Used electric vehicle buyer’s guide
Electric vehicles are growing in popularity. For many people, however, cost continues to present a major barrier to going electric. Used electric vehicles can be a great way to get all the benefits of an EV, at a much lower price point.
Electric vehicles are growing in popularity. From spending less money on gas to helping clean the air and fight climate change, more and more people are curious about the benefits that come from driving an EV. For many people, however, cost continues to present a major barrier to going electric. Used electric vehicles can be a great way to get all the benefits of an EV, at a much lower price point. And as of January 1 of 2023, it’s even easier to make the switch due to unprecedented incentives from the federal government passed in the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).
What’s the difference between an EV and a hybrid?
- When we talk about cars for consumers, there are four basic types: A petroleum-powered car using an internal combustion engine, a hybrid car which has an internal combustion engine combined with an electric motor, a plug-in hybrid which can be recharged like a battery electric vehicle but also can run on gasoline and a battery-electric vehicle which has no internal combustion engine and only runs on electricity.
- A hybrid vehicle combines a gasoline engine with an electric motor and a battery pack. A hybrid vehicle does not need to be charged and can be filled up with gas the same as a gas-powered car. Some advantages of hybrid vehicles are that they have better gas mileage and lower emissions than their gasoline- or diesel-powered counterparts. Some disadvantages are that they are slightly more expensive than gas cars upfront, and that they can still use more gas and create more emissions than a plug-in hybrid or a battery electric vehicle.
- A plug-in hybrid also combines a battery and an electric motor with a gasoline engine, but it has a larger battery and can be charged like a battery electric car. For most plug-in hybrids, you can drive around 20-40 miles on the battery alone before it runs out of charge and switches to gas. This means that with proper planning and charging, the car can be operated as an electric vehicle most of the time, while being able to use the gas engine for longer trips. It’s a bit like a bridge between a hybrid and a battery electric car- it requires less gas and creates less emissions than a hybrid, but more than a battery electric vehicle. It’s cheaper than a battery electric vehicle but more expensive than a hybrid.
- A battery electric vehicle is completely electric, uses no gasoline and creates zero tailpipe emissions. Instead of fueling up at a gas station, a battery electric vehicle (BEV) is charged, much like you might charge a phone or a laptop. A BEV is the most expensive of these options upfront, but typically costs less to operate.
- When we talk about EVs in this tip guide, we’re mainly referring to the battery electric kind, although much of the information will apply to any vehicle with a battery.
Where can I buy a used electric vehicle?
- Used EVs can be purchased from CarGuru, CarMax, Craigslist or other sale-by-owner websites, used car dealerships and franchised dealerships. Similar to any other car, you can buy a used EV or a certified pre-owned EV, with similar pros and cons.
- To qualify for the IRA used-car incentives, however, you need to buy from a dealer.
What to consider before you say “I do” to a used EV
- Consider what kind of range you will need. Think about how many miles you typically drive in a day- for the average driver, that’s about 35. While it may be tempting to pay more for an extra-long range for occasional road trips, it may make more sense economically to pay less for a car that will have enough range for 99% of your trips, and rent a car for your yearly road trip.
- Extreme hot and cold weather can impact battery range. Temperatures above 95 degrees fahrenheit will reduce the battery range by about 17% with the air conditioner on and sub-freezing temperatures can reduce range by 40%. Think about where you live when deciding your ideal range. Active thermal management systems can mitigate the range loss from extreme climates.
- Make sure that you check the actual range of the car when you view it in person. The original range of the model is likely to be higher than the current range of a used EV due to battery degradation over time, as well as the impact of extreme weather. Check the EV instrument cluster in person to see the current maximum range of the vehicle.
- Figure out how you plan to charge your EV. For most people, installing a Level 2 charger in their home or plugging into an existing outlet overnight is the easiest way to meet their charging needs. This can vary depending on how many miles you typically drive in a day and whether you are a homeowner or renter. Not every EV supports DC rapid charging, so consider this when looking at different models.
- Take a look at what public chargers are available in your area, especially what kind of DC fast charging is available. There are three different types of DC ports in the United States, and you may want to consider which types are available around you when purchasing your vehicle, as different vehicles will use different ports.
- Check out the charging rate of the vehicle you are buying. The age of a battery will affect its charging speed.
- Figure out how much battery warranty is left. The best way to do this is to get a hold of the car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and call the manufacturer’s customer service department to figure out when the warranty expires and if it can be transferred from the original owner to you. The standard warranty is eight years and 80,000 miles minimum nationally, and 10 years and 150,000 miles in California. Certified pre-owned vehicles may have an extended warranty.
- Warranties vary in what they will protect. You’re generally covered from complete battery failure, but you may or may not be protected when it comes to capacity degradation. Different models of car will have different standards for how much range loss it takes to cash into the warranty- this is also information you can get from the manufacturer.
- Get a vehicle history report. Use the Vehicle Identification Number to get information from a company like CarFax or AutoCheck about the car’s previous owners, maintenance history, accidents, damage, title status, registration and inspection information and recalls. Electric vehicles have fewer maintenance needs than their gas-powered counterparts, but they still have wheels, tires, brakes and other parts that require maintenance, as well as their battery. Knowing if your car has been in accidents, undergone damage, or had a recall is relevant no matter what vehicle you’re buying.
- Get a pre-purchase inspection from a mechanic, ideally one that specializes in EVs to check on the status of the non-battery components of the vehicle.
- Get a battery health report or an onboard diagnostics check from a dealer, a manufacturer certified technician or an EV mechanic. The health of your battery is the most important thing to consider for a used electric vehicle.
- Check to see if the seller is including the charging cord and all the other charging accessories that came with the vehicle. If not, it’s worth asking for a discount. If you’re buying the vehicle privately, it’s worth asking if the seller will include their Level 2 home charger as well.
- Figure out which perks of the vehicle you’ll be able to use, and which you’ll have to pay for. Many models come with free DC fast charging at Electrify America stations, but this usually only applies to the original buyer. Many EVs also come with a telematics connection, which allows users to use a smartphone app to start and stop charging, check on range and precondition the car (using grid power to pre-heat or cool the cabin and the battery, allowing the user to preserve range). However, this ability sometimes becomes unavailable or expensive after a certain number of years.
How to take advantage of incentives:
- The Inflation Reduction Act established an unprecedented credit for used EVs in every state for $4,000 or 30% of the cost of the vehicle (whichever is lower). There are some requirements:
- The cost of the vehicle must be under $25,000
- The model year must be at least two years old.
- The vehicle must be sold by a dealer.
- The income cap to be eligible for the used EV credit is $75,000 for single filers, $112,500 for head of household and $150,000 for joint filers.
- “Clean vehicles” are eligible for the credit, meaning battery electric vehicles, plug-in hybrid electric vehicles or fuel cell vehicles.
- Finally, the credit can only be used once per vehicle.
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Global Warming Solutions, Associate, Environment America Research & Policy Center
Mackenzie works on the Transform Transportation campaign, where she works to build a more climate and human-friendly transportation system. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, walking, biking and reading. She lives in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Director, Environment Campaigns, PIRG
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.