“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.
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…).
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.
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.
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.