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Buying a Used Car: What Does “Air Conditioning Needs a Charge” Mean?

If you’re interested in buying a used car, you may have seen advertisements stating that the car’s air conditioning needs a charge. This terminology can be confusing, so we decided to explain exactly what to expect when you see (or hear) this phrase.

Needs a Charge

When sellers say that an air conditioning system needs a charge, what they mean is that the air conditioning is out of refrigerant fluid. Most likely, this means the system has a leak. The fluid in an air conditioning system simply does not get used up like gasoline. A home refrigerator works much like an air conditioning system. How often you need to “charge it up?” Probably never.

What Does It Really Need?

Unfortunately, the simple explanation that the air conditioning “needs a charge” rarely tells the whole story. For one thing, air conditioning systems are supposed to be closed; they aren’t designed to lose any fluid, and they shouldn’t need replenishing. With that said, it’s possible for air conditioning systems to lose some fluid over time, but even that likely means a small leak in the system. So it is possible that “charging it up” will help the air conditioner blow cold air, but if the leak isn’t properly fixed, you’re running on borrowed time. We’ve seen A/C systems get a fresh shot of fluid and work well for several months, but there’s really no way to be sure unless you take the car to a qualified air conditioning repair shop.

More likely, however, the car’s air conditioning system needs more than just some fluid. After all, if fixing the air conditioning were as easy as adding fluid, wouldn’t the seller do that before listing the car for sale?

How Can You Know for Sure?

Unfortunately, it isn’t always easy to find out exactly what a car needs to get its air conditioning system working again. Pouring additional fluid into a leaky system will cause the air conditioning to operate temporarily, until it drains out again from the leak.

As a result, the only way to know with certainty what a car needs when it comes to air conditioning is to take it to a trusted mechanic, who can inspect the entire system for leaks or faults. We suggest a mechanical inspection anyway when you’re buying a used car. If air conditioning is important to you, a potentially faulty system is all the more reason to make sure to get an inspection before signing the papers.

The implication of “just needs a charge” is that the problem is a simple one with a very inexpensive fix. The truth is that it’s a lot more complicated than that. If you’re looking at a car from the 1990s, the system may have to be converted to a new kind of refrigerant that’s better for the environment. Even if you’re looking at a newer car, a qualified shop will have to find and repair the leak, which could get expensive. If you really want that specific car, ask a local shop for their hourly repair rate and then factor that into the price of the car you want to buy.

Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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  1. Hello, my name is jeanne,
    I Ihave been looking to buy a used vehicle for a few months now. I saved up 3,500.00 . i really want a jeep, or something with a hatchback to put some fold up chairs an a little cooler in it, so i don’t have to use my back seats.can someone tell me why i can’t get a decent vehicle in that price range. the last vehicle i looked at was a 2003 jeep liberty with 140,000 miles on it, an they want 6,000.00$ for it. I keep finding myself in the same situation over and over.there was a kia for sale at a little dealership in w. Warwick, I really liked it, when a friend looked up the blue book value, it said it was worth 1,500 less than what he was asking. When i showed this to the dealer, he printed out another blue book paper that said it was worth all most 3x what he was asking for it Well i left wish my cash in hand again. Any help on getting a decent vehicle at a honest price.

    • Clearly, you and the dealer don’t mean the same thing when you say “Blue Book” value. The dealer is probably trying to leave some negotiating room and wants to get paid for his work on the car – maybe a detail and some safety related repairs. Remember, the dealer is in business to make money, that’s his job, to get paid selling cars, not to sell them for the same price he purchased.

      Stay away from high-mileage Jeeps, look for a good Nissan Sentra or Ford Focus. In the price range you’re looking, you might want to consider buying from a person so you can know how the car was cared for – you’re likely looking at a high mileage car. Or, buy a 5,000 car, use the money you’ve saved as a down payment, then have a small monthly payment for a year or so.

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