If you’re seriously considering buying a used electric vehicle — particularly a full EV (battery-electric vehicle, or BEV) rather than a plug-in hybrid — then you’ve probably heard or read advice against doing so.
Battery life: the strongest argument against buying a used BEV
The most compelling critique of used-EV buying relates to a basic fact of physics: lithium-ion batteries deteriorate over time.
So do gasoline engines and drivetrain components, of course. The difference is that as EV batteries age, driving range declines, reducing the vehicle’s usefulness. Internal combustion engines don’t have this problem. An old ICE engine is a bit less efficient than a spanking-new one, but it’s not 30% or 50% less efficient — the car goes nearly as far as it did new.
This is a recipe for range anxiety and a potentially dealbreaking out-of-pocket expense if the battery isn’t replaced before it’s off warranty.
Is the battery life issue reason enough to avoid the used-EV market? My take is no — though I’d highly recommend taking the following precautions if you do plan to buy used:
- Determining whether the battery is original to the vehicle — if you’re buying an older Chevy Bolt, for example, there’s a decent chance the original battery has been replaced already, and that’s a good thing
- Confirming that the vehicle’s battery remains covered by the manufacturer’s warranty so that you won’t (necessarily) have to pay out of pocket to replace it, should that be necessary
- Understanding the warranty’s specifics, including total and remaining term (they can run 8 years/100,000 miles or longer) and what triggers a manufacturer-paid replacement (typically, actual range must decline below a specific threshold, like 70% of range new)
- Running a third-party diagnostic report on the battery, or insisting that the seller do this, to benchmark its current condition
We followed all but the last bit of advice during our own used-EV buyer’s journey. Hopefully we don’t come to regret cutting that corner, because so far we certainly don’t regret buying a used BEV.
Why we went (barely) used and missed out on the EV tax credit
We bought a gently used, high-trim 2023 Volkswagen ID.4 with one previous owner (not counting the dealership) and under 2,000 miles on the odometer. It was about as close to a new ID.4 as we could get at the time without waiting weeks or months for delivery.
We began the process with a bias toward buying new, not least due to battery life concerns. We were also quite looking forward to claiming a generous federal tax credit — up to $7,500 — if we could find an eligible U.S.-built new EV.
That bias evaporated as we got deeper in. Here’s what led us to reconsider:
- Limited availability in our size and price range. We needed a vehicle big enough to comfortably seat five with ample room left over for gear. In the EV market circa 2023, that qualifies as a constraint. Our size needs ruled out lots of great cars, including the affordable Nissan Leaf and Chevy Bolt hatchback. We were also stingy, relatively speaking; $35,000 was our top dollar. These two requirements ruled out most new EV options, including the *obvious choice* for folks in our situation: the Tesla Model Y.
- Long waits for delivery. For multiple reasons, we needed to move quickly on the purchase. We naively took the drumbeat of news about EVs piling up on dealer lots to mean we could waltz into a dealership, negotiate a fire-sale deal, and walk out with a brand-new electric SUV. That was our M.O. for about two days, until we understood that the types of cars we needed were still in high demand (and weren’t exactly flying off the assembly line anyway). Wait times ranged anywhere from four to twelve weeks. For the Bolt EUV specifically — our top choice going in — a looming UAW strike further clouded the picture.
- Dealer fatigue. It hadn’t quite been a year since we bought our soon-to-be second vehicle, a 2022 Toyota RAV4 hybrid. We went through a dealership for that purchase, which involved a three-month wait and much tedious back-and-forth with sales and financing staff. We wanted to avoid a traditional dealership if at all possible. Tesla’s dealer-free sales model looked appealing, but unfortunately the price was not right.
- Falling prices for used EVs. Speaking of which, used-EV prices fell dramatically in 2023. So did new-EV prices, but from higher levels. For example, MSRP on a new, extended-range ID.4 remained well over $40,000.
- An, er, unique opportunity. What really sealed the deal for us was the, ah, unique opportunity to own our very own California Lemon — a barely-used 2023 ID.4 returned to the manufacturer over a seemingly intractable electrical problem. Our decision to plow ahead with this purchase raised eyebrows (including my own, at first) but ultimately proved too compelling. The short version is that we got a fully warrantied, extensively worked-over, super-low-mileage 2023 AWD ID.4 Pro S for about $12,000 under its (depressed) fair market value and more than $20,000 below MSRP. The savings more than offset the loss of federal tax credit eligibility: $12,000 is more than $7,500. Anyway, used vehicles must be two years old to qualify for any credit at all. I’ll write much more in future about what ultimately gave us the confidence to pull the trigger here.
Why we almost bought new anyway
Despite all this, we very nearly stuck to the original plan. Had we not stumbled across our below-market beauty, you’d be reading a weird echo of this post titled “I bought a brand-new BEV and feel great about it” or something.
I’ve already touched on one reason for our used-EV wariness: battery worries. We had some other concerns too:
- Warranty woes. I’m not a car guy. I’m still not sure I have a firm handle on the intricacies of new-car warranties. But I really didn’t going into this purchase. And because we were looking to buy sooner rather than later, our initial impulse was to go for the sure thing: a brand-new vehicle with a brand-new warranty on its brand-new parts. I got over this hump after digging into the details of the ID.4’s warranties and confirming that all remained in force.
- Confusion around vehicle tax credit eligibility. We committed to buy a second car before the U.S. Treasury finalized the rules that would determine which vehicles would qualify for the full $7,500 tax credit beginning in 2024, which would qualify for a partial credit only, and which wouldn’t make the cut at all. That’s done now, but at the time, the smart moved seemed to be to choose a relative sure thing. Given our price range and size requirements, that basically meant a new Chevy Bolt EUV or nothing. (Used cars must be at least two years old to qualify, and the used-EV credit maxes out at $4,000.)
- Limited supply of larger used EVs. Even with these considerable constraints, it seemed we’d have more options and possibly spend less time waiting for delivery if we bought new. Our market absolutely swims in used Nissan Leafs and Chevy Bolt hatchbacks: both great cars, both too small for us. Yet another sign pointing us toward a new Bolt EUV, or so we thought.
- Aversion to private-party sales. For better or worse, we didn’t want to buy our first EV in a private-party sale. I haven’t grappled with this preference enough to assess whether it was rational, but I’m confident it wasn’t particularly unusual. In any case, if we were already going to the dealership, why not buy new?
More affordable-EV choices would have quashed the second and third concerns, so I suspect they’ll be less salient for price-conscious car buyers like us by 2025 or 2026. In the longer run, I expect improved consumer awareness and strong warranty protections to reduce (if not entirely eliminate) battery-life concerns as well.
How it’s working out so far
I don’t want to read too much into our used-EV experience. We’ve only had our ID.4 for a few months. That’s not long enough to reach firm conclusions about one’s newly purchased vehicle, let alone one’s first EV.
What I do feel comfortable doing is stacking up our experience so far against our five initial concerns. Here’s where we’re at with each:
- Battery life: No complaints. In warmish weather, our ID.4’s range still matches its range-new specs. Which you’d expect from a car with only four digits on the odometer. Range is considerably less in cold weather, as expected, and seems to deplete faster than in mild weather.
- Tax credit eligibility: Not relevant. We weren’t certain to get a new EV that qualified for the full $7,500 federal tax credit either, and we made our peace with probably not finding a qualifying used EV not long before we found the car we’d eventually buy. Once we found our below-market ID.4, of course, the credit issue was moot.
- Vehicle size. We lucked out here too. In terms of interior passenger and cargo space, the ID.4 was about as good as we could do in our price range. Our RAV4 hybrid is a bit more spacious in the back. But the ID.4 is in the ballpark, and that’s good enough.
- Private party anxiety. Thank goodness for independent used-EV dealers is all I can say. I feel confident saying we would have bought our EV — new or used — from a dealer regardless. As it happened, we had the most pleasant dealer-buying experience we could have hoped for.
Time will tell if we remain satisfied. But for now, don’t look to me for a told-you-so story about buying a used EV,