Niraj Choski published a great article in the New York Times on May 4th, 2021 titled “Buying an Electric Vehicle? Here is Some Advice.” This article covers the important aspects for first-time electric vehicle owners. This article provides additional information for those interested in the more affordable used electric vehicle market, which is not covered by Mr. Choski’s.
Electric vehicles are the future of driving, and the best time to buy an affordable used electric car may be in 2021. You may be surprised to learn you can buy a passable electric car for under $5,000, or one with a 200-mile per charge range for under $15,000. If you are looking to spend less than $10,000, the market is full of good options that may save you a lot of money if it meets your need.
In March, 2021, I bought my second electric used car. It is a 2017 BMW i3 and I paid just over $15,000 from a dealer in Los Angeles. Additionally, I sold a 2013 Nissan Leaf for $6,000 in a private party transaction. I bought this 2013 Leaf, used in 2018 for $7,500, and the only auto service I needed during that time was 4 new tires.
I upgraded to a newer used electric vehicle in March because I knew the battery technology was improving since EV’s entered the market in 2011 and I wanted to try a longer range. In reality, my family did not need the upgrade because the 2013 Leaf more than suited our driving needs. The Leaf goes 65-70 miles on a charge, whereas the 2017 BMW goes 200+ miles (with the range extender.) We own a gas car as a backup for road trips (note: it has not hit the road much during Covid-19).
The good news is, if you buy a used electric car, you will save A LOT of money on everything from fuel, to auto service (no oil changes), and parking. For my family, this added up to $603 in savings per year compared to our 2007 Toyota Prius, and $1,171 in savings compared to our 2001 Toyota 4 Runner. Amazing, right? Especially when you consider how fun EV’s are to drive.
Used electric cars are like any other product. You do get what you pay for. One major difference when shopping, is with electric cars, the pricing is mostly based on the range of the battery, not the miles already driven (odometer reading). Of course, you need to watch for other issues too, like accident history, but electric cars feel more like buying a gadget (like an iPhone) rather than a car. You can still kick the tires, but there is nothing moving under the hood, so it is hard to know what to even haggle about. The below pricing list is generalized and assumes you are buying a used electric car in good condition, but here is the great news in the used electric car market (as of March, 2021).
Full Charge Range - Model - Year - Used Car Price
250+ miles - Tesla, Chevy Bolt, Leaf - 2020-2021 - $36-45K (new price)
150-200 miles - Chevy Bolt, BMW i3, Leaf - 2017-2018 - $14-18K
81-120 miles - Leaf, Chevy Spark - 2015-2016 - $9-12K*
50-80 miles - Leaf - 2012-2014 - $4-7K*
<50 miles - Leaf - 2011-2013 - $1-4K*
*These are very affordable cars so long as they work for your driving and charging needs
So, let me guide you through the scary world of buying a used electric car (yes, even writing the words “used electric” makes my stomach turn a little, but don’t worry, all will be ok).
The scariest thing about buying your first EV is the cheap price. Really! In 2018, I could not understand why electric cars were so affordable. “Why,” I asked myself, “would a really nice car that gets me everywhere I need to go, sell for only $6,000 or $7,000?” I assumed the market knew something I did not. So I was scared, and then remembered that just opening the headlight cover to replace a lightbulb on my 2007 Prius cost $1,000, so I began feeling my way through the fog. Eventually, I learned that the cheap price is mostly due to the $7,500 federal tax rebate. Most historic EV buyers received this amount off the price of a new car (the State of California, and some employers gave even more money to early adopters). And somewhat strangely, even today, the used electric car market still reflects those original discounts (note: this is because they are still offered on new models. Also, be aware that Chevy and Tesla rebates have expired). What this means is that most used electric cars are all still undervalued by about $7,500.
The second scariest thing about buying a used EV was this exaggerated concept of “range anxiety.” Just do the math on both your driving distance needs and charge time limitations, and make a plan for any unusual times when you may need something different (like renting a car for the day or swapping cars with a friend).
Scary thought #3. “Selling a 2013 electric car is like selling a ship anchor. You can’t pay someone to take it off the lot.” I actually had a used car salesman say this to me when trying to upsell me into a Chevy Bolt. It is simply not true. A $2,500 car that goes 30 miles a day is an amazing deal! Hey, if you are like me, and have a child turning 16 soon, you might even pay someone $2,500 to invent this kind of car just for your family!
Scary thought #4. Teslas just seems so much better. I don’t know. Maybe they are, but you also can’t buy one for $10,000.
So, after reading this, and the recently published New York Times article, I hope you have better sense that soon you too will want an electric car to plug into your house or apartment building. Yes, after 10 years of electric cars zipping around on U.S. roads, electric cars are undeniably great cars to own. So go for a test drive. Used electric cars are actually the best deal on the road in 2021!
More Buyer’s Tips
· Most new electric cars are leased for 3 years. So, in 2021, the newest used cars you are likely to find are 2018 models.
· The dealerships own most of the used cars on the electric market because of these lease agreements, so you probably won’t find many private used car sellers, but private sellers are usually cheaper.
· Kelley Blue Book prices are all over the place for electric cars. Valuation shot up 25-40% in the four weeks I was looking, and seem to have risen again since March.
· If you can, buy in California. Their EV market seems to be saturated with used EV cars, and their temperate climate can be easier on batteries and battery life. California also required manufacturers to offer better warrantees on batteries. Shipping is going to run $750-1,200 to transport any car, so factor that in if you are not in California.
· Don’t buy anything without checking the battery and verifying the range. You can also read up on battery degradation for different models here.
· Ask the seller to charge the battery full before you test drive (nobody actually followed through on this request when I was shopping). Get an accurate reflection of battery condition by reading the battery statistics on the dashboard. You can pay a different dealership to inspect it for you before you buy too.
· VIP parking exists in some downtown areas (with free electricity in places like Salt Lake.)
· Charging- Depends on how you use your car. If you leave home once a day, the trickle charger that comes with the car is fine for overnight, 8+ hour charging. If you share a car, or drive kids around a lot, buy or ask your landlord to install a 240V charger, which will charge your car in 3-4 hours. There are financial incentives in some cities to help with this. It is uncommon to be able to install a supercharger at your home.
· There are very few maintenance worries (no oil changes, just tires, brakes, wiper fluid, etc.)
· Legitimate electric car limitations do exist. For example, if you want to hit the open road for a few days, your joy ride may be over in an hour or two if you buy electric. So rent cars for road trips, or figure out another way. Rental cars are affordable at $30-50 a day.
· As of March, 2021, you can also upgrade early model Leafs with a salvaged battery for $4-8K. Other car makes are not available yet. The perk is you might get a 150-200 mile range after install even in a 2011 or 2012 model! These are salvaged batteries. Read more here.
· EV’s are really complicated. My friend gave me about 20 things to check for before I bought my first Leaf. If you are buying a Nissan Leaf, Google terms like “heat pump,” “lizard battery,” and “capacity bars” to learn more. It is hard to research all the details, so pick the things that matter to you, study them, and make a used car purchase. You’ll probably love it.
· I am no expert on electric cars (or any cars), and I haven’t even looked at the myriad new options that have emerged on the electric market since 2019. So buy at your own risk.
Note: If I got something wrong (or right) in this article, please let me know! Contact me on Facebook @gavinnoyes
About the Author
· I care about quality, function and longevity and I’d buy a Nissan Leaf again for sure.
· I live in a city with some the worst air quality in the U.S., and I worry about greenhouse gas emissions.
· I have no financial ties to the auto industry in any way. I represent myself and my own views in this article.