When it comes to buying cars, most of us are accustomed to looking out for certain characteristics. For example, buyers will often want cars with:
- Good service history (this is a no-brainer, as deferred maintenance is bad for a car)
- Lower mileage (for what it’s worth, mileage is less important than condition)
- Clear title (who wants to pay somebody else’s finance?)
- A low number of previous owners
You’ll often see cars advertised on the basis of “one owner from new” or “three owners in the last twenty years” or so on.
But does the number of previous car owners matter? Should you really care about the ownership history of a car you’re looking to buy?
In this edition of Car Facts, I’m going to talk you through whether or not the number of previous owners for a car has any relevance to whether or not you should consider buying it.
Reasons Why More Owners Might Be Bad
As mentioned in the intro to this article, many car buyers are conditioned to believe that a car with many previous owners is automatically worse than one with few owners.
But are there any legitimate reasons why more owners might be a bad thing?
Here are some reasons to consider
The Car Is A Lemon And Owners Are Ridding Themselves To Spare Their Wallets
This is the biggie.
Some cars are “Friday afternoon specials” and go wrong all the time and cause their owners unending headache and expenditure. This is particularly the case with performance cars, luxury vehicles and the like. Sometimes the car is a wrong ‘un from the minute it rolls off the production line, and other times it gets that way through insufficient love and maintenance.
My old Alfa Romeo 156 JTS was probably in this camp. I bought it cheap off a guy who had clearly got sick and tired of spending too much on it. As part of the deal, we agreed he would put a new Warrant of Fitness (WOF – NZ’s version of a routine road safety test) on the car. A day before collection, he messaged me to inform he’d just had to spend another $1500 on brake discs and pads to get the car through its WOF, but I guess he figured it was cheaper still to part with the car. Within 18 months of ownership I’d also spent thousands on it, and I suspect the subsequent owner has too. It was a great car but it was just one of those vehicles that would never catch a break, reliability-wise.
One way to protect yourself here is to look closely at whether the car has frequently failed MoT/WoF/safety checks (using a tool like CarVertical to do so). If the car has a clear history of failing safety checks and then being disposed of by previous owners, then it might indicate it is a dog of a car that is only going to cause you problems too.
Because of this potential risk, it’s really important to try and determine why a vendor is selling the car. Have they got a genuine reason, e.g. arrival of a child dictating the need to get a more practical car, or does it look like they are trying to hide something?
There is another reason for seeking low ownership that is somewhat related to this point.
Cars typically depreciate, badly (some worse than others). Despite the recent insanity of used and new car prices, we will almost certainly return to a time where a car’s value plummets when you drive off the lot.
What can happen is that cars depreciate enough to reach a point where people can afford to buy them who cannot necessarily afford to maintain or properly care for them. What will often then happen is that individual will trade in or dispose of the car when it becomes to expensive to properly maintain.
Here in New Zealand, this has happened to a number of “second tier” JDM classics, for example the Mitsubishi FTO. Although nice condition FTOs are now increasingly desirable, for a long time it was just a cheap Japanese car to many who would buy them from our equivalent of ‘buy here pay here’ car dealerships and then run them until the faults started stacking up.
It’s this pattern of high ownership volume that can be problematic.
Low Ownership Might Enhance Value
This is more of a consideration for valuable classics and collectible cars – a vehicle with a stellar ownership history might command a price premium because of its provenance.
However, even for normal everyday commuter cars, if you can find a good condition example with low ownership history it’s probably going to hold value better than a high ownership example (although the downside here is that you’ll need to pay more to buy it in the first place)
Reasons Why Car Owner Number Doesn’t Matter
We’ve taken a look at some of the reasons why you might want to care about the number of previous owners of a car.
But let’s look now at the reasons why that number is basically irrelevant. For full disclosure, I am in the “not caring about the number of previous owners” camp, and I’ll explain why shortly.
Ownership Numbers Can Be Inflated By Dealers
This might vary depending on where you live, but here in New Zealand cars are often owned for short periods of time by dealerships, and this can result in an over-inflated ownership count.
If I look at my old Volkswagen Touareg (read our VW Touareg buyer’s guide here) it’s had three NZ owners since being imported from Japan. However, one of those owners was the dealership where it was traded in – after being purchased by the original NZ buyer – who only had it on their forecourt for a week before I purchased it.
Vehicles that are traded in several times over their lifetime can then wind up with a highly inflated ownership count that doesn’t actually reflect the number of private owners.
If a dealer takes short-term possession of a car by way of part exchange, does that really matter?
Some Cars Attract More Owners By Their Very Nature
Performance cars, luxury cars and other desirable vehicles will often have more owners than run-of-the-mill commuter cars (and the same applies for cars that are commonly purchased/leased by fleet owners, but for different reasons).
Take a desirable, high-performance car like the new Honda Civic Type R.
There are owners who will buy these cars new, and then get the updated/refreshed model every time a new one comes out (this trend is even more prominent with high-end luxury European brands – the kind of person who can buy a new Bentley Continental GT, for example, will often be wealthy enough to buy the latest model every time and not care about depreciation).
This means that often after a year or so, the car is traded back in – so you’ve had a first owner, and then a dealer owner who takes the trade. The car has probably been well serviced and cared for, often maintained with some kind of initial service plan.
A new owner then buys that lightly used car, making them the third owner.
For various reasons, whether it’s trading up after a while (because they’ve come into more money) trading down (because they need to free up money, or because circumstances change e.g. children dictate a more practical car) or simply growing bored of the car and wanting a change – which is very common with performance/exotic/luxury cars – the owner will then chop it in for something else.
After a enough time to allow for heavy depreciation, the car will then typically become affordable enough that it might fall into the hands of people who think they can afford to run it, but then discover they cannot. This is the “danger zone” where multiple owners can become problematic, if the car starts cycling through owners with insufficient money to properly care and maintain it. But up until this point, multiple ownership is very common.
A similar thing often happens with cars popular with fleet buyers, e.g. here in New Zealand “utes”/utility vehicles are frequently leased for employees, who turn them back in after a few years to get a new one. The car might then be sold by the main dealer to another dealer that specialises in on-selling ex-fleet/lease vehicles, who then sells it again to a smaller business looking for a more affordable purchase, who then in turn trades it in or sells it off once they have depreciated the purchase through their business.
None of that is nefarious or indicates a bad quality car – it’s just that for various reasons some types of cars tend to attract multiple owners.
Ownership History Has No Correlation With Condition
This is the most important consideration by far.
There is simply no correlation between a higher number of owners and inferior vehicle condition, and ultimately condition is what really matters (with evidenced service history coming second).
There are cars with heaps of owners in amazing condition. There are cars with one owner in awful condition. There are cars with heaps of owners in awful condition … it simply isn’t a big factor in terms of determining the overall quality of the car.
What matters much more is how the previous owner(s) have cared for the car, and not how many there have been.
One of my favourite automotive YouTube vloggers is High Peak Autos, an English car dealer who typically makes “should you buy” videos (based on his experience in the motor trade) as well as doing a regular series on buying cheap cars and on-selling them via his dealership.
I mention the channel, because he frequently talks about ownership number being a poor yardstick for determining a vehicle’s condition. For example, he recently featured a video with a two owner Jaguar in appalling condition (see video below) but has previously featured cars with tons of owners in excellent condition.
Ownership history does not directly influence condition. All that matters is how the previous owners have cared for the car.
Conclusion – Does The Number Of Previous Car Owners Really Matter?
Not really, no.
You shouldn’t base your car purchase off whether or not a car has had numerous previous owners.
Condition, and then service history (in that order) are far more important.
The world is full of “one owner from new” cars that have been ragged on, abused and poorly maintained, and then there are cars with more owners than you’ve had hot dinners that are in great condition.
Also bear in mind that performance, classic and other “interesting” cars will often have multiple owners, as people buy them to enjoy for a period and then upgrade, change to something else or discover they don’t really enjoy the ownership experience.
When shopping for a car myself, I will always do a vehicle history check (here in New Zealand I use CarJam, but you might want to look at something like CarVertical if you are based in the United States or United Kingdom) and I will take a quick look at the ownership history, but the main thing I’m checking for is that the car wasn’t a damaged import, doesn’t have finance outstanding etc.
I buy on condition, and then service history.
However, I’d love to hear your take – what do you think about buying a car with a higher number of previous owners? Is this something that is off-putting to you, or do you not care? Feel free to leave a comment below.