Car Buying

Buying a Used Car: Why Is Service History Important?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro April 2015

If you're interested in buying a used car, one of the pieces of advice you'll hear most commonly is that you should try to find an example with documented service history, also known as service records or repair receipts. But why is this such an important item to have with your next used car?

You'll Know About Prior Services

The most important reason to have your car's previous service history is also the most obvious: It lets you know exactly when and where previous services have been performed. If you purchase a car without any prior service history, you'll have no idea when it received its last oil change, for example. That means you should probably get an oil change right away, just to be on the safe side.

What about the last tire rotation? The brakes? The battery? With service records, you'll know exactly when this work was carried out, which should give you a good idea of how long it will last.

Sometimes, the repair work might be more important, and more costly, than an oil change or a battery replacement. For example, in many cars, a timing belt must be changed every 75,000 or 100,000 miles. This can be a costly service, and failure to carry it out could result in a snapped belt and an engine replacement for several thousand dollars. How do you know if and when the timing belt has been replaced? Without service records, there's no way to know apart from the word of the previous owner. That's a big gamble, which is why you'll want a repair record to add some certainty.

Shows Good Ownership

Another benefit of having service records goes beyond simple proof that vehicle maintenance has actually been carried out. A car with many service records shows a fastidious, organized car owner who's willing to not only spend money on the vehicle but who's also willing to keep the documents around for the next owner.

To us, proof of a high-quality prior owner is almost as important as the records themselves. If the previous owner has all the car's documentation and repair receipts, you can bet that they took pride in the vehicle's ownership and cared enough to document that pride for the next owner. While it isn't a certain indicator that a used car is in excellent shape or needs nothing, a stack of repair receipts is always a good sign.

What If There Aren't Any Records?

If you're interested in buying a used car but can't find one with service records, don't worry. Sometimes, owners perform regular service but don't care to keep the records, or they have legitimate reasons for not having records, such as accidentally throwing them out during a move.

While a car with records is likely worth more than one without, we wouldn't turn down a car that didn't have service history. But we'd insist on a thorough inspection from a trusted mechanic before signing the papers, just to be sure that there aren't any major issues that have gone unattended for too long.

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: Why Is Service History Important? - Autotrader