Electric Car Buying Guide

By Zac Estrada

An increasing amount of drivers are turning to electric vehicles as a viable mode of daily transportation. And while the number of drivers who've flocked to plug-in cars has fallen short of the White House's goal of one million by 2015, that doesn't mean there aren't reasons to consider one. Here are some of the points that should be on your list when considering a new or used EV.

Electric Cars vs. Plug-In Hybrids

The big names in this game are still the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt. Both on sale since late 2010, the Leaf is a full EV while the Volt is a plug-in hybrid – meaning it's good for about 20-30 miles of electric-only range before a 1.4-liter gas engine works as a generator to power the electric motor for another 300-or-so miles.

Then there are other, less-common models to consider such as the Toyota Prius Plug-In, Ford Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi, Ford Focus Electric, Fiat 500e, BMW i3, Smart ForTwo Electric Drive, Chevy Spark EV and, of course, the Tesla Model S. Save for the Tesla, most of these are restricted by region, so if you live somewhere other than California you may run into availability issues.

Electric Car Incentives

When new, most people will qualify for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500. The maximum amount applies to cars that have a battery pack the government deems appropriate for an EV, so some plug-in hybrids like the Volt and the i3 Range Extender also qualify. Models like the C-Max Energi and Prius Plug-in, among others, get a reduced credit.

Leases are also widely subsidized for EVs, so if you're willing to have a car payment for 24 or 36 months, a lease could be a cheap way to get into one of these cars. Note, however, that if you take advantage of one of these leases subsidized with a tax credit, you might not be able to write that lease off on your tax return.

And incentives also vary by model. Manufacturers are throwing out sizable incentives to dealers to get some of these models moving. As of this writing, most of the 2015 Fiat 500e models come with upwards of $2,000 cash back, and the Cadillac ELR plug-in has been known to be marked down as much as $20,000 by some dealers.

Used vs. New

The incentives may tip the scale between new and used. Buying or leasing a new EV may make the most sense with the heavy discounts. But those discounts also hurt resale value, as evidenced by the hefty depreciation experienced by some models.

A quick search in California through the Carfax Used Car Listings shows plenty of 2011 Nissan Leafs with fewer than 50,000 miles for between $11,000 and $13,000 – or roughly a third of what they cost new. Even 2015 models go for about $10,000 less than they sticker new. Chevy Volts aren't as cheap and tend to have higher mileage, but finding a 2011 or 2012 under $20,000 isn't too difficult.

Teslas don't depreciate as quickly as other models, but there are some out there on the used market for somewhat of a savings over a brand new one – and without the wait.

Charging Options

Think about where you're going to charge your car. For most of these cars, charging the battery from empty to full with the standard 110-volt charger takes at least 24 hours. Depending on where you live, Level 2, 240-volt public chargers are popping up and can cut that charge time as little as three or four hours. And some models are equipped with fast chargers that can provide a charge in as little as 30 minutes. If you own a Tesla, you can take advantage of that company's Supercharger network with wider availability.

Check out sites like Chargepoint to find out where you can plug in near home or in your travels, and how much it's going to cost. Chargepoint and NRG eVgo make you sign up, too, so there are some additional fees.

Cost of Ownership

If you install a Level 2 charger at your own home, you could have to factor in at least $1,000 to buy the charger and have it installed. In most cases, you need to get a permit as well as hire an electrician to do the job correctly. Some manufacturers subsidize the cost of the Level 2 charger, but only if you buy new. Check with your power provider to see if there are other incentives or rebates, because installation is something to factor in when penciling out what an EV will cost you.

Yes, a full electric car has fewer moving parts to go wrong than a traditional, combustion-engined car. But there are still brake pads to change, tires to tend to and other fluids that need to be checked. Go to a dealership and expect to pay main dealer prices.

Battery warranties typically last for at least eight years, and you may need to budget for a replacement if you plan to hang on to your EV after the warranty has expired. In 2014, Green Car Reports discovered that a Nissan Leaf battery would cost $5,500 to replace and install.