Vehicle Buying and Selling Lesson #223: What Is A One-Owner Car?

February 1, 2011

People have a tendency to oversell their vehicles in online listings. Seeing words like “beautiful” or “rare” for something ugly and mass-produced is roughly as common as a Charlie Sheen rehab stint.

What gets me, though, is when sellers exhibit a total disregard for accepted terminology. Even worse, most tend to advertise the improper use of said terms by immediately following with conflicting explanations or caveats, leading prospective buyers to wonder why it’s worth dealing with the seller at all.

For instance, here’s an eBay listing I recently read:

You are bidding on what is essentially a one owner Triumph TR 2 short door. Original engine with O/D transmission upgraded back in the 50’s. I purchased it from the owner who had the car from 56 to 2003, he bought it next to new, so there was brief ownership by either dealer or private owner for less then a year. I have all the mechanical maintenance notes from the owner from 56 to the late 90’s, at which time due to age, he slowed down on maintaining the vehicle himself.

This description is laughable. The seller claims this is “essentially a one owner Triumph”, then immediately details that it’s had three owners. The seller doesn’t count himself as an owner, despite having the car for nearly eight years, which eclipses the national averages for both new and used car retention.

Defining “One Owner Vehicle”: A car, truck, motorcycle, or similar vehicle that has been in the same family user group since it was purchased brand new. A car does not need its original title, because moving from state-to-state requires a new title.

When a car is purchased — by a private party, broker or dealer, the car is no longer a one-owner vehicle. Even if it is a curbstoner (an unlicensed dealer or broker) who buys the car then chooses not to change the title before finding a person to whom they can resell, they still count as an owner. Additionally, most states consider this tax evasion.

Where the definition gets into a gray area is when it comes to cars passed between family members. While some might claim that a car has to be in the same name as originally titled, others allow a one-owner car to extend to inclusion of one that has been passed from original buyer to children or grandchildren, especially if they were among the original users of the car when new. For instance, my father bought a new ’86 Dodge 600ES Turbo Convertible as 50th birthday present to himself. I drove it from new on weekends, as did my brother, who got the car when he graduated college in 1991. When he replaced the Dodge with a new car in 1999, I took the car. It has been titled in two states under three names, but all by people who drove it when it still had the new car smell. Furthermore, the car has never sold — rather transferred under state family-gift allowances for the purposes of identifying primary insurance responsibilities. Is it a one-owner car? Probably not by the strictest definition, but it certainly falls under one-family-owned car.

The description of one-owner is intended to increase value. At the end of the day, though, it shouldn’t… and usually doesn’t. After all, why pay a premium for something that is immediately lost once it is paid for? (Creepy sex addicts need not write in with their arguments on this question.)

It is far more important that previous owners, no matter how many there were, took care of the vehicle.