With new laptops now available for as little as £180, you might think any advice about how to buy a ‘cheap’ portable PC is redundant.

But buyer, beware: very low-cost laptops don’t always have the best specifications, and it’s worth doing some careful shopping around to find something that’s suited to your particular needs.

What to buy

Laptops come in all shapes, sizes and specifications, so it’s sensible to have at least some idea about what you want the computer for before you start looking.

If you’re buying something to carry to work and back, then a lightweight ultraportable is your best choice, for example, but weight is less of an issue if you just want something to use at home.

[Related story: Choose the right laptop for you]

Almost any laptop, even if it’s a few years old, is suitable for web browsing and word processing, but editing photos or playing games needs something more up to date. You’ll also need to decide between a Windows laptop and a MacBook. The differences are largely academic these days, since much the same software is available for both, but a MacBook will cost more than an equivalently specified Windows laptop - both new and second-hand.

Where to buy: cheap

Just because you want a cheap laptop doesn’t mean you can’t buy it new from a retailer. Buying new has many benefits: you know what you’re getting, and your purchase is protected both by a manufacturer warranty and the UK Sale of Goods Act. The latter means you can make a legal claim for faulty products for up to six years after the purchase date, which also renders a costly extended warranty worthless.

That £180 laptop we mentioned is an Acer C720 Chromebook from Currys.co.uk, but Dell also has some good deals. At the time of writing, its Inspiron 15 3000-Series starts at just £199, although its 2kg weight means this isn’t a laptop for lugging around all day.

Where to buy: cheaper

Many retailers sell old laptops at steep discounts. Don’t worry that you’re not getting the latest model - laptop specifications don’t change that quickly and a lower price is more appealing than a marginally faster processor.

Since they’re not allowed to re-sell them as ‘new’, some retailers also offer laptops that have been returned by customers at a reduced price, Amazon has Warehouse Deals.

These may have cosmetic damage or damaged packaging, but still come with a warranty and the usual consumer protection.

You may not necessarily get an ultra-cheap laptop with such deals, but you can get one with a great specification for much less than its original price. The only catch in both cases is that availability varies considerably, so finding the laptop you want may take time.

The Currys’ ‘Clearance’ store is a good place to start. It offers both old stock and newer refurbished laptops.

Argos also runs a clearance store on eBay. Even Apple runs a refurbished item store.  

Amazon has a laptop store with a wide range of devices and you can visit the BT Shop.

Where to buy: cheapest

The biggest bargains are found by buying second-hand. This carries some risk, since there’s usually no comeback with a purchase, but common sense and choosing carefully will avoid most pitfalls.

1. Friends

Buying a laptop from someone you know is usually a safe bet, since you’ll also probably know something about its history - whether or not it’s been looked after, in other words.

While you may not be inclined to haggle over the price, you should still check that you can’t find a better deal elsewhere and that everything is working properly.

2. Retailers and auctions

CeX (Computer Exchange) is also worth a look. Being able to see and try what you’re buying beforehand is a major plus, as is being able to return a purchase if there’s a problem.

eBay is another source of cheap laptops and there are two main options. The first is to buy from a business seller who specialises in refurbished models with a warranty. Just don’t let a low price blind you to a low specification.

At the time of writing, for example, one seller was offering Dell Latitudes for just £150, but with a years-old specification well below that of the brand-new Inspiron model sold by Dell for £199.

Better deals are to be had from private auctions, but always check the seller’s listing very closely, since you’ll only have some redress if a laptop differs from its description.

Don't forget that Amazon sells second-hand laptops. Click on the 'used' option of a laptop you like to find private sellers.

Always pay using PayPal, since that offers the best chance of a refund, and never get caught up in a bidding war - there’s no shortage of laptops on eBay so set yourself a maximum price and stick with it.

Don’t necessarily be put off by a laptop that’s described as ‘broken’, either, as long as any damage is reflected in the price. This does involve a bit of chance, but if a problem is clearly stated, it could be simple to fix. Missing keys and power supplies and non-functioning hard drives and DVD drives are easily and cheaply replaced, for example, but a damaged screen is not.

3. Small ads

Buying privately through a small ad can be safer than buying on eBay, since you can try what you’re buying before handing over the cash. After that, though, you’re on your own. The usual common sense advice applies when it comes to buying stolen goods – if you have doubts about the item or the seller, or if an offer seems too good to be true then look elsewhere.

Where to buy: free

If you are prepared to mend a laptop, then you may not need to pay for it at all. Laptops are routinely given away on Freegle and Freecycle, and while you may chance upon a working model, you’re more likely to find one that needs some attention.

Again, be sensible here - there’s no point spending £200 to get a five-year old laptop working, but £30 to replace a hard drive or £10 for more memory is easy to justify.

Don’t forget the software

Check what software is supplied with the laptop. We’ll skip the complex legalities of reselling software and simply point out that without an installation disc and registration code, installed software will cease to exist if you ever have to reinstall the operation system.

Battery blues

One final word of warning when buying a laptop second-hand. Whatever the source, if a laptop is more than two years old, it’s safe to assume its battery will have seen better days. So always factor in the cost of a new one before buying, at least if you plan to use the laptop away from mains power.