Are Refurbished Roombas A Good Deal Or A Scam?

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I am a big fan of Woot. Like many others, I like their deal-of-the-day and follow it on a pretty regular basis.

In case you aren’t familiar with it, Woot.net offers one “deal” every day. When that deal is sold out, it is all gone and you can’t get anymore. No new deal takes its place until the next day, when there is once again a new deal for the day. Sometimes the deals are amazing, and sometimes the deals are pretty much the same kind of price you would be able to get anywhere if you just looked around a little bit.

One thing that Woot does on a fairly regular basis is offer refurbished or reconditioned products. A refurbished item is one that has gone from being new, to getting back into the manufacturer’s hands where it is fixed or looked over, and then sold again. Since the device technically is not new, it is labeled as refurbished.

Theoretically, a refurbished item has been restore to “like new” condition, but this is an obvious falsehood since no manufacturer offers the full “like new” warranty on their refurbished products. They know as well as you do that a product that had to be fixed is more likely to have other problems than one that was fine right out of the box the first time. So, you get either no warranty at all, or a much shorter one than normal.

Depending upon what you are buying and how likely it is to break, buying refurbished can be a good way to get a great deal by paying much less than a new product costs for one that is likely just as good. On the other hand, some products aren’t very robust in the first place and paying less for one with a virtually useless warranty is not a good idea. Saving money requires only buying the right kinds of things when they are refurbished. The catch is that it is not always easy to tell which is which.

That brings us to the Refurbished iRobot Roomba. Frequent users of Woot like to joke about how often reconditioned Roobmas show up on the website. It seems that the iRobot Roomba 530 Robotic Vacuum with Virtual Wall seems to show up the most often. When refurbished Roombas show up in a Woot-Off, they bring the special multi-deal day auctions to a screeching halt while it takes hours to sell out.

In fact, I would guess that Woot has to hold off the iRobot folks lest their products fill the site several days each week.

Which begs the question, is buying a refurbished cheap irobot roomba a good idea? Or, are refurbished Roombas a scam?

Unfortunately, the answer is that iRobot Roombas are great little carpet sweeper vacuums when they work properly. However, they are incredibly fragile. The problem is that doing what the Roobma does actually requires more expensive hardware, but people won’t pay more for robot vacuums. That means that iRobot has to try and make do with the fastest manufacturing processes and the cheapest parts.

Frankly, the company has done an admirable job in being able to make a robotic vacuum with all of the features people want at a price they are willing to pay. But, in the end, Roombas are very temperamental and prone to breaking both quickly and often. The company stands behind its products with a one-year manufacturer warranty, which is good. However, since they break a lot, the company ends up with TONS of Roombas that it fixes and then has to resell as reconditioned Roombas or refurbished Roombas.

  • If you want to see for yourself, check any of the Roomba forums and you’ll see many Roobma problems that are so common they have names. Do a search for roomba circle dance, roomba battery problem, and roobma cliff sensors, for several examples. (Hint: Ignore all results from ehow.com or fixya.com as they are usually worthless.)
  • For an even more useful search include either roomba 4xxx or roomba 5xxx or even roomba 3xxx in your search. This is how Roobma owners and techies refer to the specific problems that plague each series of Roomba robotic vacuums. (The xxx is a place holder. Most problems that happen to any of the 4000 series Roombas happens to all of them whether they are Roomba 4100 Red, Roobma 4105 Sage, or Roomba 4210 Discovery.)

Refurbished Roombas are sold with only a 90-day warranty. Basically, the company washes its hands of the ones that were broken by getting them working and shipping them back out with a short warranty that ensures they will likely not have to deal with that particular unit again, which is good, since plenty of new ones are headed back into the factory at any time. For consumers however, it is not so good. If there was a weak solder or connection on one part that is fixed, but the other another has not broken YET, it might also have a weak connection and will break soon, although probably after 90 days.

The question is whether or not this is a self-defeating strategy for iRobot and its attempts to build a market in robotic vacuums. While it may be true that there is no wiggle room in increasing the costs associated with making Roombas, reselling units that are more likely to have trouble than brand new units could very well be creating a population of Roomba owners who will

  1. Never buy another Roomba again because the refurbished one they bought broke so quickly
  2. Will recommend to friends and neighbors not to buy Roombas because they break too easily
  3. Will be willing to buy a robot vacuum from a competitor when technology allows better, longer-lasting, roomba-type vacuums to be built for lower costs
  4. And, of course, will tell friends to buy the other brand because it doesn’t break right away like Roombas do

As corporate strategies go, the one iRobot seems to be pursuing is one destined to fail. There are only so many consumers willing to try a robotic vacuum in the first place. Each one of them that is alienated by a faulty refurbished Roomba reduces that pool by one more. While Roomba is the only game in town today, people tend to have long memories of being burned, especially on higher priced items like the iRobot Roombas. That means that when they are easier to develop and sell than they are now, there are going to be plenty of waiting customers for new competitors.

Although it might cost Roomba more on the bottom line in the short-term, the company would be better served for the long-term by offering a full one-year warranty on its refurbished Roombas, just like it does on new ones. Doing so might even allow for them to be sold a higher price than they are now. More importantly, doing so would stop the creation of an army of Roobma haters who think that Roobmas are junk and buying one is just a scam. Perhaps, most useful of all, as refurbished Roombas came back in for service the company could learn what it is that goes wrong most often the second time around and perhaps preemptively “fix” the potential problems on every refurbished Roomba before it goes out the door, resulting in fewer warranty service requests on refurbished Roombas, thus negating the additional expense of servicing them for a longer time.

Of course, that only works if the company is not fully aware that all Roombas are just ticking time-bombs that the company needs to ship and get off of the service life-cycle as quickly as possible to avoid bankruptcy. In which case, there really is no valid strategy, other than to hope that people never wise up.

The author has owned two Roomba vacuums, a Roomba 4100 Red, which worked perfectly for almost three years before the battery died, and a refurbished Roomba 530 which developed the common Roobma problem where when turned on it keeps trying to backup because it thinks its bump sensor has been activated. The author still owns both Roomba, although both gather dust in the corner of the basement because replacing the Roomba Red battery is too expensive, and fixing the 530 Roomba requires near complete disassembly or paying as much as the purchase price to have it fixed. When asked, the author tells people, “When they work, they are pretty great, but they seem to break very easily, so it might not last very long.”

I’ve never seen anyone buy one after I tell them that, and I am not an iRobot Roomba hater. I just can’t justify buying a new one until I start hearing that they are much more reliable.

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4 thoughts on “Are Refurbished Roombas A Good Deal Or A Scam?”

  1. Donaldson Gloria Lee says:

    Sorry you had such bad luck with your irobot. I’ve had mine at least 3 years and replaced the battery for under $30.00 on eBay, just replaced the main brushes yesterday, but it kept telling me to clean brushes, which I did but it still said they needed cleaning. Now it’s working fine again. Mine is a 500 that I bought off eBay for under $250.00. I have it set to run 3 times a week.

  2. Bea says:

    As the rather sheepishly ashamed ex-owner of 4 Roombas, I have to say that I’ve finally given up and gone back to using a regular vacuum, despite a back injury. Roombas are so unreliable and time-consuming to fix that one has to have a regular vacuum on hand, anyway. I spent many hours figuring out how to “fix” my last one, and it would only work for about a half-house job, and then would have to be “fixed” again. I don’t believe that the price point is the reason for the cheap construction; I think the Roomba execs must be invested just for the short run and don’t re-invest enough in the product. Has anyone figured out how much more per unit it would cost to use better components and solder? I’m sure most of the money goes to the engineers, to the detriment of the customers. I figured that having a Roomba cost me about $250/yr, and that was back when the most expensive one was under $500 (as I recall). The only reason I’m reading about them again is that, with back surgery coming up, I’m going to have to bite the bullet and get some kind of robotic vacuum in the near future.

  3. Denis says:

    Thanks for such a great research. I was wondering why there is so many refubrished Roombas on ebay. Likely, I’ve decided to google that question. After reading this article I’m pretty sure I won’t buy it.
    But I want robot cleaner for my house. Can you suggest a good model?

    1. WGHubris says:

      I’m not familiar with any other brands, although they may exist. My recommendation is to buy one of the cheap Roombas. Buy it new with a full warranty. You won’t get meaningless bells and whistles like scheduling, but it will clean your rooms just the same. Just set it down in the room to clean and hit the start button. Put it back on the charger when you are done. Wait for a good sale or use one of those online coupon codes that give your 20% off any item or something like that.

      The important thing is to consider these robot cleaners disposable items with a one or two year usable life. That way you won’t overpay for a “higher-end model” that will break in the same time frame.

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