If you're buying used, you may be looking for the holy grail: service records. Service records tell you a lot about a car's history and can answer numerous critical questions. Unfortunately, they're also somewhat rare. Many owners don't keep records for maintenance or repairs, which can be frustrating and mean that used car buyers must go into their purchases blind.
The relative rarity of these records doesn't make them unimportant, however. Instead, it's crucial to understand when you might need them and how they should affect your purchasing decision.
When Should You Insist on Good Records?
There are a few situations where buying a vehicle with good service records is crucial. In general, you should favor used cars with maintenance histories if any of these are true:
- You're buying a used luxury or performance car
- You're investing in a classic vehicle
- You're buying a model with a history of known problems
High-end luxury and performance cars often lose a significant amount of their value as they age, and these vehicles are known for having high maintenance and repair costs. These problems often result from previous owners who did not keep up with routine maintenance. While a used high-end car can be a good deal, you should look for one that comes with evidence that the previous owner cared for it.
Classic vehicles are another area where maintenance records are a good idea. Although these cars might not be as problematic, you will want records for anything you're buying as an investment. These records will help maintain the car's value and let you plan for future repair, maintenance, and restoration tasks.
Finally, you will want at least cursory records if you're buying a model with known problems or recalls. Although you don't need complete service logs, you should look for proof that the previous owner has already dealt with any common and costly repairs.
When Are Service Records Less Important?
On the other hand, you don't need to insist on service records when you're buying a relatively new vehicle or a model known for its reliability. For example, many economy cars have a reputation for requiring little more than oil changes and basic upkeep. If you're buying a vehicle that fits this mold, service records don't provide a significant amount of value.
Likewise, owner-kept records aren't nearly as critical when buying a car that's only a few years old or comes with a certified pre-owned warranty. These cars likely followed a manufacturer-prescribed maintenance schedule, so having records on hand won't give you much more information unless there's clearly something wrong with the car.
Service records are simply another tool to use when buying a car. Knowing when they're critical and when you should put more emphasis on other factors will help you find a reliable used vehicle at any budget.