What you should know before buying a used electric vehicle

What you should know before buying a used electric vehicle

Tech Highlights:

  • 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.

  • Driving an electric vehicle is similar to driving one with an internal-combustion engine in many ways, though refuelling and other ownership aspects are certainly different, and we’ve recognised that the considerations for purchasing a used EV are also quite different. Where a used vehicle has spent its life geographically and how it has been cared for are still important considerations, but the rules are surprisingly different from — and perhaps the polar opposite of — those for conventional cars. Pre-owned EVs also offer an interesting twist on pricing, warranties, and features that you might not consider when purchasing a gas-powered vehicle. All of these issues are discussed further below.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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