16 Things to Check When Buying a Used Computer

Sometimes a new computer isn’t in our budget. In this case, you will need to know some things to check when buying a used computer.

There are various risks associated with different types of computers.

A laptop, for example, is something that I’d be more cautious about compared to a desktop computer.

Parts are way easier to replace in a desktop machine.

While you can purchase a used computer from a reputable computer store, don’t limit your options to only that.

There can be excellent deals that can be found through friends, family, and even on the internet. But always make sure you can take a good look at it without obligation first.

A used gaming computer can also be a good option for someone in school that needs a computer for schoolwork and gaming at the same time.

computers side by side

What to look out for when buying a used computer

Here is a list that I’ve put together based on my experience. This list is not in any particular order of importance.

1. Check for physical damage

Some types of cracks in the computer casing can be hard to see. So take your time and look carefully.

It’s definitely possible that the computer could have been dropped, or taken a nasty hit if you see a crack.

If you are looking at a laptop, check the screen carefully for scratches. Open and close the laptop screen and make sure the movement is smooth and has no noises throughout the motion.

Check the laptop’s keyboard that all the keys are working.

If the computer looks like it hasn’t been looked after in general, it’s probably a sign to avoid it. After all, you won’t have a shortage of candidates for purchase.

2. Listen to the hard drive

After powering it up, take a listen to the noises being made from the hard drive.

If it sounds like it’s grinding away or if it makes clucking noises, it would probably have to be replaced.

Keep in mind that a 2TB hard drive is going to cost anywhere between $80 to $120.

Nowadays, SSD’s are becoming more of a common choice than ever before. This is due to the advantages they offer and the fact that they are becoming cheaper and far more worthwhile.

So if the computer has an SSD with a reasonable capacity of 1 TB or more, it will be a preferred choice over a mechanical hard drive.

3. Ask if the product keys can be provided

If you install a new hard drive, it is always best to perform a fresh Windows install which will require a Windows key to activate it.

If it comes with Microsoft Office or any other paid-for software, ask for those license keys too.

The day can come at any time to perform a reinstall of the operating system, so having those keys are important, otherwise, you might have to pay for a new copy of the operating system or other software applications you may need.

You could, of course, keep an image of the existing installation, but eventually, the day will come when you will need to start fresh.

4. Look at the software that comes with it

It is useful when the computer already has software like Microsoft Office installed.

Adobe Photoshop is another program that costs money that is very commonly needed.

If it comes with paid-for software, have a look at what it would cost to purchase. This will give you some idea about the value that is added to the computer.

Again, ask for the product keys if you find any software that has been installed that you may find useful.

While having an updated antivirus is important, it is not vital to have a paid solution for keeping your computer clean from viruses or other malware.

5. Check the cooling fans

For a desktop computer, check to see if all the fans are spinning up. If they are noisy, it’s not a deal-breaker, they are easy and cheap to replace.

If you are considering a laptop, make sure that the intake passages look clean and that you can hear the fan operating after using it for a few minutes.

If you don’t hear the fan at all, play a high-resolution video for a few minutes. If it still doesn’t spin up, there is a chance that the computer has experienced some form of overheating.

In this case, move on to the next candidate. It’s not worth the risk.

6. Check the Windows version

If you find anything older than Windows 10 installed, pay attention to the Windows version.

If it has anything older than Windows 7 installed, you will have to pay for a license for Windows 10, and perhaps the work to get it installed or upgraded depending on your computer skill level.

It also means that there is a high likelihood that the hardware is really dated and it may not be compatible with Windows 10 anyway.

So if it’s a really old Windows version, it might not be the right purchase for you.

7. Use it for a minimum of 20 minutes

Getting the computer up to operating temperature and sustained is a good basic test.

If any hardware malfunctions when it gets up to operating temperature, you have a better chance to pick up on it.

I’ve seen many computers start up fine and after some workload, it goes faulty by either restarting, freezing, or powering itself off. So, getting past the post screen is only the beginning of the test.

You don’t want to end up with a computer that has a fault like this. It could cost quite a bit of money to fix, not to mention the inconvenience.

8. Check the amount of RAM

Although Windows 10 has a minimum specification of 1GB of RAM to operate, you don’t want anything less than 4GB of RAM.

It will make the system sluggish and keep your hard drive working away unnecessarily.

It’s unlikely that you will find a computer with less than 4Gb, but if you do and you are interested in the computer, go and look up how much replacement RAM modules will cost.

Some older RAM modules can be expensive.

A nice amount of RAM to start out with is 8GB. This is enough to keep your computer running well enough with most software applications and Windows 10.

You can type in ‘msinfo32’ (without quotes) into the run box, then press enter to see the hardware specifications.

9. Find out more about the hard drive

Although a hard drive isn’t too expensive, it’s still worth looking into a few specifications.

The hard drive is important seeing as that it holds all of your personal files.

Look at the following points:

  • Capacity: The size of the drive (in GB or TB). Around 2 TB is ideal.
  • Age: If the drive is older than 4 years, it could be worthwhile to replace it. Data loss is a big inconvenience, even though you keep everything backed up.
  • Manufacturer: Western Digital is the make I recommend. After testing many brands of hard drives, Western Digital has proven to be the most reliable in my opinion.

The age will give you a rough idea about how long you have until it needs to be replaced.

You can download CrystalDiskInfo to tell you more specifics about the hard drive.

10. Find out how long the owner has owned it

If the current owner had the computer from new, that’s a good sign.

If he/she had it for a couple of months after purchasing/receiving it second hand, I would be cautious.

It could mean that something isn’t well with it, and he/she could be trying to get rid of a problem.

11. Check the overall age of the computer

Find out the age of the computer and if it exceeds five years, consider something else.

The hardware would most likely be at an age where it cannot run the latest version of Windows very well or modern software to get things done.

12. Be conscious of your budget

You probably have a fixed price that you cannot exceed, seeing as a used computer is the most likely option.

Make sure that number is at least 20% lower than the cheapest new model when comparing basic specifications.

Otherwise, it makes no sense buying a used computer.

13. Open the performance monitor

The Performance Monitor in the Task Manager of Windows can tell you a lot.

Pay close attention to the amount of CPU utilization. If it is running extremely high, here are the potential causes:

  • There are lots of applications set to run on startup.
  • There may be a virus or malware infection.
  • The CPU could be underpowered.

Something can be easily done about the first two causes, but the third one would be enough reason to keep looking.

14. Glance over the hardware specs

The processor (CPU) would be the first and most important component to look at first.

The computer will either have an Intel or AMD brand of processor.

Make sure that it’s not over the five-year mark.

When processors get that old, they won’t be able to run Windows 10 nicely and other modern software.

Do some Google searches on the model if you are wanting a laptop. If you see a lot of results coming up about a dead display, or not powering up, forget about that particular model.

15. Check the battery when looking for a laptop

If you are considering a laptop, run it with the charger disconnected to see how long the battery lasts.

If the battery drops quickly, it’s obvious that it will have to be replaced. Price up a battery and factor it into the price.

To give you an indication quickly, play a YouTube video fullscreen for five minutes then check the battery.

If it dropped a few percentages in that time, you know the battery will have to be replaced.

16. Check capacitors when looking for a desktop

normal capacitors
Normal Capacitors
bulged faulty capacitors
Faulty Bulged Capacitors

Open the case and look at the capacitors on the motherboard. The motherboard will be the largest board screwed directly to the case.

When these capacitors bulge, the computer can still be working fine. But know that this motherboard has lived its life and it’s only a matter of time before faults occur.

I recommend reading how to transport a desktop computer in a car if you plan to pick one up from somewhere yourself.


I realize that there may be many reasons why a second-hand computer would make sense.

But, it may be wiser to have a look online at some computer prices. An entry-level new computer could last you a few years.

You will have a warranty and someone to call if something isn’t running right.

Just weigh up the risk vs the cost and think carefully.