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A car’s service records don’t matter

A reader asks if having a car's service records matters. The answer is more complex than you might think.


Welcome back to the mailbag. Someone is in the market, and they ask if car service records are that important. Maybe. Maybe not. As always, email me!


Mike, I am shopping for an E92 M3, and I am scared about a potential example. It’s a good price (I think), but it has incomplete service records. Does that matter? I do plan on getting the car inspected before I sign anything.

I see other examples with better records, but they all cost more. What should I do?

– Kevin


E92 M3
The E92 M3 is this particular topic, but used car rules apply to all.

Perhaps the headline of this article has already given away the answer, Kevin.

No, car service records don’t matter. Mostly. Let’s run through some scenarios.

1 – You have a full set of records. But who did the work?

The records for my 335i, sold on Cars & Bids.

The internet. You are reading this because of it. And, you can find cars to purchase that you’ve never even dreamed of. That’s the good news.

The bad news – you can find cars to purchase that you’ve never even dreamed of, and a stranger owned it before you. Did they give a shit?

Perhaps the paperwork shows that a specific car was always dealer-serviced, with a clean accident report and no issues whatsoever. But have you been to a dealer lately? They tend to stink, and it isn’t the master mechanic changing the oil or rotating the tires, it’s the 19-year-old texting his girlfriend in between that he “only kissed her friend once.”

Point here is, unless you know the shop doing the work, assume the worst – assume everyone is an idiot.

2 – You still need a PPI, and it could still lie

BMW G80 M3
A PPI at a reputable shop would be a good investment.

I endorse pre-purchase inspections if you can’t see the car in person yourself – it’s cheap insurance to help protect you before you pay a penny.

Thing is, unless that inspector plans on tearing apart the entire machine, it’s not fool-proof. I was reminded by this during a recent test of a supercharged E90 M3 (review coming). Matt, the owner, had paperwork stating that rod bearings were done, but when he took the car to his shop for an unrelated repair, the mechanic suggested to just drop the bottom and see what the bearings looked like.

Bearings – good. Bolts – unknown. Paperwork said ARP, but they didn’t look like them. He opted to replace everything to be safe.

How much would that service history be worth if Matt’s S65 decided it was time to visit engine heaven?

3 – How do you know the service record is “full”?

Not a YouTube tutorial in sight.

Sometimes, records are complete, but they aren’t.

What’s he typing about?

What I mean is simple. I took it upon myself to replace the spark plugs on my own E92. I purchased the parts from ECS tuning, kept the receipt, and did the work myself. Now, I am mechanically inclined enough to do the job, but what if someone bought the parts and never bothered to do it, even though they said they did?

Or, what if they didn’t know what they were doing? Ask if they own a torque wrench – and what the torque specs are for the bits they did themselves.

My favorite is, what aren’t they saying? For all you know, half the bolts inside the block could be stripped worse than Bubbles on a Saturday night, and you won’t know until you try and work on it. It’s a special feeling when the wrench just turns.

4 – Body by Bondo

J&B Bodyworks
Good body shops only pls.

Another omission could simply be from body shops.

Car gets hits, they bring it in and respray a bumper or pull out a ding. That’s probably okay, but it can get worse – this poor woman was killed because of negligence.

Make sure your PPI involved a paint meter to check depth, that any open recalls were performed, and that if there was body work done, check it was done correctly.

5 – Car service records can be useful to a point

The 335i did well, in part due to complete paperwork and my sterling reputation.

Take my G80 for example:

  • Dealer serviced
  • Taken to reputable shops for upgrades
  • Receipts for items purchased from reputable places like IND

When the time comes to sell it, those are points in its favor. Thus, if you are buying a car with records from a good shop, that can provide some peace of mind. Do some research on the car you intend to buy, know the good shops from the bad, and speak to other owners in the community. They know who’s good and who’s not.

So Kevin, if the E92 you’re looking at has some spotty history with gaps, it’s only natural that other examples with better history are more. It just depends on how much that history is worth to you.

Buying a used car is always a gamble

4 SaLe – NeEdS WuRk

You can look for some clues. When I go shopping for Talk Me Out Of It, I often see “tires with 20XX build date.” The rubber in tires can wear out from age, even if the car isn’t driven.

What does that mean? The belts could be dried up. Bushings might be bad – the list of rubber and plastic bits is endless.

Another fun one – PPF. You already know I think it’s a waste, but just because it’s on a car doesn’t mean it’s without damage. How’s the paint? Was it put on a brand new car, or after some time? Was it installed correctly, or could it be a headache down the road? This goes for wraps too.

Sometimes a PPI and service records can help answer these questions, but every time you buy a used car, any kind, there’s risk involved. So, my last bit of advice is…

Buy less car than you can afford

What a car is worth is ultimately up to you.

Did I type that right? Buy..less…car...yup, that’s what I mean.

If you can afford a $28,000 E92, buy one for $22,000. It’ll probably be in worse shape, but this will allow you some funding to fix something in case it breaks. If you buy a car up to the edge of your means, and it goes boom…not even Bubble’s tips can help you. Well, they can, but she’s stingy. Better to drive around in a car you love, but might not look cosmetically 100%, than to have a really nice car rotting in your driveway because you can’t afford to fix it.

To Kevin, and to everyone, I say not to be scared. Do your research, make sure it’s a car you really love (headaches will occur, so it’s best to be in love), and have someone you trust on standby in case it does break.

I promise, it’ll be worth it.

Want MWS to review your car?

If you live in the tri-state area and want me to check it out, send me an email! 

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