Do you trust the seller with your child's life?
Babies are EXPENSIVE, and I will be the first one to dress my kids in head-to-toe hand-me-downs to avoid a Gymboree bill, and scour the thrift shops for gently used baby gear.
But car seats are not accessories. They are vital pieces of safety equipment, and using them correctly can protect your child from injury or even death in the case of a collision. Before purchasing a used and discounted seat, here are some questions to ask:
Is it a seat you even want?
ALL car seats that are legally sold in the United States pass the same safety standards; that does NOT mean that all seats are created equal. A seat that works well for a friend may not fit your child's body type or be compatible with your vehicle. There are rear-facing-only seats (infant "buckets") on the market that don't fit most newborns! Make sure that the seat you are purchasing is something that will work for you.
What is the seat's Date of Manufacture?
Car seats expire, and each seat has a sticker on it somewhere giving the date of manufacture. Some seats are even stamped with their expiraton dates, but you can easily look up the expiration period on the brand's website; generally car seats last approximately 6 years, but some last as few as 4 years and some as long as 10. Some original owners are unaware that they are selling expired seats that may be dangerous, but there are also unscrupulous people out there. Expired seats are illegal to use in all 50 states - buyer beware.
Has the seat been in a crash?
Did you know that many car seat manufacturers require that seats be replaced after *any* accident, not matter how minor? Others follow NHTSA's guidelines. In any event, these seats may or may not show any visible signs of damage. While the right thing to do is destroy them, as they are not considered safe any longer, people - especially those behind a computer screen - are not always concernced with what is right.
Is the seat recalled? This should be fairly self-explanatory - check the recall list.
Has the seat been properly cared for?
Check the manual for the specific care instructions for each seat, but generally, the webbing (harness straps) must never have been immersed in water, and harsh chemicals (such as Lysol wipes) should not have been used on the shell - they can degrade the plastic and damage the structure.
Has the seat been checked on an airplane?
Baggage handlers are not selected for their precise and careful handling of your cargo. They have the daunting task of getting EVERYTHING off the plane and onto the baggage carousel as quickly as possible. Frequently that means dumping things into piles without much care, and *can* mean that your seat has damage that may or may not be visible to the naked eye. Additionally, turbulence in the air can cause cargo to slam into other items - at up to 600 miles an hour! Remember, manufacturers recommend that car seats be replaced after a collision; you have no way of knowing if car seats in the cargo hold have been subjected to crash forces, so at best they have unknown history and you should proceed with caution.
Secondhand seats from a trusted source CAN be a way to save some pennies, but if you are not entirely certain that the seat has been properly cared for, it is a safer bet to purchase a budget-friendly option new. And, regardless of how you aquire your seat, be sure to read the manual and have your installation checked by a CPST. Safe travels!