Car Buying

Buying a Used Car: How Many Previous Owners Is Too Many?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2015

If you're interested in buying a used car, you probably want a one-owner vehicle. Virtually everyone does -- but not everyone is lucky enough to find one, especially if the car you're considering is more than a few years old. In that case, you'll have to compromise on a car that's had two owners, or maybe even three or more. But how many owners is too many? And how can you tell how many owners a car has had? We have the answer.

Why One Owner?

There are several reasons why one-owner cars are considered to be the darlings of the used-car world. The primary reason is a consistent maintenance and driving history. If someone buys a new car and drives it for a decade, it's likely that car received roughly the same level of care -- and the same driving experience -- throughout that time period. With multiple owners, a car may have been subjected to various levels of care and a wide range of different driving styles, which may negatively affect its long-term dependability.

Another reason why one-owner cars are so sought-after is that the original owner, who purchased the car new, likely has more financial resources to devote to maintenance and upkeep than, say, a sixth owner who buys the car when it's 15 years old and costs $3,000.

How Can You Tell How Many Owners a Car Has Had?

Unfortunately, trying to figure out how many owners a vehicle has had isn't always an easy proposition. After all, when you're looking at used cars, a one-owner vehicle with 150,000 miles might not look dramatically different from a 4-owner vehicle from the same mileage. If there are differences, they might be under the hood.

There are two ways you can try to find out how many owners a car has had. One is by checking service records, if the vehicle includes them, as they will often show the prior owner's name. If the records are in multiple names, you can bet that multiple people have owned the vehicle.

Another suggestion is paying for a vehicle history report (from a service like Carfax or AutoCheck), which uses registration data to find out how many owners a vehicle has had. Unfortunately, this data isn't always perfect: When an owner moves with a car from one state to another, for instance, this can sometimes be reported as multiple owners. But it's still a good tool for determining ownership history.

How Many Owners Is Too Many?

And now on to the all-important question: When you're buying a used car, how many owners is too many?

To us, there's no perfect answer. Yes, we prefer cars with fewer owners, as they're likely to be better maintained and preserved. But if a multiple-owner car has been taken care of properly, we see no reason why you shouldn't consider it. You can verify a car's maintenance status by taking it to a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection before you sign the papers.

In other words, while you should factor in number of owners when considering a used car, it shouldn't be the only thing you think about. And in our view, the car's mechanical condition should be far more important than its ownership history.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Used Car: How Many Previous Owners Is Too Many? - Autotrader