Here Are 7 Tips for Snagging the Best Used Electric Cars Under $20K
Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the new and used car market has been tumultuous, with unprecedented price hikes and major supply shortages reaching a crescendo in 2022. With some new car models taking months to order, many drivers have turned to used vehicles – but even those have been hard to come by.
At the same time, Americans have faced high gas prices due to rising inflation and the ongoing war in Ukraine, leading many to consider electric vehicles.
In 2023, experts expect supply chain issues to level out, leading to more inventory on dealership lots. Even so, new car prices will likely stay high as we face ongoing inflation in 2023. Used vehicle prices, however, could drop 10% to 20% this year, according to J.P. Morgan Research.
And with a new tax credit going into effect in 2023 for used electric vehicles, this just might be the year to invest in a pre-owned EV.
New to the used electric vehicle market? We’ve got you covered. Below, we’ll break down tips for buying a used EV, five of the best used electric cars under $20K and how much it costs to drive an EV.
7 Tips for Buying a Used Electric Car
How is shopping for used electric cars different from buying used gas cars? Primarily, you’ll need to focus on electric range and battery life. Here are seven tips to make sure you find a good one:
1. Make a List of Potential Models — and Act Fast
The Nissan Leaf was the world’s first mass-produced all-electric car, and it continues to be among the most affordable more than a decade later. But the used EV market now has a lot more options, from the luxurious BMW i3 and Tesla Model S to the practical Ford Focus Electric and Volkswagen e-Golf.
If you’re shopping for a used EV on a budget, you can take models like the Audi e-tron and Tesla Model S off your list (though now that the BMW i3 has been on the market so long, you can find older models under $15,000). Set a max budget for yourself, and research used EV prices within your range.
Some of the more affordable options will come from brands like Nissan, Kia, Hyundai, Chevy and Ford. If you need a good starting point, scroll down to our list of the best used electric cars under $20,000.
Price is only half of the consideration. Think about how you’ll drive your EV each day. What’s the max range you’ll need for most daily drives? Find an electric vehicle in your price range that can go as far as you need it to on a single charge.
That way, you won’t have to worry about charging on the go.
If you do plan to charge during an outing, take advantage of DC (direct current) fast charging, also called Level 3 charging. A DC fast charging port will allow you to charge your car’s battery much faster (in around 30 minutes), but you won’t get a 100% charge (DC fast charging typically yields up to 80% of a charge).
While most EVs can be charged with a DC fast charging plug, this is not always the case, especially in older models. If looking at some of the earliest model-year EVs, pay attention to this feature.
Once you’ve found a few models you’re interested in, plug them in (pun so intended) to The Penny Hoarder car comparison spreadsheet to see which option is best for you.
When your preferred model becomes available privately or at a dealership, act fast. Both used and new cars are selling just as quickly as they’re being listed. If you don’t go for a test drive and make an offer as soon as possible, another buyer will.
2. Buy From a Dealership
Normally, you can find lower used car prices by buying from a private seller, but when it comes to buying a used EV, you may want to buy from a certified car dealership, even if the price is slightly higher.
Why? Starting this year, the Inflation Reduction Act’s new tax credits for used EV sales goes into effect. Customers who buy a used electric car from a dealership may be eligible for 30% of the sale price in tax credits (up to $4,000).
As with any tax credits, there are lots of stipulations. Check out this IRS resource to see if you (and the used EV you want to buy) qualify. The big issue is that it only applies to used EVs under $25,000. According to Recurrent Auto, that’s just 12% of used EVs on the market.
Note: This tax credit is nonrefundable.
3. Understand How the Warranty Works
When the original driver purchased their electric car, the manufacturer likely included an extended warranty on the battery.
Lithium-ion batteries are the single most expensive component of an EV. To assuage buyer fears of replacements, automakers commonly offer eight years (or 100,000 miles) of coverage for new EV batteries. But not all warranties are transferable.
When doing initial research on a model listed for sale, you could ask the seller for information on the warranty, but it’s always better to confirm this yourself. Find the car’s VIN (vehicle identification number), then call the manufacturer’s customer service department to get the details on the warranty.
Specifically ask how many years are left on the warranty — and if it will transfer to you with the sale. If there is no transferable warranty, be cautious of buying an older model whose battery may be on its final legs.
4. Find a Car That’s Recently Had Its Battery Replaced
Alternatively, especially if you’re reaching back to high-mileage EVs from the beginning of the 2010s, find an electric car that has just had its battery replaced. Ask the seller for receipts and paperwork confirming the battery replacement.
If the seller can’t find any paperwork but says the battery was replaced, you can often confirm the work by checking on a vehicle history report from Carfax.
5. Use Battery Life to Haggle
If there is no remaining warranty on the battery and it hasn’t recently been replaced, you can use the battery degradation to your advantage.
Ask the dealership for a full report on the vehicle’s battery health (or just see what the estimated range for the battery is after a full charge — there’s typically a gauge on the dashboard). Compare this expected range to the range that was originally advertised when this model first went on the market. If there is a stark difference, you’ve just found a major bargaining chip.
Bear in mind that now is a tough time to haggle. If you are trying to get the seller to drop to a lower price, they may just pass on the sale and wait for the next buyer to come in. (Said buyer is probably just minutes behind you in this current used market.)
If you do get the seller to drop the price, remember that you’ll likely be paying to replace the battery in the coming years. According to Recurrent Auto, new EV batteries can range from $3,000 to more than $20,000. Ouch.
6. Take It to a Specialized Mechanic
Before buying any used car, you should take it on a test drive to a trusted mechanic for a full inspection. The mechanic will inform you of any problems that the seller may not have disclosed.
This helps you 1) haggle for a lower price or 2) know when to walk away from a bad deal.
When considering a used electric car, find a mechanic who specializes in EVs. Not every mechanic has been trained to work on an electric powertrain, so it’s important to narrow your search down to mechanics with an actual background in electric car maintenance and repairs.
7. Consider Alternatives: Hybrids and Plug-In Hybrids
If you’re finding the cost of used electric cars to be out of your price range, you don’t have to give up on the notion of eco-friendly driving altogether — especially as gas prices continue to skyrocket.
Hybrid vehicles have been mainstream much longer than EVs and don’t come with any range anxiety. There’s no initial investment to install charging infrastructure at home, and hybrids are so common that finding one in your budget shouldn’t be a problem.
You can also consider a plug-in hybrid. These models draw on electric power first, but if you need additional range, there’s still a gas engine to complete your drive. Of the two, used hybrids are typically cheaper (and easier to find) than plug-ins.
5 Best Used Electric Cars Under $20,000
As Recurrent Auto points out, most used EVs on the market still cost more than $25,000, making them ineligible for the used EV tax credit. Whether it’s to qualify for the tax credit or just stay on a stricter budget, you’ll need to work from a shorter list of used EVs to stay under $20K.
Look at models from the early to mid 2010s for the best prices. Prices will vary based on model year, battery condition, mileage and other factors, but in general, the models below are the best used electric cars under $20,000. (You’ll notice there’s no used Tesla model on this list!)
1. Nissan Leaf
Without a doubt, the Nissan Leaf continues to be one of the best used electric cars available. This entry-level economy car has all the typical features you’re looking for — from airbags to a power driver’s seat — in a highly efficient package.
Because the Leaf has been on the market the longest, there are plenty of options available, which keeps costs lower. However, we particularly recommend one with a higher-capacity battery for a more practical range, which means the 2016 model year and onward.
You can easily find a used Nissan Leaf in the $10,000 to $15,000 range. Super old models might be listed below $6,000.
2. Kia Soul EV
The Kia Soul compact crossover was an instant hit because of its funky shape and unique marketing (remember those dancing hamsters?), so it didn’t take long for Kia to launch an all-electric version. Because it’s been around since 2014, you can find Soul EVs listed in the $15,000-$20,000 range.
For that price, you’ll get more than just an efficient crossover; the Kia Soul EV has a spacious interior, smartphone connectivity and cutting-edge safety tech, especially on more recent models (2018 was its last model year in the U.S.).
3. Chevy Spark EV
The Chevy Spark is a no-frills economy car that replaced the Chevy Aveo in the early 2010s. The electric variant of it was short-lived and only sold in a few states, so finding one on the market might prove tough.
But if you’re able to find one — and don’t mind the serious lack of amenities — you can expect to pay under $15,000 (or maybe even under $10,000).
One bright spot: The Spark has had a history of fun colors over the years. While most of the used Chevy Spark EVs will be white or black, you might come across something with more personality, like an Electric Blue Metallic.
4. Fiat 500e
Though former Fiat CEO Sergio Marchionne famously didn’t want you to buy his Fiat 500e, the car itself is pretty nice. The subcompact has fierce Italian styling and boasts up to 87 miles of range (more than 100 for purely city driving).
These models had very low production numbers, so finding one near you may be a challenge. If you’re lucky, you may find one for roughly $10,000-15,000.
5. Volkswagen e-Golf
You might recall the Volkswagen emission scandal back in 2015, in which Volkswagen intentionally cheated to get better EPA ratings for its diesel vehicles. While we’d stay clear of any used diesel Volkswagen models from that era, the Volkswagen e-Golf is actually a good pick.
The e-Golf is a hatchback with plenty of cargo space and passenger space; while some of the models on this list can only comfortably seat two, you can fit a family of five in an e-Golf. By 2017, it boasted an EPA estimated range of 125 miles.
The e-Golf was made as recently as 2019, but those newer models are above our $20,000 threshold. Go further back in model years to find one for around $15,000.
Though these EVs didn’t make the final cut, they’re still worth considering for their low prices and decent range:
- Kia Niro EV
- Chevrolet Bolt
- Ford Focus Electric
- Hyundai Ioniq EV
- Hyundai Kona Electric
- BMW i3
Pay attention to model year when doing research. The further back you go, the more affordable vehicles tend to be, but you’ll have to worry more about a lower range and greater battery degradation.
New vs. Used Electric Cars
Automakers are betting big on EVs. Ford is putting $22 billion toward electrification through the first half of this decade, GM is planning for 30 electric models by 2025, Honda and Toyota each plan to launch 30 EVs by 2030 and Volkswagen is aiming for 50% electric sales by the same year.
Clearly, the market is about to be saturated with electric cars (and electric trucks and SUVs — you can even get an electric Mustang!). And with government incentives (like federal tax credits up to $7,500) for new electric models, it makes a lot of sense to buy new.
But not everyone can afford a brand-new Model S from Tesla, and even the compact, all-electric Nissan Leaf is more affordable when bought used. Plus, the ongoing chip shortage and continued supply chain issues are particularly affecting new electric vehicle sales, driving up prices and delaying delivery (last summer, it took an average of four months to get Volkswagen’s ID.4 model).
Buying a used electric car means a lower price (average resale values are typically lower for EVs since there’s less demand). It also means no wait time; you can head to the dealer lot, go for a test drive and take the electric car home that same day.
But buying a used EV is a little different from the typical used car shopping experience. Arm yourself with information before heading to the dealer or private seller to make sure you’re getting a good deal.
How Much Does It Cost to Drive an Electric Vehicle?
Electric cars may have a higher sticker price, but can you save money over time? Here are a few things to keep in mind when deciding if an EV is worth the cost:
If you bought a new electric vehicle, you can likely apply for a federal tax credit up to $7,500. Previously, when you bought a used EV, you couldn’t apply for a rebate.
The Inflation Reduction Act changed that starting in 2023, establishing up to $4,000 in tax credits for used electric car purchases. Because of strict IRS requirements, however, experts estimate very few used EVs will actually be eligible.
A hallmark of electric cars is the lack of routine maintenance. EVs don’t need regular oil changes or air filter replacements, so you will spend much less each year on upkeep.
Keep in mind: When you do need to replace the battery of your EV or have any basic repair work done, the cost will be much higher than what mechanics charge for gas cars.
While you may still buy fuel for a plug-in hybrid, a true 100% electric vehicle means you won’t have to worry about rising gas prices.
Of course, you will have to pay for charging infrastructure installation at home, and you’ll notice a spike in your electric bill. However, the cost of charging an EV is far less than what you would spend on gas to travel the same distance.
Insuring a used car is typically more affordable than insuring a new car, but what about electric models vs. gas-powered cars?
According to ValuePenguin, EV owners should expect to pay 25% more for car insurance. Why? Because electric vehicles are typically more expensive to buy and repair.
The Bottom Line
Buying a used electric car can result in great savings: They’re cheaper than new electric cars, they’re now eligible for tax credits and you’ll save a lot of money on fuel over the years of ownership.
But in today’s market, even used cars can be pricey. Make a list of cars within your budget, know what to look for during your test drive and be prepared to walk away from a sale if the price isn’t right.
Contributor Timothy Moore is a writer and editor in Cincinnati, Ohio. He focuses on banks, loans and insurance for The Penny Hoarder. His work has been featured on INSIDER, Sound Dollar, Forbes, HomeAdvisor, WDW Magazine, Chime and SoFi..