Take a test drive of a Tesla and you’ll think it wise to short the oil companies. It’s an incredible driving experience that doesn’t require a drop of gas.
The downside is that the car of the future is expensive. It’s easy to top $100,000 for a Tesla after adding features.
The good news is that used Teslas are starting to come on the market, often at discounts of 30% or more off the original price.
This is a first-hand guide to buying a used Tesla.
Do you really need a used one?
Before we drive into a tutorial on used Teslas, ask yourself this: Can you afford a new one instead?
Believe it or not, you can get a brand new Tesla for just $62,500 after the $7,500 government rebate.
That’s for the basic 70 kWh battery with no options. Even without options, this might be a better choice for some people than buying an older, used Tesla. The new cars come with upgraded hardware and small fixes that are superior to Teslas that are even a year or two old.
A basic Tesla is still likely better than any car you’ve driven, but Tesla sells basically everything as a feature. The $70,000 entry model car doesn’t even come with leather seats!
What to look for in a used Tesla
You might have heard that Teslas are never outdated because they get “over the air” updates. This is partially true; New features are frequently sent to your car via a mobile connection.
But the hardware changes as well. The much-lauded “auto pilot” update that came out a couple months ago only works on cars manufactured in late 2014 or later.
Tesla hardware changes take place on a rolling basis. It’s not like most vehicles that have vehicle years with standard features on all cars in that year.
To get an idea of which features a car will have, you need to look at the VIN. The VIN ends in P#####. The five digits, such as 25,500, represent the order in which the car was made. That’s the 25,500 Tesla Model S manufactured.
Generally speaking, the higher the number, the better. The Model S is a new car, manufactured starting in 2012. As a revolutionary car, there were a few kinks to be worked out. Many of these have been fixed under warranty, but later cars are typically better. Of course, the later cars also had more optional and standard features, too.
To give you an idea of when cars were manufactured, about 28,000-29,000 is the cut-off between 2013 and 2014 models.
As far as hardware changes are concerned, here are a few to consider:
- Parking sensors – The Tesla Model S is a big car. It’s longer and wider than many SUVs, so a bit of parking help is nice. The 17″ screen has a great backup camera, but parking sensors are another important hardware feature. These were optional on cars starting in August 2013 and became standard in early 2015.
- Auto Pilot – hardware for auto pilot was added in late 2014. Even if the original buyer didn’t pay for it as an option, it can be activated for a $3,000 fee.
- All-wheel Drive – this might matter to you if you live in a colder climate. It became an option in late 2014.
You can view an in-depth list of feature changes here.
Private Party Teslas
People frequently list Teslas on used car sites, and eBay has a handful of listings.
Private party sales of 2012-2013 Teslas start in the high $40,000 range. You can get a fairly nicely loaded 85 kWh version for between $50,000-$70,000.
As with any used car purchase, there are some hassles to buying a used Tesla from a private party. Some of these are amplified with Teslas, in fact.
- Lack of inventory – there’s not a lot of used Tesla inventory compared to other car brands. This means you’ll do a lot of searching. With a private party, you’ll need to do a test drive and in-person review, so that means you need to find listings close to you.
- Inspections – you’ll want to get a private party Tesla inspected, and this is easier said than done. Few mechanics understand how to evaluate a Tesla.
If you decide to buy a Tesla from a private party, consider finding a low mileage car with plenty left on the warranty. The standard warranty is 4 years, 50,000 miles and the drive unit and battery are covered for 8 years and unlimited miles. Given all of the little things that have gone wrong with earlier Tesla cars, buying a car with a couple years and mileage under the cap makes sense.
Certified Pre-Owned (CPO)
Tesla launched its CPO program in early 2015, finally giving people a reliable source for high quality used Teslas.
It’s been a hit; last quarter Tesla sold $33 million worth of pre-owned cars.
The program is still young, and this has caused an inconsistent experience for CPO buyers.
You can start by perusing the inventory on TeslaMotors.com, where you’ll see listings by type, location, and color. You can see stock photos of each car, but not actual pictures.
You’ll quickly find the official website less than satisfying. At this point, you should shift your car search to EV-CPO.com.
EV-CPO aggregates all of Tesla’s CPO data into a sortable table. You can quickly compare cars by type, VIN and features. You can get detailed data on the particular car, too, such as if it has parking sensors and other options. (Some of these details aren’t listed on Tesla’s own CPO car detail page.)
Although basic features are free, EV-CPO provides historic sales data, more filtering options and e-mail alerts for about $10 a month. It’s a ridiculously low price for this critical resource used to buy a $50,000+ car.
When you get serious, here’s what you should do:
- Make a list of all of the “must have” features for your car, such as air suspension, particular colors and an upgraded sound system.
- Buy a subscription to EV-CPO.com and look for matching cars in the historical data. This will give you an idea how much you should pay for your car.
- Set up e-mail alerts to find out as soon as a car matching your criteria hits the market
The best deals don’t last long. In fact, I’ve been told that you can cozy up to someone at a Tesla dealership and get first dibs on inventory before it hits the public site.
At this point, you might be wondering if it matters where the car is located. If you happen to live in a city with a Tesla dealer, you can drive the car first hand.
If not, you might need to take a leap of faith. Tesla has certain standards for its CPO cars, so you can rest assured you won’t get a dented car.
That said, a few sight-unseen buyers have expressed frustrations, especially early during the CPO program.
If you find a CPO you like that is located far away, ask your Tesla rep to get pictures of the car. You can also call the location and ask additional details about the car’s condition.
You can lock down a CPO with a $1,000 deposit. At this point, it’s taken off Tesla’s website.
There’s a catch to this. If you decide you don’t want the car after all, such as after seeing actual pictures of it, you only have 2-3 days to transfer the deposit to a different CPO (or place an order for a new car). Otherwise, you lose the deposit.
This is a bad part of the CPO program. You might feel forced to place a deposit before seeing actual pictures or a CarFax report because you’re worried it will be reserved by someone else.
Problems aside, buying a CPO gives you the peace of mind of getting a manufacturer-inspected car with a brand new, four year/50,000 mile limited warranty. The drive unit and battery warranties are based on the original car manufacturing date. Given how new the Tesla Model S is, this warranty is important.
60 kWh Teslas often become available at CPOs in the $50,000+ range, with an occasional one falling below $50,000. 85 kWh versions usually start around $60,000, with an occasional one in the $50k range.
Buying a used Tesla is a great way to drive the car of the future at a price that’s (sort of) affordable.