There comes a time in every car owner’s life when they want to replace their current car. Buying a brand new one seems too pricey, but used cars come with so much baggage that buying one cheap might be negated by maintenance costs.
Then along comes a third option: buying a former rental car.
It seems you can buy a car that’s two years old for the price of a car that’s 12 years old. Plus, the cars are coming from a reputable rental company, so surely they’ve been well-maintained throughout their short lives.
What could possibly go wrong? Let’s just say, like many super-cheap alternatives to buying expensive things, it can be a great opportunity for those who can’t afford better, but there’s a lot of risk involved.
Numbers Don’t Lie
You may indeed be looking at a car that’s only a few years old with a price tag in the low ten-thousands or even less than that. So far, it seems like a steal. But there’s another number you need to look at: the one on the odometer.
Remember, these cars were used by many people who needed to drive urgently, and often for long distances. These were driven much more frequently than their civilian counterparts, and as such, racked up a lot more mileage.
The cars may be physically youthful, but their usage often ages them. After all, it’s not a car’s age that’s concerning so much as its mileage. These cars surely won’t be pushing 200,000 miles or anything ridiculous like that, but they’re often much closer to the halfway point of their road-life than you’d think.
Rough Hands, Soft Hands
You might be skeptical about why rental car companies would want to dump such a new car already if there’s nothing wrong with it.
The truth is rental companies sell their “older” cars to make way for new cars fresh out of the factory. It usually isn’t anything more underhanded than that. But is it possible a rental company wants to wash its hands of a specific specimen that’s been nothing but trouble? Absolutely.
Rental cars’ lives are a constant cycle of being driven by renters who are often a bit more careless than they would be driving their own cars and being repaired by in-house mechanics to erase the damage done.
These cars can go their whole lives without a dent, or they can be riddled with scrapes and scratches and strange mysterious stains on the interior. It’s the luck of the draw.
Even if a rental car has never gotten into an actual accident, it’s gotten a very uneven workout.
Anyone who’s ever driven on the interstate knows no two people drive the same. When a car has to adjust to many different driving styles in a short span of time, it can really do a number on it. This is another way these cars age prematurely.
Despite this, they’ve been regularly worked on by professionals doing their best to keep the cars their best. If every used car is a gamble, it would seem you can trust these cars have gotten the best maintenance they could get. But was it good enough?
Rental companies don’t usually have too many cars to choose from at any given time. While they’re not limited to, say, only a dozen, it’s usually not much more than that, and rarely as much as any new- or used-car dealer.
There’s also a reason to be nervous about how the cars got there in the first place. There are a few car models you might see disproportionately in rental car fleets for how often you see them on the road.
A little research will show you these models are notoriously unreliable. If you were to guess the rental companies got these cars cheap because dealerships couldn’t sell them, you probably wouldn’t be wrong.
They’re Not Good for Flipping
If you buy a used car, you’d better plan to stick with it until it expires because you won’t have a fun time selling it. Its status as a former rental will be on its vehicle history record forever and its value will tank.
You could always try to sell it at the Blue Book value, but if someone runs the VIN number and discovers its true history, they would be right to accuse you of ripping them off.
Trust and Distrust
The bottom line is the concept of buying a used rental car is an idea many consider to be foolish. It’s not a guaranteed bad move, but there’s a good chance it will be.
The rental companies know this. Many even offer a sort of “test drive” program where you rent it first, and if you like it, the rental fee is discounted from the (no-haggle) price, while others have a forgiving return policy.
Some even offer rent-to-own programs as the ultimate trial period, but we’ve already discussed how those arrangements are another barrel of risks all to themselves.
If you’re so fortunate as to have a trusted mechanic or car-enthusiast friend who can inspect a car in a pinch, go ahead and explore the inventory from a reputable rental company and get their educated opinion on its condition. Otherwise, you’d probably have better luck in a typical used-car lot.
Buying a rental car can be a great opportunity for those who don’t have many other options, but that’s just it: it should be a last resort.