How to buy a used BMW 5 series.

The BMW 5 series is one of the nicest medium sized 5 seat sedans you can buy as a used car.

From the E34 onwards the 5 series has been a bargain second-hand for those who learn how to select the right car. Many can be bought optioned up to the hilt. Wealthy buyers who did not mind putting out a few more grand for the executive model or other option packages were a big slice of the market for these cars for many years and across several series. Many of these cars are still in pristine condition because the car has been on a maintenance contract or at least had regular dealership services performed on time throughout it's life.

There is a valid reason for this.

BMW options are well made and assembled, unlike many after-market accessory packs from other makers. The big question is which model of the 5 series to buy and why?

Many luxury model 5 and 7 series have electric seats and other comforts such as heated steering wheel and mirrors, massage and or heated seats and many more options.

The BMW 5 series has always been a well made car, despite having a few design faults that BMW have sprinkled fairly evenly across the whole range of their models, but I tell you about them on another BMW hub I have written, and will repeat them here or use a link as I develop this hub.

A late model 5 series.
A late model 5 series.

Some very basic truths about the 5 series.

  • The steel alloys and metallurgy are brilliantly good in all engine and drive-train components. The drive-train has always been better engineered and smoother than most of the competition with few exceptions such as Porsche.
  • When purchased new the 5 series has always carried a premium price tag. (apart from the base model price in some countries in Europe where they have always been remarkably well priced against other European contenders.)
  • Compared to new price, a used BMW is a great bargain especially if you buy a highly optioned 5 series.
  • Many of the 5 series came with big motors, performance, safety and comfort options, yet earlier used cars that have every option available are priced the same or similar to their much cheaper models that looked like a European Taxi inside, with cloth seats and no wood trim, electric seats, or full onboard computer.
  • There are plenty of highly optioned 5 series for sale, as the options were remarkably useful and desirable to the many well heeled new BMW buyers.
  • Many of the luxury models that are for sale have an impeccable service record plus the computer service record to back it up.
  • The sheer quality of the used BMW 5 series is a great reason to buy one. You will rarely see one with a worn motor or transmission as they will, if properly maintained, do a very high mileage without showing signs of engine or transmission wear.
  • They also drop their guts at incredibly low mileage by both engine and transmission failure because of faults that were not repaired by recall.

The reason you can buy an immaculate high performance peace of superb engineering so damn cheap, is that people are terrified of all these failures.

The problems associated with the BMW range can be found to originate at the dealership in many cases. Most BMW dealerships notified their customers of all recalls, then carried out the replacement of faulty parts free and efficiently.

Others were out of their depth when it came to replacing cylinder heads on the sixes, and rebuilding the very complex gearbox on the 5 series, resulting in a cycle of problems that resulted in the car being repaired many more times before the problem is solved to the owners satisfaction. Other owners with legitimate problems have run in to a brick wall and got no help at all.

What you need to do is avoid all the cars that have been disassembled 30 times for the same repair, by third rate mechanics. BMW cars are beautifully made, but not easy to work on, as the engine and gearbox are designed to last a very long time indeed, so pulling a motor or gearbox out is a full days work for two highly paid and trained specialists in a workshop with a quality four post hoist with two jacking stands, or on a free span 4 ton hoist, because the vehicle weight distribution will vary wildly when the motor and or transmission are removed and replaced and the larger hoist is safer.

The E34 5 series.
The E34 5 series.
5 series interior
5 series interior

Why a 5 series?

From the early box shaped BMW 5 onwards the 5 series BMW has always been a drivers car. No matter how ordinary the early model looked, it went well, which is surprising considering it's weight!

In later models BMW put a lot more effort in to losing weight in some areas such as suspension by moving to more sophisticated alloys in components, only to add most of it again with more airbags and assisted driving devices like ABS, steering assist and a locked differential.

Heavy sound insulation materials are used extensively across the engine firewall and hood, the carpets are very good quality as are the door linings, dashboard and roof lining. They also have larger protrusion bars in the doors, with heavy glass to maintain the edge in driver and passenger pleasure and safety in many of the later models.

So despite being a bit heavy the 5 series is a fine package of established engineering excellence.

By the time the E34 body style with the rounded "Bertone" look came out, the world knew that BMW had made a real winner, with it's understated aerodynamic shape and tight fitting panels, it was , not unlike the Alfa Romeo Veloce styled by Bertone, ageless.

The E34 beauty can still be seen in all BMW shapes right up to the latest model and even on their 4WD vehicles.

You should be able to buy a top class BMW 5 series without anything more than your good common sense and the little bit you learn here.

The rules to remember when buying a used 5 series BMW.

  • Only buy used 5 series with impeccable service records
  • Without accident damage.
  • With very low mileage.

Why? Because you can! There are plenty of good cars to choose from in this market. If you ignore this rule you will most likely buy one of the thousands of lemons floating around the market, being sold time after time, every owner wasting thousands on what is a very bad motor vehicle, and a complex one at that.

What to look out for.

  • The engine must be totally clean and free from any oily marks. The underside of the engine and transmission bone dry and dusty.

If it isn't don't ask why, just move on to the next car. This one has not been sorted during recalls and will have problems with many other components in all likelihood. It may need a head gasket or rocker cover gasket, but either problem results in oil loss between services and is not only a sign of bad maintenance but also that it missed the recall.

This vehicle will need a new motor, not a cylinder head.

At some time it will have run low on oil, as once the problem of leaking was not solved when the vehicle was recalled or it missed the recall.

  • The motor should be clean enough to eat off. Again if it is simply a leak from the brake master cylinder reserve, or the power steering pump reservoir this still indicates that proper servicing has not taken place so the rule is, don't try to be an expert when there is no need to be, simply leave it alone.
  • The transmission and drive train must be completely vibration free, as tail-shaft balancer units are expensive to repair and this will usually be the problem with the early models if you find a slight vibration from about 40 mph onwards. Expensive to repair and difficult to get right as a unit, leave it for someone else to try to fix it, you may not get it right, many haven't even after spending $1,700 on parts alone.
  • The engine should idle smoothly enough to balance a coin on edge without it falling on the later model motors and all but those early motors which had hot cams.
  • Any rough running at idle even when dead cold is a sign of something a lot more expensive than a tune up in many cases. This is a complex area, and you may be told it only needs a tune up. Don't believe it. If the thing is less than pristine, leave it there, as the market is full of good one owner low mileage gems. I have a good friend of long standing who specialises in high end used BMW car sales, Start any of his many cars and you can balance a coin on the running engine of all of them.
  • The transmission should drive like a new car, with no backlash or "clunk" from 1st to reverse when stationary. A well serviced and maintained drive train will still be smooth even with very high mileage. If the drive train has been maintained BMWs do not show transmission backlash and should not "pull" excessively in either direction when you change the auto or manual from drive quickly through neutral to reverse and back, even if the car has done over 300,000 miles. The ones that are worn are down to bad preventative maintenance. For example the manual may have been crunched in to gear after some fool has worn the clutch out prematurely and the gearbox winds up wearing all the clutch problem. No matter how good a clutch is, if it is misused long enough it will curl up and die.

(A friend has a much loved 1992 5 series he purchased new. It is a 535 with the works, and with 630,000 miles on the clock, drives like a new car. He has a great dealership and has never missed a recall or a service.)

  • All electrics should be in perfect order including electric windows (can be expensive to repair) Bad electrics or slow window motors indicate poor servicing, as the motors are well up to the job providing the window slide rails are kept perfectly aligned and lubricated
  • Watch out for body damage if just one electric window is slow to wind. It may indicate that the car has been hit in that door and the window guide rails do not line up properly.
  • Take a look along the sides of the car in sunlight to ensure the panels fit perfectly and that there is no "orange peel" appearance of the paint.
  • Service books detailed must be complete, detailed and up to date.

Congratulations! If you found a car that fulfils the criteria above, you can become another satisfied BMW 5 series owner!

More by this Author

Comments 24 comments

Hello, hello, profile image

Hello, hello, 6 years ago from London, UK

Great write-up about a beautiful car including all the technical data.

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 6 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

Thank you my friend! I am on a roll writing about one of my favourite BMW models... the great M5.

autopart1 6 years ago

Hi friend i see your hub this is nice. If you want a best used transmission

please visit our side...........

Paul Bertholet 5 years ago

You failed to mention that some of the older 535's with the manual tranny(mine's a 1990) have a lumpy idle, and are tuned that way for top-end performance...this was before variable valve technology. There is no way you can balance a coin on my engine when at idle.

Nicky Smart profile image

Nicky Smart 5 years ago from United Kingdom

Great write-up about a beautiful car including all the technical data.

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

Agreed Paul. If a motor has a performance cam angle and no VVT it will idle rough almost by necessity. Very hard to run the mixture right at idle with a lumpy cam.

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

Thanks Nicky, The 5 series is a magic car to drive. I'm glad you noticed the tech. I have spent a fair amount of time working on BMs.

TahoeDoc profile image

TahoeDoc 5 years ago from Lake Tahoe, California

I miss my 2000 M5. Maintenance and upkeep killed me, tires, clutch, brakes...all super expensive, which was ok before I had kids. Now they get all the toys. :) Nice hub.

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

I can understand you missing the M5. The thing with the M5 was that you could drive it sedately as a family car, or you could use it the way it was designed to be used.

If used hard, they go like hell, but as you have noticed, they eat a few consumables such as brakes, tires etc.

It sounds like you used yours and enjoyed it to the full

TahoeDoc profile image

TahoeDoc 5 years ago from Lake Tahoe, California

Totally enjoyed it! I bought it used but it was in pretty good shape. I drove it about 80 miles a day for 3 years through the desert- fun. My colleagues would shake their head and say mine was the only one that ever had a car seat in it (after my 1st son was born). Most people had no idea what the "M" meant ;) It was a bit of a challenge going from that to a capable but underpowered SUV when I moved to the mountains.

I sold it to a surgeon when I moved who, I believe, has finished it off by now racing and such.

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

I bet you did! Everyone should drive an M5 at least once in their life! I'm betting that you have had a bag of fun in three years on desert roads.

I'm glad it found a home with someone to race it. Racing an M5 will make it feel right at home. Nice!

used BMW Stevens Creek 5 years ago

Thanks for your nice information. I'm really satisfied after reading a good details here. Soon, I'm going to buy one used BMW car.

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

It looks like you may have some already!

Karen 5 years ago

Ps do not forget to mention the one 5 to stay away from is the 540. They are known for there many problems. And is a maintenance hog. I am a BMW girl myself. But part of the reason we love our Beamers is that we love our service guy. He is always honest with us and does not try to get us to do extra.

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

Well thanks Karen, looks like you already have!

I love the 540 despite it's many problems. The biggest problem is it's complexity. That is a lot of horsepower to deliver efficiently.

I know one of my old customers has one he sorted himself before it developed any major problems. He knows them well as you must unless you own a bank!

With this model one must keep an eye on the preventative maintenance. Servicing should be done religiously.

ScottB 5 years ago

I found your hub very informative, thank you. I had owned a 2003 M3 convertible that I loved so much but with twin girls I had to sell. It is time to look for another BMW and I have been looking at used 530's that are priced great. I keep wondering what's wrong with the car when its priced under 12k for 2002-2004 model years. Should I be concerned with anything around 110k miles?



earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

Not apart from the usual things such as hidden accident damage if, and this is the big if... it has had any recalls attended to properly and has a flawless service history with all the little things attended to, such as window runners and body channels kept clean.

I would expect you will find dozens of pristine cars in the 530 series as they were not cheap and the choice of many enthusiasts.

If it was sorted new, is one owner and has all history, the computer has not been tampered with it will be the huge bargain it looks like!

I have seen perfect cars like these sold for peanuts, and as you know, they are a true delight to drive.


ScottB 5 years ago

Thank you,

howcurecancer profile image

howcurecancer 5 years ago

Awesome hub!

earnestshub profile image

earnestshub 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia Author

Thank you. I am trying to make full use of my time spent learning this stuff and repairing BMWs.

I also wanted to give my readers the inside running.. I am happy so many people have found it useful.

5 years ago


Spinne 4 years ago

Thanks for the quality content. I'm in the market for a 2002-03 530i with a manual transmission, (budget is $15k or less) and am wondering if there's any to check on the recall issue you mention; e.g. a way to see by VIN with the dealer if the necessary work was done in a timely fashion. Thanks for your help.

Cliff Wilson 2 years ago

I know this post is forever old, but I am a broke college student who loves an old classic e34 5 series. I am looking to get a 530i for about 2500. No mechanical issues and the recalls were done. However, it wasn't owned by one owner and it has 155,001 miles on it. Any further advice?

mattdigiulio profile image

mattdigiulio 2 years ago

Hi there, great great work. Upvoted. My favorite car of all time is the E39 M5. Someday I'd like to have one just to look at. Your hub is bookmarked on my side, as a good reference point when that day to buy comes. - Matt

    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article