Janiece and Alan buy a used electric car—online!

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Janiece with her family’s new Leaf alongside her old pick-up truck

Love scoring a good deal like our policy associate, Janiece Watts and her partner Alan? The Saint Paul duo are big fans of reducing, reusing, and recycling—they rarely buy new what can be had for cheap or free via online marketplaces. Looking for a more environmentally safe car than their much-loved Toyota Tacoma (“Taco” for short, after the “M” and “A” fell off the logo!), Janiece and Alan turned to Craig’s List to hunt for a used electric car.

The pair landed on a used 2012 Nissan Leaf after searching for two months… and they sealed the deal with a private seller for under $6,000.

Here are their hot tips for buying a used electric vehicle online…

Tip #1: Be persistent and patient

Alan is no stranger to Craigslist—which he says requires some patience and time to sort through the lists of options. Since he and Janiece knew they wanted a pre-owned electric car, he narrowed his search from the very start, with a clear price range and selecting “electric” as the fuel source on Craigslist. “I paid close attention to details about the battery bars [which indicate the future life span of the car] and remembered that low mileage doesn’t always mean best. A car with a warranty-replaced battery pack and full battery strength would be better than a car with low miles and no battery strength.” He encourages buyers to ask lots of questions from the seller—if they’re not willing to answer, then move on to the next.

Tip #2: Do online research

The couple advises digging into online resources (check out the list below!) to learn more about battery performance of the preferred vehicle over time, estimated range, and how online users have enjoyed—or not—the car. “Doing a deep dive through the internet once we were considering the Leaf was super helpful. We have a neighbor who has a Leaf, so it’s been fun to trade information with him. Also, make sure to get out and test drive some models. Dealerships are good for that even if you’re inquiring from a private seller so build in time to try them out and shop around,” says Alan.

Tip #3: Understand what you’re willing to sacrifice

Janiece shares that cosmetic damage wasn’t a big deal breaker for her and Alan. But they were conscious to make sure those dings and dents didn’t affect the battery itself. In their case, the Leaf was considered a salvage title due to a previous accident—but fortunately that accident did not damage the battery or the charging port. “We knew that a salvage title could be risky, but the car had no rust, and no structural damage to the vehicle or any parts near the battery. And the seller knew as well that because it was a salvage title, like with any car, it’s not going to look like a high value car on paper, but that doesn’t always show the full value of the car, “ says Alan. If you’re willing to give up some of the aesthetic appeal of your car, you can really land a good deal.

Tip #4: Ask for documentation and ask questions

Like buying any used car, access to the full history of the vehicle’s performance, tune ups, and past problems is key. Janiece and Alan highly recommend purchasing from a private seller who has kept meticulous records. If the owner is dismissive about disclosing any information, then don’t move forward. “Like buying a car from a dealership, you want to make sure you’re not getting negative energy from the seller. If the transaction feels off for any reason, just walk away,” says Janiece. “The seller had great records for all the past repairs and upgrades, but we were also insistent in asking. When looking at a car from Craigslist or even from a dealership you should be given this information, or you should be able to ask for it. We asked lots of questions.”

Talk to the seller about their driving habits: was the car their daily commuter? Where did they park it to charge? What’s been problematic in the past and what repairs or upgrades will the car likely need in the future? “We know that we’ll have to watch the performance and capacity of the battery, but it’s still a car so don’t forget to ask about things like tires and condition of the interior. And definitely ask about the regenerative braking!” suggests Alan.

Bonus tip: remember electric cars don’t require oil changes, so skip asking for past records of those.

Tip #5: Get to know your transportation style

Janiece and Alan don’t have a superfast charger at their house, and simply use an extension cord from a standard outlet in their garage to plug in the Leaf. “I’ve had to do a bit of extra planning to make sure the car has enough charge to get me around and maybe do a little route planning,” shares Janiece. “I mostly take public transit, so I was used to planning out my trips. Honestly, it’s nice to be able to hop in the car and go again, just being thoughtful of where I’m going and if I have to take the freeway or not.” The couple downloaded some helpful apps that pinpoint public charging stations throughout the city—ChargePoint and PlugShare are great choices.

The way you drive an electric vehicle also matters. Driving at faster speeds can drop your range faster than driving at slower speeds which is why the route you take matters. Plus, driving at a slower speed means more braking and for the Leaf, that’s a good thing because activating the regenerative braking charges up the battery as you go.

Charging outside the garage

Janiece and Alan did keep their beloved Taco in case they need to haul heavy items or make trips longer than the 85-mile range of their Leaf. “Range anxiety is real but the more we drive it the more we’re learning know how to deal with that anxiety,” says Janiece, “it works for me to drive the Leaf primarily in the city. That said, I’m hopeful about the future of public charging infrastructure.” The couple took the Leaf to Mound, Minnesota and back knowing that if they needed to charge along the way they could, but they didn’t end up needing to. Alan adds, “Really think about how much you drive and where you go on a regular basis.  We don’t go to Mound regularly so that was a good test for how far our limit is and we were fine.” 

The pair loves their new Leaf—especially because they can now cart around their six nephews and nieces since they have more space in the Leaf than the 2-seater Taco. “We needed something we could fit more people in so it’s great that the Leaf is bigger than the truck,” says Janiece. “We’ve always been budget car buyers,” adds Alan, “and some factors aligned to make it possible for us to make the switch to electric. We have the space to charge it and the cost of electric vehicles is finally coming down so that more people have access. We’re trying to live our commitment to the environment, buy used to waste less and save money, and we wanted to reduce our carbon emissions by making this choice, so we knew we had to be considerate and patient with what could made sense for us.”

It’s possible for someone who doesn’t spend all their free time on Craigslist to find a good deal on an electric car. Dig in more to learn about buying a preowned electric vehicle: