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Surplus Auctions - How To Get A Cheap Used Laptop For Personal Use Or Re-Selling

Updated on April 15, 2015

Surplus Auctions Can Be Fun And Profitable

I always enjoy going to the local surplus auctions that colleges and universities in the area hold periodically. You'll find the random assortment of desks, filing cabinets and random...junk, but I always keep my eyes peeled for used laptops that make their way into the the auctions. Many of them are perfectly fine or have minor cosmetic blemishes that don't affect performance or usage. Now, some laptops may make their way into the auctions because they are damaged or missing parts like hard drives, RAM, batteries, etc... The ones that are simply missing parts like batteries, hard drive and power adapters can be had for fairly low prices and can be refurbished by getting replacement parts for them on eBay.

Always Inspect Laptops You Are Bidding On At Auction

A Dell Latitude D430 that I recently acquired from a Virginia Tech surplus auction.  Apart from a few cosmetic scratches and no power adapter, it did come with the 9 cell battery.  Comparing prices on eBay, this was a steal at $45.
A Dell Latitude D430 that I recently acquired from a Virginia Tech surplus auction. Apart from a few cosmetic scratches and no power adapter, it did come with the 9 cell battery. Comparing prices on eBay, this was a steal at $45. | Source
A Dell XPS M1330 that I won at $75.  Just missing a power adapter and having a small dent in the palm rest area, this one was cleaned up and given to a relative to have for accessing the internet and email, and for kids to play games on.
A Dell XPS M1330 that I won at $75. Just missing a power adapter and having a small dent in the palm rest area, this one was cleaned up and given to a relative to have for accessing the internet and email, and for kids to play games on. | Source
At a surplus auction like the one by Virginia Tech, all laptops and desktop computers will have a label to indicate if the hard drive is present in just a wiped (erased) state, has an OS installed (typically Linux), or is otherwise removed.
At a surplus auction like the one by Virginia Tech, all laptops and desktop computers will have a label to indicate if the hard drive is present in just a wiped (erased) state, has an OS installed (typically Linux), or is otherwise removed. | Source

Know What You Are Bidding On At A Surplus Auction

If you are considering purchasing used laptops from surplus auctions, one thing you need to make sure of when purchasing a laptop at auction is to know what you are bidding on. If the auction that you are going to has a day set aside for “previewing” the items in the bid, by all means take some time to go there and inspect what is up for auction. Some laptops might not come with a power adapter but may otherwise be in good physical condition. If there is no battery installed or the one in it either has no charge or is otherwise dead as a door nail, you can't boot it up to see if there are any issues with the display such as dead pixels or to boot into the BIOS setup menu to at least see what speed of processor and how much RAM is installed in the unit otherwise. If the laptop or laptops you are seeking to bid on don't power on because of lack of charge and no available laptop power adapter, and you are still interested in snapping them up then at the very least, you should write down the model (for example: Dell XPS M1330) and look up what the specifications for that model are, such as: CPU type and speed, amount and type of RAM, hard drive size and speed, etc... Keep in mind that some models of laptops may be available in many different configurations, but you'll at least have an idea of what you might be bidding on.

Things to avoid, unless you are very handy at tearing down a laptop and putting it back together, would include laptops with cracked hinges, cracks in the casing or chassis and/or screen. Things that aren't necessarily detractors would be missing power adapters and batteries, as these can be easily replaced for low cost. For example, I recently picked up a Dell Latitude D430 to use as a beater laptop so I can leave my MacBook at home. I bid $45 on it. It came with an extended battery, which held a charge but it didn't come with a power adapter. $7 and free shipping later I had a power adapter for it delivered within 5 days after the auction. It can run LXLE (a flavor of Linux) very well and is great with OpenOffice.org for writing papers and doing classwork on and browsing the internet. If I lose it or if life happens to it (drops or liquid spills), I'm out less than $60. And all it needed was a charger and a little TLC (tender loving care) to clean it up.

Another example, at the same auction, I snagged a Dell XPS M1330 for my parents for $75 and installed Windows 7 on it. It wasn't missing any parts save for the power adapter, which is actually the same as the one the Dell Latitude D430 uses. So I ordered another adapter at the same time. This one will probably destroyed by siblings first before it succumbs to a failed battery or hard drive.

Now, I've seen a fair share of ridiculous bids, like a group, or lot, of five MacBook Pros, most missing batteries, hard drives and being dinged up to boot, going for over $1,000. I'm sure whoever bought them had the resources and cash flow to refurbish those and then resell them for $400 to $500 or more each. I have been very pleased with the early 2009 MacBook white unibody that I got for $100 from one of these auctions, less than what I would have paid getting one on eBay. It runs Snow Leopard like a champ and can run Mac OS 10.10 Yosemite decently, though more RAM would certainly make it faster.

Cleaning Up A Laptop Bought At A Surplus Auction

Stickers can leave behind a sticky mess when peeling them off.  You may also have a little cleaning to do on the keyboard, LCD screen, trackpad and other surfaces on a laptop.
Stickers can leave behind a sticky mess when peeling them off. You may also have a little cleaning to do on the keyboard, LCD screen, trackpad and other surfaces on a laptop. | Source

Cleaning Used Laptops

The Dell Latitude D430 has some dust on the screen, hard to see in photo, and some greasy finger marks on the keys and trackpad.
The Dell Latitude D430 has some dust on the screen, hard to see in photo, and some greasy finger marks on the keys and trackpad. | Source
The Dell XPS M1330 has some grime on the edges/sides of the keys and some fingerprint markings/smudges on the palm rest area.
The Dell XPS M1330 has some grime on the edges/sides of the keys and some fingerprint markings/smudges on the palm rest area. | Source
The Dell Latitude D430 after being wiped down with Clorox wipes on the palm rest, track pad and keyboard.  The track pad still has some leftover finger oils on it that a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser can clean up pretty well.
The Dell Latitude D430 after being wiped down with Clorox wipes on the palm rest, track pad and keyboard. The track pad still has some leftover finger oils on it that a Mr. Clean Magic Eraser can clean up pretty well. | Source

Physical Cleaning For A Used or Surplus Laptop

Whenever getting a used laptop, whether it be from a surplus auction or elsewhere, its always a good idea to give it a good wipe down to remove finger print oils, grease, dust, dirt and grime. This is also useful for your own laptop. You'll need just a few materials do this.

  • Can of compressed gas duster

  • Clorox wipes (or similar) to disinfect keys on keyboard and trackpad

  • Goo-Gone or rubbing alcohol

  • Mr. Clean Magic Eraser

  • Vacuum cleaner for cleaning up dirt and debris dislodged by compressed gas duster

  • White vinegar (for cleaning screen)

  • Lint free or microfiber cloth

When buying a laptop from a surplus auction, many times, there may be one or more stickers that were placed on your laptop for the auction itself, like a sticker to indicate the lot number, or whether the laptop has had its hard drive removed or left installed wiped clean or with an operating system installed like Linux. These stickers may be rather difficult to remove and will probably tear easily when trying to remove them.

Try to peel the stickers off by beginning from the corners and pulling up at an angle between 45 and 90 degrees to minimize tearing of the sticker, allowing you to remove more of it the first time and leave less behind. Any parts of the sticker that tear and stick to the laptop body or case can be softened and easily removed with a little rubbing alcohol and a cloth or for stubborn sticker glue, you can use Goo-Gone to soften and loosen up the remaining gunk and wipe it away. For scuff marks and just general dirt on the outside of the laptop, like the back of the screen, bottom of the base and side edges, a soft cloth dampened with a little water can remove most surface grime and smudges.

For the exhaust port for the fan, I take a can of compressed gas duster and blast it into where the fan is located to dislodge any accumulated dust. Don't be shocked if a cloud of dust comes flying back out. This will actually help the fan last longer and do its job better at keeping the CPU cool. For the keyboard, I blast the gas duster under the keys to dislodge any dust, hair, and possible food bits and vacuum up the debris with a vacuum cleaner. Next, I wipe down both the keyboard and the trackpad with a disinfecting wipe like those made by Clorox. This will remove most, if not all finger oils and other smudges. If there is a lot of built up oils on the trackpad area, use a slightly dampened Mr. Clean Magic Eraser to wipe it a few times. You'll know when you're done when it doesn't shine anymore.

For the screen itself, you can clean it off with a bit of white vinegar and a microfiber cloth. This will remove finger prints, dust and smudges from the screen and won't harm the display.

Replacement Generic Power Adapters Are Inexpensive

Replacement power adapters, especially for Dell laptops, can be very inexpensive, so if you can get a good, gently used and otherwise whole Dell laptop for little money without a power adapter, go for it.
Replacement power adapters, especially for Dell laptops, can be very inexpensive, so if you can get a good, gently used and otherwise whole Dell laptop for little money without a power adapter, go for it. | Source

Replacement Power Adapters And Batteries For Surplus Laptops

Now that we've cleaned the laptop off on the outside, lets get to work under the hood! If your laptop didn't come with a power adapter, then we'll first want to get one. If you have one from another laptop by the same manufacturer, then your power adapter for it MIGHT fit. For example, several Dell laptops use the same connector, voltage and wattage rated power adapter as other Dell laptops. For example, the Dell Latitude D430 and Dell XPS M1330 can share a power adapter. And of course, MacBook, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air models can all use a power adapter meant for another model from the same family, i.e., a 2009 MacBook Pro can use a MagSafe power adapter from a 2008 MacBook Pro. If you don't have a compatible power adapter from your existing laptop or previous one, you'll need to order one online. Rather than getting one direct from the manufacturer, you can often find replacement power adapters online with places such as eBay and Amazon. For a lot less than you'd pay buying a brand new OEM power adapter. If you search for your model of laptop on eBay or Amazon along with the phrase “power adapter” (for example: “Dell Latitude D430 power adapter) you will find many options that will work for your laptop.

If you purchased a laptop that doesn't come with a battery, you can also find a replacement for it online through eBay or Amazon. Though I highly recommend buying them through Amazon as you can read reviews from actual purchasers who used them and will be able to see if there have been numerous problems with one particular battery or otherwise if they had good experiences and what sort of battery life they've experienced. Keep in mind, aftermarket batteries tend to be one of those things where you really do get what you pay for so do pay attention to the reviews and make your own decision on which one to buy or otherwise purchase a genuine battery.

Hard Drive Options

Type
Advantages
Disadvantages
5400 RPM Laptop Hard Drives
Fairly cheap depending on size, not as loud and produces less heat compared to faster 7200RPM hard drives.
Slower so Operating Systems and applications will slower than faster 7200 RPM hard drives or SSDs.
7200 RPM Laptop Hard Drives
Operating Systems and applications will load a bit faster than from a 5400 RPM hard drive.
Costs a bit more than 5400 RPM hard drives, uses more energy which means slightly less runtime on battery, and generates more heat than a 5400 RPM hard drive or SSD.
Solid State Drives
Silent, Operating Systems and applications load much faster due to this type of hard drive having no moving parts, faster than both 5400 and 7200 RPM hard drives, uses less energy so there is less heat and increases runtime on battery slightly.
Cost per gigabyte is still higher than the cost per gigabyte for traditional hard drives.

Hard Drive Options (If Your Surplus Laptop Doesn't Include One)

Now that we have power for the laptop sorted out, let's move on to the hard drive. If your laptop was labeled as being either “wiped” or “OS Installed,” then your laptop still has a hard drive in it. If it is marked as being “Removed” then you will want to get a hard drive for your laptop. You can find hard drives online as well. If you don't need a lot of storage space, you could get a solid state drive, or SSD. SSD's have no moving parts and have the advantage of being faster than normal hard drives. Except for the first generation SSD's, they are also more energy efficient than a normal hard drive and can help squeeze a bit more battery life out of a notebook. Plus they have the benefit of being absolutely silent, generate less heat, and can give a big speed boost for most users in terms of how long it takes to start up and load the OS and launch apps. If you're looking for lots of storage, a traditional hard drive will be your best bet. They've come down in price lately since manufacturing has recovered for the major hard drive producers since the floods in Thailand had increased the cost of new hard drives.

If you opt for a solid state drive, go for the largest size you can buy. I recommend going with one that is at least 120 GB in size or larger. You don't want to get one that is too small and end up not having enough room for both your operating system and all of your applications, documents, music and photos. Also, when purchasing a solid state drive, go for one that supports the SATA 3.0 standard, even if the laptop you're going to be using it in only supports SATA 1.0 that way if your laptop ever dies or you decide to upgrade you can move the SSD to a laptop that supports the faster SATA standards. All SATA drives are backwards compatible so it makes sense to get the fastest option available.

If you go with a regular hard drive, the kind that come with rotating platters, again, go for as large in size as you can comfortably afford and also pick one that has a higher rotational speed. For the most part, you can easily find hard drives for laptops that give you at least 320GB of storage for less than $75 online. As far as rotational speed, you'll mostly see that laptop hard drives are offered with speeds of 5400RPM or 7200RPM, RPM meaning revolutions per minute. The faster the rotational speed, the faster the performance since regular hard drives have to rotate the disks so that data can be read from and written to the hard drive. The faster the speed, the less time the drive is waiting for the data you request to pass by the read/write heads. Do keep in mind that because regular hard drives are by there very nature, a mechanical device, the faster rotational speed does carry with it increased power consumption and heat, so there are tradeoffs when comparing 5400RPM drives with the 7200RPM offerings from hard drive manufacturers.

If you can't afford a solid state drive or want to stick with a regular hard drive but want performance, a 7200RPM won't lead you astray, just keep in mind you'll pay for it in terms of battery life being decreased slightly because of the higher power draw and in terms of the extra heat generated, which for the most part may mean you'll have a slightly warmer palm rest on either the left or right side of your laptop, depending on which side the hard drive is installed in. If you go for a solid state drive, you'll definitely be pleased with the speed boost it gives you with both booting up and launching applications. You'll also get a slight boost in battery life because solid state drives have no moving parts and don't consume as much power as a regular hard drive. Of course, for those perks, you also pay more for the drive itself. If neither of the former options attract you, then you can't go wrong with a plain old 5400RPM drive. It will do its job adequately, but it won't be a speed demon, however keep in mind they are more or less the cheapest option available.

More RAM Is Always Better

RAM is one of those things where it never hurts to have as much as you can afford, but if you're on a budget you'll still want at least 2 GB of RAM in my opinion.
RAM is one of those things where it never hurts to have as much as you can afford, but if you're on a budget you'll still want at least 2 GB of RAM in my opinion. | Source

What Is The Least Amount Of RAM I Should Have?

OS
Basic Functions (Email, Browsing, Word Processing, Youtube, etc)
Graphics Design, Audio Processing, Large Database Manipulation Or Games
Any OS
2 GB of RAM (MINIMUM)
4 GB of RAM (MINIMUM)
No matter what computer you're using, or operating system, 2 GB will give adequate performance for most everything, like browsing online, Youtube, media playback, word processing, etc... Now for any computer, if the maximum amount of RAM it support

RAM For Your Laptop

With laptops, or any computer for that matter, more RAM is always helpful. For myself, I find that I get decent performance with at least 2 GB of RAM whether I'm running Windows 7 or Mac OS X Snow Leopard. Now, if I were doing more than browsing online, writing emails and documents, I'd want more RAM, at least 4 GB of it. So unless you're a power user, 2 GB of RAM should be enough, but if you're into photo editing or anything involving graphics, video or audio processing, 4GB should be considered your minimum.

If the laptop you got has at least 2 GB of RAM and you plan on mostly using it for basic tasks like browsing the internet, word processing, and email, then you don't really need to do anything else here, unless you plan on using your laptop for something more intense. Now, if you get something like a MacBook or MacBook Pro and plan on installing Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite, then I HIGHLY recommend going with a minimum of 4 GB of RAM. 2 GB is the minimum recommended for it by Apple, but I found it to be slower and lag more than Snow Leopard, which ran pretty well with 2 GB of RAM.

If looking for extra RAM for your laptop, you'll first want to look up the model of laptop you have with the manufacturer for its specifications. There, you'll be able to find out what type of RAM your laptop takes (DDR2 PC2-5300 vs DDR3 PC3-8500), and how much RAM it can have installed at maximum. This information is VERY important as laptops (nor desktops for that matter) can't use multiple types or speeds of RAM. For example my early 2009 MacBook uses DDR2 PC2-5330 type RAM in a 200 pin SO-DIMM format, and according to Apple, it can hold a maximum of 4 GB of RAM between its two RAM slots, meaning that I can “max” it out on RAM with two 2 GB RAM cards that match those specifications. I've put “max” in quotes since a lot of MacBooks and MacBook Pros can actually hold more memory than Apple indicates, but that is another Hub for another day.

Once you have the information from the manufacturer's site or by using a tool like Crucial's online advisor tool where you pick the manufacturer name, product line and model of laptop or laptop, and it will tell you what type of RAM your laptop uses. Though, do keep in mind, its always best to get the information from the manufacturer on how many slots are available to the user to access and upgrade the RAM. For example, my Dell Latitude D430, according to Crucial, can hold a maximum 2 GB of RAM and though they do state that there is a single slot for RAM, it doesn't state that the laptop already has 1 GB of RAM soldered onto the motherboard, meaning the single RAM slot in that particular laptop can use only a single 1 GB DDR2 PC2-5300 SO-DIMM card, so one could make the mistake of purchasing two of those modules when they can only use one.

RAM can be purchased from many places. I personally always check with Newegg.com first so I can read reviews on different brands that are available and check prices. I've also bought RAM from eBay, where you can get some good deals on RAM from others who are selling their old RAM after upgrading. Just be sure that if you buy RAM from someone on eBay, you buy from someone who offers a return policy, and of course, always pay through PayPal so that if there is a problem, you can go through PayPal's dispute process if a purchase turns sour and the seller isn't being helpful.

For most laptops, upgrading the RAM is as easy as flipping it over, removing a few screws and a panel, then releasing the clips that hold any existing memory in the slots in place, pulling the RAM modules out, aligning the new ones to the slot or slots at a 45 degree angle, being sure to line up the notch on the card with the slot, and pressing it down til the clips lock it into place. Then putting the cover back on and tightening the screws back up. On others the process may be different, such as on my early 2009 MacBook. With that laptop, the battery must be removed, and then one can loosen three screws that hold a metal bracket/plate in that covers access to the hard drive and RAM module slots. Of course, with any laptop, unless you are experienced with removing and installing new RAM, always follow the manufacturer's directions for the process.

Operating System

Now that we've got the basics, like our power, battery, hard drive and RAM covered, next, we'll need an operating system or OS. A lot of laptops from surplus auctions will tend to have either no OS installed, or may have a Linux distro like Ubuntu or Debian installed. Rarely will the original Windows or Mac OS installation be left on the hard drive. So your options here are to purchase an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) recovery CD/DVD from eBay to match the version of Windows that originally shipped with the laptop. Or, with MacBooks and MacBook Pros, one can actually get the latest version of Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite for free, legally of course. If you have another Mac or have a friend who has one, you can download Yosemite from Apple at no charge through the App store. There are various articles online describing how you can make either a bootable USB hard drive or flash drive from the Yosemite installer, so a quick Google search will help you locate the process.

One other option for an operating system, you can always download and install Linux for free, as in beer. If you simply wanted a laptop to experiment on with Linux before installing it on your main desktop or laptop, this is a great way to test the waters.

For Windows laptops that don't have a CD/DVD drive or the one in it isn't working, you can copy your Windows Re-Installation CD/DVD to a USB flash drive so that you can boot the laptop from the USB flash drive if it supports it and install Windows that way. And installing from USB is actually faster than from a CD or DVD. Thank you solid state storage! I wrote another Hub here about a free program that allows you to copy your Windows Installation disc to a flash drive. This is legal in that our rights as consumers who purchase software or software licenses grant us the option of making our own backup for lawful purposes. When you copy your Windows Installation disc to a flash drive, what you are doing is basically making a backup that you can use for yourself, granted for a single machine with a single Certificate of Authenticity from Microsoft. It doesn't allow for sharing said flash drive with friends, family members, etc... with the intent of providing them with a free copy of Windows.

For most laptops and MacBooks and MacBook Pros, you'll have to initiate the booting from the installation media, whether it's a CD/DVD or USB hard drive or flash drive. For Windows based laptops, most often this can be accomplished by pressing and holding F12 on the keyboard when powering the laptop on to trigger the boot menu to display and allow you to choose another device other than the internal hard drive for it to boot from. Other laptops may have other ways of accessing this boot menu and will typically display which key must be pressed when powering the laptop on. For MacBooks and MacBook Pros, you must hold the Option key on the keyboard after pressing the power button to access a screen where the laptop will allow you to choose what media that you want to boot from.

After installing your operating system, you may need to take care of a few things, such as drivers, when working with Windows laptops, as the installation disc or Windows itself may not have the appropriate drivers. To get these, go to the support page on the laptop manufacturer's website to find the drivers for your particular model of laptop. If installing Windows 7 on a laptop that originally came with Windows Vista though, you may find that the manufacturer doesn't have any listed/published drivers for Windows 7, although you can download the ones that were intended for Vista and they will work just fine for the most part.

Once you have any driver issues resolved, you can then use the laptop just like any other, downloading and installing any software you wish to use, such as Open Office for office productivity, browsers like Google Chrome or Mozilla Firefox, etc...

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Re-Selling Laptops From A Surplus Auction

One can also make money by selling refurbished laptops bought at auction. Several good places are eBay and Craigslist. A few things to keep in mind though are that it is illegal to sell computers with pirated software. When selling a Windows based laptop, always include the CD/DVD for any installed software, especially the OS. With MacBooks and MacBook Pros, this is not so much a requirement as many newer models actually have a recovery method, where if the original installation media isn't available or say the owner has replaced the hard drive, the MacBook or MacBook Pro can download the operating system from Apple via WiFi. In any case though, if you don't have a copy of the OS to include with the laptop, make that clear in your auction listing. Note any problems such as cosmetic issues like scratches, dings, etc... so a buyer can be fully aware of any blemishes before purchasing. In your listing also include photos of the laptop working, powered on, any installed applications you are including on separate CD/DVDs, and close ups of blemishes.

When setting the price for selling a laptop through eBay or Craigslist, check out other listings for the same model to see what the typical going prices are for them, especially ones that are in similar physical condition and configuration. And as always, read and follow eBay's policies for selling items like laptops or desktop computers. And if you live in or near a college town, Craigslist may be a better option to work with locally, as college and university students on tight budget will be happy to get a MacBook or MacBook Pro for less than the cost of a brand new one.

© 2015 jesimpki

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    • jesimpki profile image
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      jesimpki 2 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thanks RonElFran! The Dell Latitude D600 models support up to 2 GB of RAM maximum using DDR PC2700 SO-DIMM modules, which are fairly cheap on both Newegg.com and eBay. The D610 and D620 models use PC2-5300 modules and can hold up to 4 GB of RAM. All of these models have two RAM slots. So the D600 can take two 1 GB modules and the D610 and D620 models can take two 2 GB modules.

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      This is good info. I probably won't be buying any laptops at auction soon - our church was given some Dell Latitude D600s years ago that are still serving us well. But you've encouraged me to think about upgrading memory for better performance.

    • jesimpki profile image
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      jesimpki 2 years ago from Radford, VA

      Thank you Patty Inglish, MS! I always have fun just going to see what is there. You never know what you could find at a surplus auction.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish 2 years ago from North America

      You have given me some good ideas about using surplus auctions to find good used laptops. Thanks very much for this information, because I know several people that could use another laptop without spending a lot of cash. I really learned a lot in your Hub and mark it Up and several more, as well as shared.

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