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What to Know Before Buying a Used Electric Car

202204 buying a used ev 2 jpg Cars.com illustration by Paul Dolan

In many ways, driving an electric vehicle is the same as driving one with an internal-combustion engine, though refueling and other ownership aspects are certainly different, and we’ve recognized that the considerations for buying a used EV are quite different as well. Where a used vehicle has spent its life, geographically speaking, and how it’s been cared for are still primary concerns, but the rules are surprisingly different from — and perhaps the opposite of — those for conventional cars. Pre-owned EVs also put an interesting spin on pricing, warranties and features that you might not give a second thought with a gas-powered car. We explore all of these issues below.

Related: What to Know Before Purchasing an Electric Vehicle: A Buying Guide

Used EVs Can Be a Bargain

Cars.com purchased its first EV, a 2011 Nissan Leaf SL, new for $35,665 as equipped, and when we sold it 19 months later to a private party with just 11,000 miles on it, $19,000 was the best we could get for it — a depreciation of 47%. We can’t promise this kind of break on today’s used EVs, especially when gas prices are high and inventories of all vehicle types are at record lows. But when things are closer to normal, a couple of factors result in modest used-EV prices.

One factor is incentives. The market immediately accounted for federal tax credits available on new EVs, which subtract up to $7,500 from the apparent purchase price of most pre-owned battery-electrics, though tax credits have been exhausted for Tesla and GM for a few years now. State and local incentives also play a part depending on where you buy.

Best we can tell, the rest has been about consumers’ hesitancy to purchase used EVs because they’ve believed a few things: that newer models would be coming with longer ranges (true), that they truly needed more range (often false) and that a used EV is closer to imminent and prohibitively expensive battery death (highly unlikely).

We’ll address the biggest boogeyman next, but suffice it to say that shoppers with the right perspective on these concerns and all the facts below have gotten some great deals on used EVs.

 

Focus on Decreased Range, Not Battery Death

As we’ve reported many times, electric car batteries are more like those in hybrids than cellular phones: They lose capacity over time, but outright failure requiring replacement is very rare. This should allay one of the primary fears about buying a used EV, but just the same, you should think about what your daily range needs are and make sure you reconcile that not with a brand-new version of the car’s EPA-estimated range, but rather a vehicle of its current age. And while you’re at it, allow for further range loss if you plan to keep the vehicle for years to come.

All makes and models age differently, and the way they’re charged and driven affects battery health, as does the climate (more on that below), but based on the data available today, it seems that most EVs lose 10%-20% of their capacity over 10 years. Don’t forget to account for the inevitable temporary range decrease caused by cold temperatures if it applies to you, which is roughly 40% at 20 degrees Fahrenheit compared with the ideal 75 degrees. This is pretty linear, meaning it gets steadily worse on its way down to 20 degrees, and it doesn’t stop there. Subzero temps easily mean half of your range is gone.

Beware the Desert Car?

Having established that outright battery failure is rare, we don’t want to proceed to scare everyone off of used EVs, but there are some considerations to ponder, and one example in particular resonates because it illustrates how different EVs can be from what we’ve always known: the desert car.

People of a certain age were taught that a used car from a desert climate with low mileage (meaning miles on the odometer) was the best you could hope for. The desert meant it wasn’t exposed to much rain, road salt or sea air, and consequently, it was less likely to rust. And low miles is of course a good thing for a used car: low miles equals higher value. Fast forward and cars are already so much more rust resistant that the desert might not be the advantage it once was — but did anyone expect it to become a disadvantage? In the age of EVs, one could argue it is. EVs unavoidably lose range as they age, but the data also show that hot climates accelerate this degradation.

Lower odometer readings are also a plus, all other things being equal, partly because it should reflect that more of both the original battery capacity and the warranty remain. But once again, the data tell us an EV that’s regularly used is a happy EV, while one that’s driven or charged infrequently can incur battery damage, specifically if it’s allowed to discharge too far and for too long — or to sit unused indefinitely at 100% state of charge. How do you know if a used car meets this description? It’s still early, but Recurrent is a company that monitors connected EVs in the U.S. and is analyzing the resulting battery data to determine how specific makes and models age. Using basic information, the company believes it can determine the health of an EV battery and has even alerted a couple of its community members, who allow Recurrent to retrieve data wirelessly, of batteries that were failing prematurely due to manufacturing defects.

Recurrent also offers Used EV Battery Condition Reports, currently free, if you’re willing to take pictures of the prospective purchase’s displays and input them along with some other data. I gave it a try with Cars.com’s 2021 Tesla Model Y and, after signing up and entering the vehicle identification number, was instructed to charge the car fully then photograph and input the odometer reading and projected range.

model y 2021 recurrent report 01 jpg Input screens for Recurrent's Battery Condition Report |

Within five minutes I’d received the Model Y’s bill of health, which was Excellent, as expected. These reports aren’t at a point that they reflect exactly what the vehicle itself has experienced, as a conventional vehicle-history report might, but they do account for where the car has been and the battery capacity for its age and mileage compared with others of the same make and model, which the company says is enough for a reliable read of its health.

model y 2021 recurrent report 02 jpg Recurrent Battery Condition Report on Cars.com's 2021 Tesla Model Y |

Naturally, the more EV owners who sign up to have their data sampled by Recurrent, the better the quality of the data and the greater the chance that someday you’ll be able to purchase a used EV with a more detailed record. Participants pay nothing and receive a monthly report that reveals their battery’s health, its maximum range, how that has changed with both time and weather variation, and also a prediction of its range in three years, providing the owner doesn’t move to a new region. This can help owners ensure that the vehicle will continue to meet their needs and perhaps determine when to sell it.

While these reports aren’t a guarantee, and they aren’t VIN-specific yet, they seem a better option than ruling out used EVs in the country’s warmer regions or avoiding the type altogether fearing battery problems.

Inspections Are Still Recommended

Just because EVs have fewer moving parts, require less maintenance and have one big and expensive component that distracts attention and instills fear — the battery pack — it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t get a prospective purchase inspected by a qualified mechanic. Though it costs around $100, depending on the shop and region, this step can save you much more in the long run by ruling out stinkers, and it should give you an idea how much life is left on wear items like brakes and suspension components, even if they’re currently good enough.

Any mechanic should be able to determine if there are outstanding recalls on the vehicle, and that includes anything battery related. If you’re buying a Chevrolet Bolt EV or EUV of any age, for example, you’ll be getting (or will be eligible for) a battery pack no older than 2021.

To this end, there’s no reason to fear an EV with a battery that’s been replaced due to recall, defect, age or damage — apart from the usual expectation that a vehicle that’s been damaged significantly should cost less, even if it’s been repaired. This is one of the things an inspection can uncover.

Naturally, it’s better to use a mechanic who’s trained to work on EVs, which may limit your choices and increase the inspection price. (Some otherwise competent technicians might refuse to touch an EV.)

Bear in mind that outside of recalls, battery replacement (specifically the cells or modules) may be the work of third parties, not the original manufacturer, as has been the case with hybrids. You’ll have to decide if you think aftermarket battery components are riskier than original equipment just as you would with other parts. Given the expensive labor involved and the insistence of some manufacturers to replace full packs rather than defective modules, it’s inevitable that third-party solutions will proliferate for high-volume EVs, especially those out of warranty.

Any seller claim of a battery replacement should be backed up with documentation and confirmed, where possible, by inspection.

Warranties Are in Flux

Current EV powertrain warranties last at least eight years and 100,000 miles, and it’s now the norm for the coverage to transfer to subsequent owners, but that wasn’t always the case. Today’s warranties don’t apply to older models (unless the manufacturer’s terms have remained consistent, of course), so any shopper should verify the vehicle’s model year, using a free VIN decoder, and find the original warranty terms. (For your own protection — and ours — we have to leave to you the task of determining what coverage remains on a used EV you might be considering.)

Just to give you an idea of how much variance there is, even today’s new Tesla models provide 100,000, 120,000 or 150,000 miles of powertrain coverage, depending on the model and battery size. Originally, Tesla didn’t limit the miles at all.

An example of what you might encounter is an older Hyundai, such as an original Ioniq or Kona EV, in which the powertrain warranties weren’t transferrable. That limitation was lifted with the 2020 model year for all Hyundai EVs.

As stated above, lithium-ion batteries lose capacity over time, but not all manufacturers’ warranties — past or current — have covered battery replacement should that capacity drop below a stated level (some cover only failure or manufacturing defects), and the capacity cutoff varies but has typically been 70%.

The year 2016 was less than eight years ago, so vehicles from that model year on the market today that aren’t eligible for battery repair or replacement due to capacity loss potentially include the Fiat 500e, Ford Focus Electric, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, smart ForTwo Electric and all Teslas — and that’s if their warranties transfer and their odometers remain within coverage limits.

Free Charging and Some Features Might Not Transfer

Warranties aren’t the only things that might not transfer past the first buyer, at least not for free. The increasingly common free DC fast charging at Electrify America stations (limited by kilowatt-hours or years) typically starts and ends with the original buyer.

A so-called telematics connection to the car also isn’t guaranteed. Most EVs have been equipped with two-way data communication that let you use a smartphone app to start and stop charging, view range and precondition the cabin while it’s plugged into grid power, preserving battery charge for driving range. However, the connection might not be available, or free, on a used EV. A fresh example: We determined that the new 2022 Hyundai Ioniq 5 has just three years’ free Bluelink connectivity, which means the ability to precondition its cabin at whim while it’s connected to a charger ends at that point unless you’re willing to pay $198 per year (or as little as $93.67 annually if you pay three years in advance). Though the key fob enables remote starting, it oddly works only when the car isn’t plugged in, meaning a smartphone and Bluelink subscription are required.

Related: Which New Electric Vehicles Come With Free Charging?

By contrast, Nissan seems to have gone out of its way to keep this kind of wireless connection (originally called CarWings on Cars.com’s 2011 Leaf) free, even for old models. Preconditioning is a hallmark of range preservation, especially for older vehicles that had less range to begin with, so make sure connectivity doesn’t come at a price.

Also note that the wireless updatability pioneered by Tesla and adopted by many other automakers, especially in electric models, have an arguable downside: It allows manufacturers to shift toward subscriptions rather than one-time payment for features. Tesla has done so with its Autopilot, to give one example, so owners keep on paying month after month. This opens the door for confusion at best and unscrupulous sales practices at worst. If you’re buying a used EV, and especially a Tesla, make sure you know what you’re getting for the purchase price — and what you’re not. The vehicle you test-drive could behave very differently once money has changed hands.

Resale: The Market Giveth, But It Also Taketh

Buyers who are willing to ignore the hysteria over aging lithium-ion batteries and do a little homework are likely to find (in a normal market, at least) affordable used EVs, but if they decide to sell the car later on, they might discover that the same forces are still at play. In other words, you might decide that used EVs have value, but that doesn’t mean the market as a whole will. If your vehicle has gotten closer to — or passed — the end of its powertrain warranty, you might find its resale value has dropped precipitously. Likewise, if the manufacturer has rolled out a new generation with longer range and more features, it might impact your model’s value more than such a succession would for a gas-powered model.

An extreme example comes in the form of a cautionary tale. As we prepared to publish, rumors (and published reports) claimed that Chevrolet had discontinued production of the battery pack for the electric version of the Chevrolet Spark, which was sold from the 2014-16 model years in zero-emissions-vehicle states such as California, which would mean Sparks with failing batteries would be little more than scrap and even healthy ones would likely lose value. GM has since denied these reports and blamed supply chain disruptions, but it raised the specter of an automaker choosing not to supply batteries, or a shortage that could affect an owner who can’t wait for a repair. This would be more of a potential problem for low-volume vehicles like the Spark because there’s little enticement for an aftermarket company to take up the slack — a problem we hope we never see. Even if battery replacement doesn’t come into play until EVs are more than 10 years old or have traveled well over 100,000 miles, it needs to remain feasible or their environmental benefit will be in question, along with motorists’ comfort with used EVs.

As of publication, gas prices are high and inventories are low across the board, so the notion of an EV bargain — new or used — seems hard to grasp, but it’s not out of the question that the market will normalize and the proliferation of new electric models from virtually every manufacturer will drive down the value of last decade’s EVs. However it goes, it’s definitely a different type of vehicle with considerations beyond the obvious.

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Cars.com’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with Cars.com’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of Cars.com’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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Former Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder, a Cars.com launch veteran, led the car evaluation effort. He owns a 1984 Mercedes 300D and a 2002 Mazda Miata SE. Email Joe Wiesenfelder

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