Woman looking at a display unit inside an electric vehicle

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8 Things to Consider Before Buying a Used EV

How to decide whether to go with a new EV or take a chance on a used one

Electric vehicles (EVs) have more in common with smartphones than actual cars. Ounce for ounce, their batteries use the same chemistry as the device in your purse or pocket. They last—until they don't. After a few years, that fancy phone won't stay on as long or run as fast anymore. And when that time comes, cellular carriers will upgrade you to a brand-new phone with more features for little or no money. 

Buying a new EV works the same way, only you'll spend a lot of money when you try upgrading. While most new cars lose their values, many EVs depreciate much faster and their performance begins to degrade, sometimes very significantly. That can make buying a used EV very appealing.

Automakers update their EVs almost every year, as opposed to conventional vehicles that tend to see upgrades after three or four years. Battery technology is improving so rapidly that you'll often find better range, charging speed, acceleration, and technology from one model year to the next, and sometimes for lower prices.

Overnight, the older EVs will be outdated in the market. This doesn't make them bad cars. But since they're still relatively unpopular—every year, EVs represent less than one percent of all U.S. vehicle sales—you'll be able to score deals you wouldn't find with normal gasoline cars.

EVs aren't for everyone but it’s important to understand why so you can confidently choose whether a used EV fits your lifestyle and budget. 

The Battery Age Factor

Age isn't easy to accept for anyone. But on an older EV, it’s important to understand how battery age will affect how far you're able to drive. EV batteries work like any battery: Their capacity drops over time, which means they can't store or maintain as much energy. That's why you have to replace the starter battery on a conventional car every four to six years. Once they weaken, they can't be restored.

EV batteries are very resilient and usually never have to be replaced, but they're not immune to the aging process. Imagine if your car's gas tank started shrinking. When you bought the car, you knew you could fill it up to 16 gallons. Over time, slowly, you take more frequent trips to the gas station and can only fill up 11 gallons. What's going on?

An EV can lose as much as 30 percent of its original battery life in just three to five years. So the same car that could travel 100 miles when brand-new may now only last up to 70 miles. This never happens to conventional cars.

The rate at which an EV battery loses its capacity isn't just limited to age, by the way. Cold or hot weather can degrade an EV battery. So, if an EV is registered in states like Montana or Arizona that suffer extreme temperature swings, the battery could be worse off than if that EV were driven in more moderate climates like California or Kentucky. 

The number of charge cycles (how many times the car was plugged in) affects the battery life, too. Batteries have a finite number of charge cycles. Plus, the charging rate (the amount of electricity used to recharge) also has an impact. Higher-voltage charging, known as fast-charging, produces more heat that can accelerate the battery's decline when performed on a regular basis. The bottom line: The more you know how a used EV was actually used, the less you'll be disappointed if the battery becomes an issue.

How’s the Weather Where You Live (or Where the EV Came From)?

Cold and hot weather are a double-edged sword: They negatively affect long-term battery life and everyday driving. 

During below-freezing temperatures, an EV battery can lose up to a third of its capacity when fully charged, without even starting to drive. Using the vehicle's climate control can further reduce mileage because heating and air conditioning both draw a lot of power.

In hot weather, particularly when driving above 100 degrees, EVs may not be able to withstand repeated acceleration from overheating. When that happens, the car will reduce power when driving.

Battery Warranties: Read the Fine Print

Every EV comes with an 8-year/100,000-mile warranty on the battery that is transferable to subsequent owners. Automakers aren't being generous: It's a federal mandate because the battery is considered an emissions component that is regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

In California and the states that follow its Zero Emissions Vehicle mandate, the warranty is 10 years/150,000 miles. Read the warranty carefully. Some automakers will not replace the battery unless it completely fails, while others may replace it if the total capacity falls below a specified threshold. 

The California Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) program was designed to help the state meet tougher health-based air quality standards and achieve its emissions goals by requiring that a certain percentage of vehicle fleets use the cleanest available technologies (battery electric, fuel cell, and plug-in hybrid). Other states have adopted the same regulations.

What’s Your Driving Style and Distance?

Some EVs claim to travel more than 370 miles per charge, while others may not even crack 100. You'll have to decide how much range you truly need: How far do you drive in a usual week? Do you often visit family? Does your job require you to drive somewhere on short notice? Do you take spur-of-the-moment road trips? 

Keep in mind that you won't always have a fully charged battery when you need to go somewhere. Any trip lasting more than a couple of hours might have you planning your life around your car, so these aren’t frivolous questions to ask yourself. And trust us, that situation will get old fast.

Another thing to consider is your driving style. If you accelerate gently, you'll use less energy. If you live in a flat area, you'll get more range than if you drive up hills. Any time that you press that right pedal down, you're directly affecting how far you can travel. Leadfoots, take caution.

Home or Work Charging: What's Your Situation?

You'll absolutely need a charging station at your home or office—ideally, both. An EV works best when it's charged overnight so it's ready at peak performance the next morning. 

Home charging stations cost between a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars, depending on installation costs and the level of electrical service required. If you live in a condo, apartment, or anywhere else without daily access to a charging station, you should not buy a used EV. (Ed.Note: If you don’t have easy access to a charging station at home, you might have other workable options.)

Public Charger Availability

Outside your home or office, public charging stations are a lifeline to living with an EV. Some EVs have their own dedicated charging network, while others can use a variety of stations. 

Keep in mind that, unlike a gasoline car which can accept a single type of nozzle for different types of gas, there are currently four different types of plugs that EVs use to recharge—and not all of them are compatible with each other. You'll have to research the type and number of stations available in your area or anywhere you travel so you know what’s available for the EV you want to purchase.

Some cars will automatically route to the nearest public charger in the navigation system. But the best way is to use apps like EVGo, Chargepoint, Electrify America, and PlugShare to see the most updated list of stations. 

Many stations charge at different speeds, which can affect how long you'll need to park and wait. Stations can sometimes be hard to find, difficult to use, broken, or completely full with other EVs, too. If you buy a used EV, then, be sure you aren't relying on public chargers as your primary option to recharge.

The Time Factor: Charging Speed and Capacity

In addition to the rated capacity of a home or public charger, an EV's onboard charger ultimately determines how fast the battery can recharge. It's like buying an air conditioner: A larger unit will cool a room much faster, while a smaller unit might never reach the desired temperature. It's the same with a used EV's onboard charger: They can only accept a maximum flow of electricity. The more electricity an EV can handle at once, the faster its battery will recharge.

Is This Your Second or Only Car?

Now, the most important question: Is a used EV going to be your only car? If so, you need to accept the limitations and potential concerns we've discussed. Unlike a gasoline car, an EV cannot travel everywhere yet and a depleted EV could be undrivable for hours on end. These are constraints that face any EV owner, regardless of the vehicle's price. 

But if a used EV is your second car, owning it will be less worrisome since you'll have the flexibility to drive a conventional car when an EV would hamper your freedom of movement. In the end, you have a simple choice to make: Buying an EV should make your life easier, not harder.