Ask the Price Guide Guy

Who certifies the certifiers?

by Dave Kinney
23 March 2023 5 min read
Photo by Photo by: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

“Certified” is one of the most overused words in the automotive lexicon. In fact, I will personally certify that certified is one of the most overused words when buying and selling a car.

On what authority am I allowed to certify the excessive appearance of “certified?” Absolutely none.  And that, right there, is precisely my point. “Certified by whom” is the correct response, but almost no one seems to ask that vital follow-up question.

I can completely understand the appeal of a certification. I’m pretty good at finding signs of prior misuse, but I can assure you—as can anyone who has bought more than a few dozen cars—that we can all be fooled. Did the prior owner hoon it? Was it babied or blasted? If you’ve ever rented a totally spent rent-a-car with “just” 14,000 miles on the clock, you know that low mileage is no indicator of the prior driver’s behavior.

A certified used car is supposed to give you a level of comfort you might not get from merely buying the 2019 model your golfing buddy has decided to unload. In most cases, this theoretical peace of mind is commemorated by a piece of paper saying that the new-to-you car has passed a “125-point comprehensive safety test” or something similar.

Certified as a warranty

But what does it actually mean? It depends. If that “certification” came from Bob and Eddie’s Pre-Enjoyed Creampuffs car lot, it really does not mean that much, except that Larry, their befuddled shop foreman, had one of his chain-smoking, self-taught philosopher-mechanics check the car out, possibly hitting a large majority of those 125 points right before he clocked out for the weekend. It’s probably better than nothing, but it’s not anywhere near state-of-the-art in the world of “certified” used cars.

In this case, “certified” means certified by Bob and Eddie’s. Is it an actual warranty, or just a sheet of paper with a few promises on it? What happens if they go out of business? Will they deny your claim because they say it was something not covered/that you broke? And what can you do about it, anyway? The answer to this is, sadly, not much. If things go south, you have little recourse, except shouting, bad reviews or taking the lawyer route.

Used-Car Frenzy Makes for Record Prices
Photo by: Bess Adler/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Our next type of certified is bestowed by a chain or brand of used car sellers that is not an authorized new car dealer. Let’s say you buy a used 2019 Honda from CarStacks, my favorite (fictional) national chain. Their CarStacks Certified 30-day warranty is good at their store in Springfield (Illinois, Virginia, California or wherever) and it’s free with the purchase. But they also offer a one-, two-, three-, and five-year version of their warranty (for a price), again, good at any of their stores coast-to-coast. Is this as good as a manufacturer extended warranty? The tricky answer is that, yes, it can be just as good. You probably will need to take the car back to CarStacks for repairs unless it is an emergency situation. Is it good for a Honda but maybe not so good for a Porsche? I’ll let you decide on that.

The last certified warranty I’ll mention are those cars that are certified by their original manufacturers and sold by their authorized dealers. As most of us are aware, for some makes, there is a rather comprehensive program for selling used cars as “certified.” For many manufacturers, this is essentially a version of the original warranty. Occasionally, that “certified” (by the manufacturer’s representative, the dealer) is a better warranty than that same manufacturer’s new-car warranty (unlimited miles? I’m looking at you, BMW Certified Pre-Owned…).

Certified used cars sign
Photo by: Bess Adler/Bloomberg/Getty Images

So: a few uses of the same word. One means very little. Another is dependent on the strength of the chain. The last, with the backing of the manufacturer, means quite a bit more. I’m going to call this the “good” certified, as these, in my (albeit limited) experience, work quite well. The manufacturer (usually…) stands behind it, they want to keep you reasonably happy, or at least happy enough to buy another one of their cars. Again, read all the fine print. Some of these Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) cars extend the factory warranty for new owners, while others have slightly different rules.

Despite my distrust of the word and some of the practices (or lack thereof) behind it, there are some advantages to buying the right kind of certified. First, if all goes well, there is little to no money exchanged (typically, there is a deductible, so the first $50 to $200 or more is on you), plus, the dealer’s service department is the one fixing the cars, and they already have the tools and experience and possibly wisdom to know that, yes, a single brake caliper can cost $2,800 to replace. I’m pretty sure that our friends at Bob and Eddie’s aren’t ready for that kind of rude awakening.

Certified for authenticity

Not all certifications, particularly in the classic car world, have to do with warranties. There was a time, when the crust of the earth was still cooling and I was a mere lad, when the folks who built cars would gladly (often for a reasonable fee) send you the information they had about your car when it was new. Let’s generically call these “Born As” certificates—Porsche’s Kardex and the Porsche Classic Technical Certificate are two examples—but most every manufacturer has a version of these. Some are more helpful than others.

Photo by: Porsche

A number of manufacturers, bless their hearts, have also started a certification that builds on this theme. This isn’t a warranty, or a commemoration of how the car left the factory, but rather a service used generally for older cars, that tells the owner and prospective buyer that the car still is what it purports to be. That translates to affirming that the vehicle remains original, with all original parts. Or—and this is important—parts that they say are accepted replacements, or of contemporary manufacture but made by “the same company that made it when new.”  Without going into all the details, I personally feel that these are less of a service and more of a profit center for the manufacturer. And, as with anything, mistakes are made. There is no guarantee involved, but you will get a book, or a group of records, that “certify” that your car is all BMW, Ferrari, or Porsche, or Mercedes, or whatever.

Porsche classic certified
Photo by: Porsche

But, again, who checks the checkers? Basically no one. Rich guy problems? Yes, I’d have to say that is mostly correct. A wise man once told me that the cost of milk going up is an everyman problem, while the price of pool chemicals increasing is your problem. Bluntly, unless you have a pool, no one cares, and if you have a pool, you most likely can afford it.

Just the same, do your diligence to see if the certification you’re being pitched is worth more than the paper it’s printed on. Regardless of whether you can afford to spend a little extra, it’s good to know that the peace of mind you think you’re buying is, well, certifiably helpful.


  • Blake Woith says:

    I bought a Lexus LS460 as a CPO from the local dealer. The CPO creed specifically says cars in accidents DO NOT QUALIFY for CPO. Fist time my private mechanic looked at it he said it was in a BAD accident, just short of total. Oh well, so much for CPO.

  • hyperv6 says:

    There is no short cut or excuse to do your due diligence in buying any car.

    These dog and pony shows dealers due are most times just fluff. Some dealers do have some reasonable coverage.

    The car I just bought has a 1000 mile one month deal on it that will fix most non wear items like wipers, tires or brakes.

    But do the car fax and do get it on a lift and inspect the car. Read up on forums on the car for where the troubles are and how to spot them. Spend $200 on a mechanic checking it out as being out $200 is better than being out $50 on a bad car.

    Too many people go in uneducated, uninformed and on an emotional high when buying a car and they too often buy crappy cars and also over pay for them.

    There is always risk to buying any car even new as there are lemons.

    But when buying a car you need to be smart and do the investigations you need to do.

    I just bought my first Corvette and I can tell you I know a C5 inside and out now. I minimized the mistakes as much as I possibly could. I found the right year to buy and model. I knew what was a good price and what was not.

    I looked for condition and inspected the car for all the known issues.

    I ended up with a car at the right price and condition. I just saw someone else pay more for a lesser C5 in much poorer condition. They paid $3K more for a coupe in worse condition with only 4K less miles.

    Also take people with you. I have a group of car buddies and we are all versed in many areas. I had two buddies look it over as to make sure I did not miss anything. One was a C5 owner that could tell me first hand where to really tell a good one from a bad one. He has owned several.

    Buying a car is emotional experience and buying a cool car or life time dream is worse. You have to go in with the thinking of what can I find wrong to keep me from buying this car. If you don’t fine anything you have the right car. If you find the things wrong walk away as there are more of them out there for sale. Do not compromise where you know there are issues unless the seller will address them. In may case the tires were old and an issue so I made that part of the deal that it got 4 new tires.

    Buy smarter not emotional.

  • Mark B says:

    So, as always, unless you have a trusted mechanic friend, who you should compensate handsomely for their time, because to do a thorough inspection…and I do mean thorough…it’s going to take some time and materials. Example, using a borescope to peer into the cylinder walls to access wear; drop transmission pans to access the quantity of metal or other bits scraped from the bottom of this pan. A keen eye for body and frame repair, as well as being able to look into frame rails for mud and other flood related materials that can’t easily be flushed or covered up by an unscrupulous dealer, you really don’t know what your buying. Most of it is great marketing, and that’s about it.

    • HV says:

      If you are buying a relatively low mileage car, it makes sense to check for metal in the oil sump, differentials and transmission if possible. If you find anything which should be noted watch out. The good news is today’s synthetic lubricants when regularly changed make almost any engine dependable for relatively high mileage. My question is their an analysis lab which can quickly turn around samples of the material found in used lubricants? Checking for problems in lubricant sumps is common practice in aircraft engines, why not cars.?

  • James Rosenthal says:

    So, basically, collecting cars would be great if it weren’t for the people you have to buy them from. 🙂

  • jane don says:

    certification or Safety checks where mandated by law will almost always mean decent tire wear & brake wear left–& ball joints/tie rods ect have at least 30% wear left in them but I don’t think I’ve seen a proper/complete Safety check in 30 yrs–

  • Rob Effinger says:

    I bought a used Volvo from a “dealer”, who it turned out wasn’t really a dealer. The extended warranty meant every time I brought in the car, they adjusted something, or loosened a hose clamp, or fiddled with it, until I had to return it again, and again. The car was in the shop nearly every 3 weeks for just over 12 months, when I sold it. Turns out, the other employees who also had bought from them, had the same issues. Strange coincidence? The “dealer” likely made a small fortune out of selling me the extended warranty, and then a larger fortune ripping off the extended warranty insurer. The car was certified when I bought it… yup..

  • Blair Groves says:

    How do you know a car salesman is lying? Answer: his lips are moving.

  • Gary Bechtold says:

    I have had a great experience with Lexus certified. 8 years and many miles later still going strong.

  • Bruce Stocker says:

    After 47 years in the car biz, I have seen the word “certified” used (and abused) in many situations. I was ready to purchase a “certified” Honda CRV for my wife a few years back from a Honda dealer. The first red flag was a mismatched door that had been painted. The salesman said it was “probably” that way from the factory as certified vehicles can not have any damage history. This was an EX model and was supposed to come with carpeted floor mats as stated on the original window sticker (again, another requirement of “certified”). The salesman said no mats came with the CRV. When I got up to “walk”, the salesman asked me for a minute while he talked to mgt. He returned with a set of highly worn mats from the detail dumpster! I was out of there! Find a reputable (yes, there are a few of them) dealer to work with, do your due diligence, and you will be miles (and $$$) ahead.

  • Robert Wilson says:

    I bought a 1-yr-old Volvo XC60 from the local Volvo dealer with the CPO warranty. In the first year, a problem popped up with the AWD system and with sunroof drains. From the invoices, there was a lot of parts cost on the AWD fix, and plenty of labor on the sunroof drains. Bottom line to me on the invoices was $0. So the Dealer/mfgr CPO warranty worked for me. Warranty expired 2 yrs ago, but – fingers crossed – no further problems.

  • Woodrow says:

    Forget about relying on the CPO “Safety Checks”: my current car was a one year-old CPO Audi at the time I purchased it and I’m reasonably sure the technician just checked every box on the “300-Point Safety Checklist” whether they were actually checked or not. What I received was a car with low coolant level, worn brake pads, and weak battery; all items that were “checked” (and obviously should have been corrected) during the CPO inspection.
    That being said, buying a used car from the franchise Dealer that has both the New Car warranty intact, plus the extended CPO warranty is the main reason to go CPO….just have your own mechanic perform the inspection.

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