BMWs generally make excellent used vehicles. But after buying and selling these vehicles for years I have come to find that there are certain things to look for if you are considering buying a used BMW.
If you are in the market for a used BMW, there are specific issues you should be looking for. Pay attention to the particular BMW’s depreciation, don’t settle for less than a detailed maintenance history, research the particular model’s reliability, and stay away from “track cars”.
There are things to look for on a BMW that are the same as any other car. I will not waste your time with generic advice like “take a test drive”. In this article, I will give you a list of unique things to look for with a used BMW, and I am sure that if you read through this entire article you will come out far better prepared to get a good deal on a used BMW.
1. Check the BMW’s depreciation
BMWs depreciate faster than 99% of the cars on the market. This is a terrible piece of news for anyone that buys a BMW brand new, but you can take advantage of this if you are buying a used BMW.
BMW depreciation, like any vehicle, is the worst in its first few years. You don’t want to pay $40,000 for a two-year-old 3 Series BMW when it will be worth half that in year four. I strongly suggest that you stay away from a used BMW until it is at a minimum of three years old. I would suggest waiting until year four or five but wait at least three years.
By purchasing a BMW with a little age on it you will avoid the worst depreciation.
You should be aware that not all BMWs depreciate the same, some models are worse than others. Below is a table detailing BMW depreciation by model over a 3 year period. The data is compiled from the money calculator.
|BMW model||depreciation after 3 years|
Average depreciation estimates certainly are not perfect but they give you a good idea of how fast of a depreciating vehicle you are interested in. In my experience, the 5 and 7 Series depreciate significantly faster than the 3 Series. This is mainly because the 5 and 7 Series are considered BMW’s more luxurious models.
2. Check the BMW’s reliability
BMW models are not made equally reliable, and you should be watching for models that have significant issues. It is important that you check the specific year and model of the vehicle you are interested in. BMW in the past has had problems with certain model years but then fixed the issues in later years. One example of this is the BMW E46, which had significant automatic transmission problems that were rectified after a few years.
Turbocharged BMWs are not necessarily unreliable, but you should definitely stay away from the twin-turbocharged E90. Not all BMWs with a V8 engine are problematic, but I have personally had some very poor experience with V8 BMWs and I would advise you to stay away from them.
I mentioned above that certain BMW models depreciate significantly faster than others. The biggest reason for that is their perceived reliability or lack thereof. 5 and 7 Series BMWs are viewed as less reliable and therefore they depreciate faster. Their maintenance is higher than on other BMW models, and the used car market values them less as a consequence. Here is an in-depth article on BMW reliability and maintenance across different models.
3. Check for coolant system issues
I have said it before and I will say it again, coolant system problems are the bane of BMW reliability. Every time I check out a used BMW I ask questions about coolant system maintenance.
BMW engine bays have poor heat dispersion, and BMW has turned to using cheap plastic parts for its coolant system. Unfortunately, that means that these components can fail prematurely, overheat the engine, and blow a head gasket.
The coolant system problem is not severe enough to make these vehicles a bad option, but it does make it extremely important that you inquire about when cooling system parts have been replaced. Exercise caution when the owner says he has replaced so and so part but does not have any receipts to back it up.
Even a poorly maintained coolant system usually won’t have an active coolant leak. BMWs can’t run very far without an in-shape coolant system. But you may notice white residue in areas where there was a coolant leak, and/or fragile hoses.
4. Check for oil leaks
Oil leaks are common on any vehicle, BMW is no exception. Where BMW is unique is that valve cover gasket, oil housing gasket, and oil pan gasket leaks are extremely common.
You are not going to avoid oil pan leaks on a BMW with a decent amount of mileage. These leaks are par for the course and they are extremely expensive to repair, so most owners never fix them.
Valve cover gasket leaks, on the other hand, are extremely recognizable and should be remedied as soon as possible. These leaks are at the top of the engine and are a safety hazard if left unchecked. There are stories of BMWs with bad valve cover leaks dripping onto the exhaust manifold and causing a fire.
Valve cover leaks are not difficult or expensive to fix, but an active bad leak can be indicative of how the vehicle has been maintained over the years.
5. Check for electronic problems
It’s 2020, and luxury cars like BMW cannot get enough of fancy bells and whistles, iDrive, and experiments with self-driving technology. Bells and whistles are great for drivers who buy their vehicle new. Any issues with faulty sensors are covered by warranty, at least for a few years.
But how does this additional tech work for guys like us interested in a used BMW?
The results are mixed and you should be aware of this when considering a recent generation used BMW like an F30 or G20. Because BMW installs so many additional bells and whistles into their vehicles nowadays, I strongly advise that you have a mechanic check the car out.
Even if you are an experienced DIYer, I highly doubt you have the equipment to perform an adequate check of the computer system on a BMW. My advice is that if you are really interested in a specific vehicle, have a mechanic check out the electronic components before you make an offer. You might end up finding that a few sensors need to be replaced and it’s going to cost you a thousand bucks in your first month of ownership.
6. Check for the maintenance history
The older the BMW is, the more detailed of a maintenance history you need. Stay away from any BMW with 50,000+ miles if the owner can’t give you any maintenance history. I generally suggest that you stay away from BMWs with over 150,000 miles, but there are some exceptions that I outline in this article on buying used BMWs with over 100,000 miles.
Things to watch for regarding maintenance history include oil change frequency, coolant system maintenance (see above), and for higher mileage vehicles you will want to check for transmission/differential fluid changes.
Generally the better the maintenance history, the higher the price, but trust me unless you enjoy putting lots of time into an unreliable project car you should spend the extra money on a well maintained BMW.
Obviously, checking out the maintenance history is important for any used car. The difference is if a Honda Civic lacks a decent maintenance history, they are still reliable vehicles that require little maintenance regardless if it has been beaten up a little. A used BMW with a poor maintenance history will leave you with thousands of dollars in repair bills.
I bought an old 1997 BMW 318i with 100,000 miles on it several years ago. It was in terrible condition so the guy sold it to me for $1,500. The windows did not work, the engine ran rough, and the exhaust sounded like a lawnmower. I ended up putting well over $5,000 worth of labor into the vehicle. I replaced door handles, door panels, window regulators, an exhaust pipe, rebuilt the intake, replaced the entire coolant system, and swapped out the suspension.
Luckily I did all the work myself so the parts only cost me around $1,500, but if I would have had to pay someone for that it would have been worth nowhere near the value of the car.
7. Stay away from “track cars”
For decades the most popular BMW has been the 3 Series and that popularity is well deserved. They are beautiful cars with excellent handling and they are extremely comfortable. 3 Series BMWs also happen to be one of the most popular track/drift cars.
Most people with 3 Series BMWs do not put their vehicles on the race track, but enough of them do. It’s particularly worth inquiring if you are interested in an M model 3 Series as these vehicles are the most likely to be put on a track.
If the BMW has been tracked that’s not necessarily a deal-breaker, but you should be aware that tracking for a significant amount of time puts a lot of stress on the vehicle and will cause additional reliability issues in the future.
I hope this article has helped you in finding the right BMW for you. As long as you do your research, and look for the particular issues I mentioned you should end up with a fun and reliable BMW!