You Don't Have To Spike Your Old Pc

It was the hottest thing in silicon five years ago. But today, that old personal computer just doesn't cut it. You want color graphics, perhaps a zippy 486 chip, and lots more memory.

Buying the latest PC is the easy part. But what about the old hardware collecting dust on your desk? You don't have to junk it. Today, there's a vibrant market for used PCs.

VALUE CHECK. Before you sell, though, prepare for reverse sticker shock. As a rule, computers lose 30% of their value as soon as they're switched on. Within two years, they can lose an additional 50%, as powerful new successors come to market. An IBM PC/XT that cost $2,500 in 1984, for example, is worth just $500 today.

Moreover, the market has its quirks. Right now, the National Computer Exchange (212 614-0700) is seeing an oversupply of IBM's relatively new Personal System/2. And some of the oldest PCs simply won't sell. No one wants to buy a Radio Shack TRS80 or 10-year-old Commodore 64.

If you know the market well, you may get the best price simply by taking out an ad in a newspaper or trade magazine. Big PC-user groups, such as the Boston Computer Society (617 367-8080), publish newsletters with classified ad sections. Or log on to an electronic bulletin board, where thousands of PC users check in daily. How much to ask? Look in Computerworld, PC Week, or other computer magazines for current prices on used machines.

If you want someone else to do the work, try a computer exchange. These companies will match you with a buyer--for a commission. Boston Computer Exchange (800 262-6399) and Computer Exchange Northwest (206 820-1181) take 15%; Boston adds a $25 listing fee. Southern Computer Exchange (800 786-0717) and Mathewson Associates (804 479-3977) charge 10%.

Set a realistic price and an exchange should be able to sell your PC within three weeks. In most cases, you'll have to pay for shipping. The exchange should send a check within two weeks of the sale.

Don't want to wait it out? Try a broker. Exsel (800 624-2001) is among the biggest; you'll find more under computer dealers in the yellow pages. Here, the transaction is more straightforward. You describe what you have, they make an offer, you ship the PC, they write a check. The downside: Since brokers take on inventory, they typically offer at least 30% less than you'd get through an exchange.