Will a bargain-priced former rental car become yet another casualty of the pandemic?
Rental car companies, which frequently refresh their fleets, have long been a reliable source of reasonably priced used vehicles for those in the know. But tightening inventories of used cars nationwide are driving up prices of many former rental cars to higher than what you might pay at a traditional dealership.
While rental car prices plummeted at the beginning of the pandemic as companies such as Hertz sold off their inventory, prices have rebounded and now are 4% above the market average, according to an analysis done for NerdWallet by iSeeCars.com, a website that aggregates used-car listings.
Although prices have risen, you still might get a bargain on certain makes and models. And there remain many advantages of shopping the used rental car market. Primarily, it's a good source of late-model used cars, often only 1 year old, that have been well-maintained, says Jeff Rose, a certified financial planner and Avis Car Sales spokesperson.
Here's what to consider if you're looking to purchase a former rental car.
The pros of buying an ex-rental
“If you’re just looking to save money by going to a rental car lot, it isn’t going to offer the great deals it once did,” says Karl Brauer, executive analyst at iSeeCars.com. “But if you like the other options a rental sales lot offers, it could still be a good choice.”
There are still some bargains
If you’re shopping for a sedan or economy car, the rental sales lot might still save you some money. While used car prices in general have risen, Rose says the cars on Avis' lots are often $2,500 below Kelley Blue Book pricing. Furthermore, he says Avis' cars are typically 1 model year old.
The iSeeCars report found several bargains: The Nissan Versa Note and the Chevrolet Camaro now being sold by rental car agencies are both 6% below the market. And you might get lucky with other sizes of cars as well: The popular Jeep Wrangler can be purchased at a rental car lot for a savings of 4.5%, or $717, according to iSeeCars.
Most rental car sales lots offer no-haggle pricing, which makes shopping less stressful. However, if you have an appetite for negotiating and want to go back and forth for a few hours at a used-car lot, you might save more money at a traditional dealership, Brauer suggests.
It’s always a good idea to have your mechanic inspect any car you want to buy. But you might feel that rental agencies' certification process is enough. They use certified technicians and conduct their own multipoint inspections before putting their vehicles on the market.
If you buy a former rental car that is less than 3 years old, the bumper-to-bumper factory warranty will still be in effect. Additionally, the big rental car sales lots, such as Avis, include a limited powertrain warranty, roadside assistance and other perks.
Extended test drives
At some car sales lots such as Avis and Hertz, you can rent a vehicle for a few days and, if you like it, complete the sale at home. Brauer says this extra time evaluating the car — parking it in your garage, hauling your gear, testing the enthusiasm of your family — “is a pretty compelling reason to shop the rental car sales lot.”
Vehicles purchased by rental car agencies were once referred to as “strippers,” since they have fewer safety and luxury options. But Brauer says that many desirable features now come standard with many cars. This even means that some advanced safety features — such as smart cruise control and blind-spot detection — will be included on rental cars.
But what about wear and tear?
Let’s tackle the biggest “con” that‘s probably on everyone’s mind: that rental cars have been thrashed by a parade of lead-foot drivers. Jeremy Clarkson, a former host of the TV show “Top Gear,” perpetuated this assumption by renting a Toyota Corolla for a road race because — as a rental — he could take the car “to the maximum.”
But while most renters don’t necessarily baby the cars, they are often concerned about being charged for damage. Furthermore, most rental agencies closely follow the service schedule with on-time oil changes and tire rotations, says David Bennett, repair systems manager at AAA.
In reality, any used car can have a checkered past. But rental car companies seem aware of these fears about the vehicle’s condition level and try to offset them.
Tips for rental car shopping
While the salespeople are low-key and the car’s purchase price is fixed, be ready for upsells such as extended warranties and prepaid maintenance plans.
Even though rental car lots offer no-haggle pricing, check pricing guides such as Kelley Blue Book or Edmunds to see if it really is a good price.
Compare rental car prices with used cars being sold by traditional dealers. It’s easy to research a wide area using the online advertising site AutoTrader.
Ask for the service records and a copy of the pre-purchase inspection report.
Make sure to get the vehicle history report, which is usually provided for free by rental car lots.