Updated January 2019
You may have come across an car listing that says the vehicle in question has a rebuilt engine, but what does that mean, and should you still buy it?
An engine can wear to the point of being unable to perform adequately. At that stage, it must be taken apart and then put back together with new parts to replace the worn components. Tell tale signs of an engine that needs to be rebuilt include high oil consumption and white smoke coming from the tail pipe.
Rebuilding an engine is a detailed process that includes the cleaning and assessment of the short block, replacement of the piston rings, bearings or other components in addition to reconditioning of the cylinders in order to make sure the engine is in top shape. This can sometimes be a sign that the engine has experienced some wear and tear, though.
Where was it rebuilt?
Our expert for this article, Troy Snyder, is the chief operating officer of NADA Guides, a publication that follows the transaction prices of used cars. The folks at NADA Guides offer great insight into the value of used cars. “A rebuilt engine can be as good as the OEM one,” Snyder said. “Sometimes a rebuilt engine can maintain the original engine warranty.”
If you’re looking at a car with a rebuilt engine, he said that you should look at where the service was performed. “Certain organizations (like a dealership) are trusted to handle such a job,” she said. “If you go down to your regular mechanics shop there’s more risk involved.”
Even so, Snyder said vehicles with rebuilt engines aren’t necessarily something you should avoid. “I wouldn’t put a rebuilt engine in the same realm as a salvage title,” he said. A salvage title could have many underlying problems like flood damage or a serious accident history, while a car with a rebuilt engine has just one concern: the motor.
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So what should you do if the car you’re looking to buy has a rebuilt engine? “Every single used vehicle should have a pre-purchase inspection, especially when it comes to a rebuilt engine” he said. “You may be a car expert, but you should have a mechanic who has no interest in the transaction spend some time to go through the car bumper-to-bumper. He may find something that isn’t glaringly obvious that can pop up in a few thousand miles.”
Snyder also said a rebuilt engine isn’t necessarily a sign of abuse or overuse. He once owned a car that needed an engine rebuild after 20,000 miles. The service took place under warranty by the automaker and the engine is still covered under the original guarantee.
“Most of the reported rebuilds for cars with fewer than 120,000 miles are for high oil consumption,” said TrueDelta owner and creator Michael Karesh. TrueDelta shares the real-life reliability history of vehicles, reported by actual owners of the car. Karesh has a lot of data to sift through and sees whether a certain car is problematic when it comes to repairs and service. Reports also detail how old or worn a car is when problems arise and even how much to expect when it comes to a repair.
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The data at TrueDelta also shows that engine rebuilds are highly unusual at an early stage of ownership.
“I don’t see why anyone would be more concerned about these than the same model without a rebuilt engine” Karesh said. “Buyers should possibly be less concerned, as the new rings should prevent the problem [of high oil consumption].”
Context is one of the most important aspects in deciding whether you should buy a vehicle with a rebuilt engine or not. Consider how old or worn the car is and where the rebuild took place. If it happened after 120,000 miles or more, a rebuilt engine shouldn’t necessarily be surprising. A vehicle with fewer miles may still be covered under its factory warranty even if it has a rebuilt engine. Above all, be sure to get a pre-purchase inspection before buying any used car and get the details behind why the engine rebuild was performed.
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As a rule of thumb, we’d suggest buying certified pre-owned vehicles directly from the manufacturer or cars with a warranty from a reputable used car dealership. If you want to save a few bucks buying a car with a refurbished engine, this will at least ensure you have a certain amount of insurance should things go wrong. You should always ask for a certified vehicle history as well from a company like CarFax.
In conclusion, we’d say that older cars with rebuilt (or entirely replaced) engines are not uncommon. Should you come across one you are thinking about buying, you might want to take it to a trusted mechanic for a brief inspection before you buy. These engines might not last as long as one that hasn’t been rebuilt, though.
If it’s a newer vehicle or a vehicle with low miles and it has a rebuilt engine, we’d be very suspicious of the vehicle and would probably stay away.