection). An ad for a used computer system in the Bargain Corner might read:Complete Pentium III system; Windows 98; 15" monitor; Inkjet printer; $250 (608) 555-1212A veteran of the high-tech industry like myself takes one look at an ad likethat and immediately forms a profile of the sellers. Most likely, thesellers just purchased a new computer system and now they want to recoupsome of their investment in the old system. The system they are selling wasprobably purchased three years ago for $1500-2000 dollars.

While some people might look at that $250 price tag and see a relativebargain, seasoned computer purchasers look at that price and imagine anawfully thick pair of rose-colored glasses perched on the seller’s nose.

New computer systems can be had for as little as $400 these days. Withbigger hard drives, faster processors, more memory, and better software,those $150 extra dollars go a very long way.

That’s not to say that our prototypical sellers above are necessarily out todefraud their fellow Wisconsinites. It is far more likely that they simplydo not or choose not to understand how quickly computers lose their value.

When you buy a new computer, you might be paying as much for the service andsupport that the manufacturer provides as for the hardware itself. Oncethat service and support expires, the only value left in the computer is inthe various physical components.

Computer components are advancing so rapidly that features once availableonly to those who purchased premium computer are quickly pushed down intothe affordable mainstream models most of us purchase. This downward flow ofnew technology quickly devalues what has gone before it.

So, even though that used computer might be just as functional today as itwas three years ago, the actual value of the computer is far, far less thanit was.

Beyond the overvalued and overpriced nature of many used computers, thephysical condition of a used computer is often hard to judge. Who among ushas not witnessed a coffee cup helpfully emptying itself onto a computerkeyboard? Do any of your friends, family, and coworkers treat the computerlike a poorly measured two-by-four that just needs one good whack to get itinto place? Will you be able to spot this prior abuse while standing infront of a used system at the seller’s house?

Unlike when buying a used car, there are no mechanics to whom you can take aused computer for a helpful once over. Maybe a computer-savvy friend orco-worker will come with you to inspect the system and perform a cursorysurface examination of the hardware and software, but that’s about all youcan hope for. Even if you know how to do so, most used computer sellers arenot about to let you run complex, time-consuming, invasive diagnostics onthe systems they sell.

You are buying the hardware as-is and unless there is obvious physicaldamage to the system, any problems with that hardware will most likelyremain unknown until the money changes hand and you get the system home.

How much is a used computer worth? There is no Blue Book or online priceguide to steer the market. Sellers will naturally ask for as much as theycan get. Computer buyers must compare devalued used, and possibly abused,systems with new systems. They must then determine if the potential pricesavings and headaches of a used system offset the higher cost and advancesin technology available on the new systems. There is no right answer foreveryone and every computer.