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Buying a rental car may sound risky. With so many previous drivers, will it be reliable?
According to the experts, used-car shoppers needn't worry. Former rental cars tend to be well-maintained, easy to buy and competitively priced.
Buying a former rental car is a lot like buying from a used-car dealership. They inspect their vehicles before sale, offer warranties, allow an extended test drive and allow you to trade in your current vehicle.
Still, there are some special considerations when buying a used rental car.
Why rental companies sell cars
Rental companies buy new vehicles to add to their fleet. Then, to keep their inventory up-to-date and make room for newer models, they sell some of their cars every year at auctions, to dealerships or directly to consumers. In fact, some people buy rental cars from used-car dealerships without realizing it.
The biggest rental car companies in the U.S. are Enterprise Holdings, Hertz Global Holdings and Avis Budget Group, the parent companies of a number of rental agencies. They sell cars directly to consumers through their car sales divisions, which you can find online.
More wear and tear, but well-maintained
Potential buyers might worry that a rental car has been beat up by countless drivers who don’t care about long-term maintenance. And this isn’t far off base, says David Bennett, manager of Automotive Programs at AAA. Renters “may not take as meticulous care of the vehicle that is not theirs,” he says. At the same time, drivers generally want to limit the damage they do to avoid being charged.
While there may be more wear and tear from numerous drivers, steps are taken to ensure all required maintenance is performed on rental vehicles. Then, they are thoroughly inspected before being sold.
Most rental agencies keep their vehicles very well-maintained, Bennett says. The three big players all follow strict service schedules. They use certified technicians and conduct their own multipoint inspections before putting their vehicles on the market.
“We can't control how our customers drive our vehicles, but what we are very confident of is how we maintain the vehicle throughout its life,” says Gregg Nierenberg, senior vice president of fleet services at Avis Budget Group.
Nearly-new used cars with higher mileage
Rental cars tend to have more miles on the odometer than a typical used car of the same age — a concern for many buyers. But Bennett stresses that mileage is “just one factor” in judging a vehicle. “You could have a very high-mileage car and it's been maintained very well, and the car is great,” he says.
Avis generally pulls its cars out of rotation after 12 to 18 months and 25,000 to 35,000 miles, according to Nierenberg. Enterprise vehicles spend an average of 12 months as rentals before being put up for sale, and Hertz says many of its vehicles “are still 25,000 to 40,000 miles young.”
Plus, since rental companies sell relatively new cars, they may still be under the factory-included warranty. Hertz and Enterprise vehicles also come with limited power train warranties for 12 months or 12,000 miles.
Good prices, and no haggling
Rental companies sell their cars with no-haggle prices that can include bargains. During the coronavirus pandemic, prices initially dropped. Later, as used car inventories shrunk, prices rose to market level or higher.
However, rental car companies need to move cars out of their fleet quickly, which translates into lower prices for buyers. “We're not looking to make a ton of money on our used cars,” Nierenberg notes.
Rental agencies say that they price their vehicles below retail values, using pricing guides like Kelley Blue Book. And indeed, compared with the Blue Book price of a 2020 Mazda CX-5, with 38,000 miles, it appears that a buyer could possibly save more than $4,000 by purchasing this vehicle from a rental-car lot. Still, always check listed prices against online guides before buying.
Limited inventory, but easy to shop
Most rental cars don’t come with many options like upgraded luxury or performance packages. This could be especially important if you want a unique color or combination of options. Also, there may be a smaller variety of makes and models compared with a national auto chain, like CarMax. But if you don't immediately see the vehicle you want, it may be worth searching a broader area and having the car shipped to your location.
When you find a good candidate, Avis and Hertz offer extended test drives, as opposed to the 15-minute spin around the block typically allowed at traditional dealerships. You’ll need to pay a rental fee for this, but it’ll be refunded if you buy the car.
If you decide to buy a rental car, you can complete much of the process online, over the phone or in person. In most cases, contracts can be signed at a rental location or even delivered to your home or office.
Before you buy
Remember to do all the usual research before buying a used car.