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What Should I Know About Buying a Former Rental Car?

Many rental car companies offer their former rental vehicles for sale—often at prices below market value and with warranties that seem reasonable. Buying a former rental car sounds like a good way to get a good deal. After all, rental companies regularly service and maintain their vehicles; what could go wrong? Here’s what you should know.

What are the advantages of buying a former rental car, if any?

Depending on their age, mileage, and installed options, former rental cars for sale are often priced below their current market value. If you’re a potential buyer, you could save a significant amount of money by going this route. Reputable rental companies maintain their vehicles and won’t sell a car if it has been in an accident. Former rental cars for sale are usually just a year or two old, and as with any vehicle for sale, you’ll be able to see the mileage.

What are the disadvantages of buying a former rental car?

According to this NerdWallet article, rental companies usually sell their vehicles when their mileage reaches somewhere between 25,000 and 40,000. In most cases, this amounts to a holding time of under two years. It sounds good, doesn’t it?

However, it’s actually a red flag. Sure, the mileage is low and the car may be newer—but how many different drivers have used it, possibly driving it hard or just carelessly? For a two-year old car, that number may be somewhere over 200. That’s why you need to consider your purchase carefully.

Why is the number of rental car drivers a red flag?

“People treat their own belongings better than they treat borrowed things, as a rule,” says Car Pal founder Lindsay Graham. “A car is a mechanical thing, and this matters. If a rental customer is unfamiliar with a car, for example, they may start the car and drive a few miles before they realize the parking brake is still on. This kind of driving wears out some of the vehicle’s components. Wearable components are never covered under the warranty that accompanies the vehicle when the rental company sells it.”

Are there other red flags?

When you buy a used non-rental car, you might be able to view its records, showing that it has been well maintained. But with a former rental, you really don’t know how much maintenance was done, or by whom. Questionable maintenance weighed against risk of the car being badly driven or poorly cared for isn’t worth it. The funny interior smell you smell? It could be from spoiled milk left in the trunk; perhaps the agents who checked in the car didn’t immediately check the trunk. Maybe a renter’s pet rode in the back seat, and the car wasn’t professionally cleaned—at least not right away.

What else should I know if I’m thinking about buying a former rental?

Rental companies usually include a warranty for 12,000 miles or 12 months, but this runs out fast. Moreover, having a mechanic check out a former rental car before you buy it isn’t a guarantee. Mechanics won’t take anything apart. Even if they check a component such as the brakes, they might not see a serious brake issue. They might even recommend getting new rotors and brake pads as a precaution, but they could still miss a serious problem.

However, when you buy a used non-rental car, you get a much more consistent ownership experience. “With a former rental, there will have been multiple drivers, all of whom drove differently, and some of whom have abused it,” says Lindsay Graham. “When drivers abuse a rental car, they increase the risk of its developing a serious problem. As a car buyer, you want to take steps reduce the risk of problems as much as possible. Buying a former rental increases risk tremendously. If you’re a busy professional, you don’t have that kind of time.”

Graham offers a cautionary example. “One of my recent customers bought a former rental—against my advice—with a bumper-to-bumper warranty, and has just taken the car to the shop for the third time in two weeks. The low tire air pressure light will not go off, even though the owner just put four new tires on the car! Some driver, or maybe several, obviously dogged out the car.”

Bottom line—is it ever advisable to buy a former rental car?

Lindsay Graham says no. “A professional car buyer’s agent leads clients to meticulously maintained cars with one owner and one driver, ideally. You can save money by buying a former rental car, but unless you’re amazingly lucky, you’ll have mechanical problems that a mechanic may not find or that may not be covered by warranty. Even if problems are covered by warranty, you’re not saving money because you’re spending your time to resolve them—and your time is worth money.”