Buying second-hand can be a false economy

Published by Sarah Coles on 06 July 2009.
Last updated on 21 December 2009

Old washing machine

Thrift is the new bling. A recent survey by 
Abbey credit cards revealed that more than half of us are buying second-hand now, and this number is rapidly increasing.

Not only are we getting stuck into second-hand books, CDs and clothes, but the survey shows more of us are interested in 
buying second-hand white goods too. In fact, it’s the fastest growing area of second-hand purchases, up 5% from this time last year.

However, this sudden popularity for such things as second-hand washing machines or fridge freezers is fraught with potential dangers. Katie Wilson, a 28-year-old administrator from 
London, paid an extra £500 for the white goods in the flat she was buying.

She says: “It seemed like a cheap way to stock the kitchen. I didn’t have a dishwasher, fridge freezer or washing machine, and after buying the flat, I didn’t have any spare money to spend on that sort of thing.”

The day Katie moved in, everything seemed fine; it wasn’t until a few days later, when she started trying the appliances out, that the problems began.

“I tried to put the dishwasher on, but it just filled with dirty water and then switched itself off,” she says. “I also loaded the washing machine, but when I tried to switch it on, nothing happened – the lights didn’t even come on.”

Katie tried to contact the seller, but received no reply. She says: “I was furious. These things were quite obviously broken.”

In the end, she cut her losses, bought a new washing machine, and is saving up for a dishwasher. “It has really put me off buying second-hand electrical goods,” she says. “I wouldn’t buy so much as a toaster second-hand now.”

Katie is not alone in her disappointment. A report by Halifax Home Insurance found that one in four second-hand electrical items fail a standard safety check and are unfit for use. This isn’t just frustrating, it’s potentially very dangerous too.

What should you do?

With this in mind, there are a number of steps you should take if you’re planning to buy second-hand appliances.

You should ideally buy from a retailer that offers a guarantee that the product has been checked. 
According to the Trading Standards Institute, any business selling second-hand electrical goods must ensure that it meets legal safety requirements or it will be liable for compensation for any injury or damage. If it sells second-hand electrical goods that are unsafe or incorrectly labelled, and hasn’t taken reasonable precautions to avoid this, it may be prosecuted.

It’s therefore worth going to an established retailer that will be aware of its responsibilities, rather than buying through the small ads or online auctions. There are some big names in this market, including Comet, which sells through clearance stores and online at, and Currys, which runs a clearance auction at

Also check the seller offers a guarantee the appliance will work. Most will offer a returns policy, but you’ll need to try the goods out as quickly as possible so they don’t quibble over who caused the fault. Currys, for example, will pay for you to return the goods and will provide a full refund, as long as you make contact within 28 days.

You also need to think about running costs; older models may be less energy-efficient. So before you buy, do some research into the kind of energy-efficient models you are looking for, otherwise buying second-hand could be a false economy.

But what can you do if you have already been sold a pup? If you bought from a trader, you have the same rights as you would have if you had bought new goods. The 
appliance should be up to basic standards and be fit for 

However, a spokesperson for Consumer Direct, the government advice body, says: “It has to be ‘of 
satisfactory quality’, but that assessment does take into account a number of factors, including the price. It comes down to what a reasonable person would expect from a product of that price.”

This means if you bought a washing machine that never worked at all you would usually be entitled to a refund or repair, whereas if you bought one for £50 that only lasted a year the trader might be within its rights to refuse compensation.

If you bought privately, you have far fewer rights. The appliance has to be ‘as described’, so if they said the fridge was a particular size and it turns out to be smaller, you have the right to a refund. Likewise, if they said it was ‘in good working order’, it actually has to work but doesn’t have to be fault-free.

The Consumer Direct spokesperson adds: “If they say they’re selling a ‘working three-year-old washing machine’, then it has to work. If they say they’re selling a ‘three-year-old washing machine’, it just has to be a washing machine that’s three years old.”

If you’re going to get thrifty over fridges and 
washing machines you need to understand all these rules first. Otherwise, it’s worth saving up for the bling of a brand-new fridge freezer.

Compare broadband, phone & TV packages

  • Lowest Prices
  • Compare & save £200 +
  • See deals in your area

More About

Leave a comment