A 2019 pre-owned Nissan Leaf SV on the lot in 2022 during the chip shortage that depleted stock of new auto inventory.
Boston Globe | Boston Globe | Getty Images
Affordable EVs have been on sale in the U.S. well over a decade and the data analytics company Experian says about 2.2 million were on the road at the end of last year. Electric vehicle sales keep growing, too. As recently as 2021, total battery-powered electric vehicle sales in the U.S. were under 450,000, but Kelley Blue Book says sales surpassed 800,000 in 2022 and are expected to top one million this year. While the used EV market is still very small, the growth trajectory of EV sales means shopping for a used electric vehicle will become more common and get easier over time, and encompass more make and model choices.
In many ways, shopping for a used electric vehicle is the same as looking for any other used car or truck. Does it meet your budget and fit your lifestyle? Is it reliable and comfortable? But, beyond those criteria, there are some specific considerations EV shoppers have to make related to charging options and range.
Here are some of the key EV-specific issues to consider.
Charging remains limited in many areas
There are currently about 145,000 gas stations in the U.S., but only 53,000 public charging stations. Though charging infrastructure is improving, it’s still limited in many parts of the country, which could be be an issue for someone looking to go electric. While this is an issue for any EV purchase, new or used, it’s fundamental to understand before getting into how it informs a used EV purchase decision.
Consumers should determine what kind of range they need, then research EVs that meet it, said Tom McParland, a writer for Jalopnik who runs the vehicle-buying service Automatch Consulting. They also need to account for what sort of charging infrastructure is available in their area and if home charging is feasible, he said.
Chris Harto, the senior energy policy analyst for Consumer Reports, noted that shoppers should set realistic expectations. “Ask yourself where and when you’ll be charging,” he said. “If your answer is that you have no place to charge it while at home or work, you may want to consider a broader range of car types, including hybrids, which can offer outstanding fuel economy and low maintenance costs.”
Your driving, mileage habits matter
Some expensive EVs boast such impressive range that charging infrastructure may never be an issue, such as the Lucid Air (EPA range estimate: up to 516 miles) and the Tesla Model S (up to 405 miles). More affordable electric vehicles tend to have shorter ranges, though.
Battery electric vehicles with list prices under $35,000, such as GM‘s Chevy Bolt EV and the Hyundai Kona Electric, have EPA ranges of nearly 260 miles but are unlikely to make it that far in real-world driving conditions. This is especially true in cold weather, which can interfere with the electrochemical reactions inside batteries.
EV range will decline
This is where the general battery considerations in going electric become a more specific concern. A EV’s range is likely to degrade over time.
Batteries can lose 5% to10% of their power in the first five years and keep degrading after that due to a variety of factors, including age, exposure to temperature extremes, and use of fast charging. If the degradation is excessive, you might need to repair or replace the battery, which can get costly.
Batteries also are one of the most expensive parts of an EV and can cost over $10,000 to replace, but federal rules mandate that they’re covered under warranty for at least eight years or 100,000 miles, so shoppers looking at a lightly used BEV probably still have some coverage left. Plus, even a well-used battery may still have enough capacity to meet your needs.
Precise battery life is hard to measure
Determining the exact condition of a used BEV’s battery can be tricky – the U.S. auto industry does not have a standard set of metrics to measure it. But there are still ways to get a general idea of a battery’s health.
Recurrent, a Seattle startup which has teamed with the automotive site Edmunds, offers EV and plug-in hybrid consumers a free prediction of remaining battery life based on statistics it’s gathered on mileage, age, climate, and other factors.
A long test drive can also give you an idea of a battery’s health because you can monitor how quickly it loses charge. This is especially true if it includes sustained cruising at highway speeds, which tends to drain batteries much faster than stop-and-go driving.
As with all used-car purchases, getting a professional inspection can be worth the cost. “I generally recommend consumers visit service departments at dealerships that sell [EVs]” said Ronald Montoya, Edmunds’ senior consumer advice editor. “Compared to independent mechanics, you can be certain that dealership mechanics have been trained on [EVs] by the manufacturer,” he said.
Electric vehicles lose value faster, but upkeep is less
EVs generally depreciate faster than ICE vehicles, according to Kelley Blue Book. The automotive research company says that three-year-old EVs hold 63% of their value compared to 66% for vehicles using internal combustion. Depreciation at five years is even more pronounced, with EVs holding 37% of their initial value and ICE vehicles 46%.
This depreciation can make used EVs a good deal compared to buying new, but don’t be surprised if the price is still high – many electric vehicles are expensive to begin with.
The average used EV sold for $42,895 in March, noted Kelley Blue Book executive editor Brian Moody. That’s down 1.8% from February, but still significantly higher than the used vehicle market overall, where prices averaged a little over $27,000 in the first quarter.
Low maintenance and upkeep costs can help make up for the higher purchase price, though. Consumer Reports found that EVs cost about half as much to repair and maintain as gas-powered vehicles. “[EVs] don’t have fluids to change, and electric motors are less complicated than gasoline and diesel engines” noted Benjamin Preston, an autos reporter for the organization. “Simply put, there’s less that can wear out.”
He pointed to a recent study showing that EVs cost less to own over time than gas vehicles. The study found that used EVs can save even more than new ones. That’s because depreciation takes a bite out of the EV price premium, but used buyers still get the same fuel and maintenance savings.
Tax credit qualifications for used EVs
In addition those benefits, a used EV can qualify for state and federal incentives.
Used EVs (plus plug-in hybrids and fuel-cell vehicles) purchased for up to $25,000 from a licensed dealer can qualify for up to $4,000 in federal tax credits. Learn more from the IRS.
Many states also have their own tax credits. See what each state offers at Kelley Blue Book.
Where the used EV deals are
Higher-priced models are often the better value in the used car market.
“The luxury [EV] space is where buyers will find the best value for their dollar, especially in the sedan segment,” McParland said. “If you look at models like the Audi e-tron GT or Volvo S90 T8 PHEV you can really take advantage of some depreciation.”
Luxury vehicles often depreciate faster than the mainstream market, he said, adding that the changes in federal tax credits are also impacting the luxury EV market. (Among other requirements, federal tax benefits for new plug-in hybrids, fuel cell and full battery powered EVs only apply to SUVs under $80,000 and cars under $55,000.)
Another attractive option is Tesla’s Model 3, which boasts plenty of room for a family of four and up to 358 miles of range. Used Tesla prices have been dropping since 2022, and pre-owned Model 3s were selling for less than $43,000 in the first quarter.
For shoppers on a budget, the best deals are models including the Chevrolet Bolt EV, Hyundai Kona Electric and the Kia Niro EV, which offer a good mix of range and relative affordability, according to Montoya.
“The best values are the electric cars that are either old and out of warranty and those that were inexpensive – relatively – when new,” Moody said.