Buying a used vehicle instead of a new car is often a good way to save money and get more car for less cash. But if you're in the market for an older car, how many miles is too many?
You may find your ideal used car in your budget, only to realize it has well over 100,000 miles. Should you walk away? Is a vehicle with 100,000 miles automatically on its last legs?
Here's a look at just how many miles are too many when it comes to used cars.
When you look at two cars and everything else is equal, except one has 50,000 miles and the other has 150,000 miles, it seems reasonable to assume the low mileage vehicle is worth more, in better condition, and therefore is more desirable to purchase.
Are fewer miles enough to tip the scales in that vehicle's favor? It's not quite that simple when it comes to high-mileage cars. Not all miles are equal. A well-maintained vehicle with 100,000 miles might be in better shape overall than the same kind of car or truck with 50,000 miles that was a prior rental or had many owners and led a rough life.
A 70,000-mile car with five owners and incomplete maintenance history may be the same price as one with 100,000 miles with a single owner and all of its service records. The latter is probably the better choice and you'll likely spend less money on repairs during your ownership.
It's an absolute with a higher-mileage car to get a vehicle history report, such as those offered by Carfax and AutoCheck. Many dealers provide those for free. Those companies consider 15,000 miles per year to be the national average for a car. Therefore, if you're looking at a vehicle that is about 10 years old, it's not unreasonable for it to have 100,000 to 150,000 miles on it. If it has a lot more or a lot less, then you might want to do a further investigation as to why.
Good Condition and Maintenance Records
Mileage isn't the only thing to take into account when looking at a used car. The car's condition and how comprehensive the service records are can be invaluable indicators of whether a vehicle is a good purchase or not.
Start with the overall condition of a vehicle. A car that has been well taken care of should show it in both the interior and the exterior. Poorly maintained interiors and exteriors might indicate that the owner didn't put a lot of effort into keeping the vehicle in good shape.
Carefully maintained interiors and exteriors might show that the owner kept the car in good shape and probably also performed maintenance on schedule. This type of owner might also retain more thorough maintenance records, including what repairs were completed and when.
Also, research the service intervals for your chosen model to determine what each service includes at a specific interval. Finally, see if the vehicle has an existing warranty that may be transferable to you. Brands like Hyundai offer the original owner a hearty warranty and many elements of it can be transferred to future owners during its lifespan.
You can use these as a checklist when you talk to the owner and look over maintenance records. Internet sites and forums may also have a list of common problems for that specific vehicle, so be sure to ask the owner about these common problems.
How Many Miles Are Left?
Another consideration when looking at a high-mileage vehicle is to figure out how many miles are left.
For example, if you're looking at a car with 100,000 miles that's in good condition and from a brand whose vehicles are known to pass the 200,000-mile mark, then you could have as many as 100,000 miles left on that vehicle.
If you drive fewer than 10,000 miles per year, that could mean at least 10 years of life.
Not All High Mileage Vehicles Are Equal
In the end, some auto brands are more well-known than others for holding their value even with a high number of miles. Toyota and Honda are two brands with models that can go 200,000 or more miles with regular maintenance.
High scores from studies conducted by publications such as Consumer Reports and J.D. Power usually conclude owners of Toyota or Honda owners with over 100,000 miles have several trouble-free years. That's also why those brands generally command more money on the used market than others with similar mileage.
Toyota still has plenty of Tacoma trucks, 4Runner SUVs, and Camry sedans on the road with over 100,000 miles and many over 200,000 miles.
Toyota enthusiasts will tell you that 100,000 miles is just getting started. In a recent study, Toyota had six of the ten models most likely to see the 200,000-mile mark, while GM had three and Ford had one.
Similarly, Honda and Subaru boast that plenty of their cars, like the Accord, Civic, and Outback, have an extremely high percentage of examples still on the road.
Commuter cars may have high miles but they often have less wear and tear than similar vehicles with the same miles but used primarily for city driving.
On the other hand, a sedan that started out as a rental car will likely have had a much rougher life than the average car that's been owned privately.
Not All Low Mileage Vehicles Are Equal
There can be too few miles on a car as well. A vehicle driven only a couple thousand miles per year is different than a car driven a couple of thousand miles in its entire existence.
Proper lubrication of engine and transmission components requires movement. Even a car that has been started and run every week and had regular oil changes, but parked for a long time, may have seals and other parts that have been compromised or need total replacement immediately.
If a car hasn't been driven enough with fuel still in the system, it can lead to costly repairs.
An extremely low-mileage car like those in famous stories of people finding a classic car in a barn is likely to have more problems than a well-maintained vehicle with 100,000 miles.
Extreme Examples of High Mileage
Though fewer than 1% of cars make it to the 200,000-mile mark, a few examples of vehicles make it much further, with little more than good maintenance practices.
In 2016, Toyota took in a 2007 Tundra pickup that accumulated just over 1,000,000 in just under 10 years of ownership. The owner piled on around 125,000 per year driving across the country.
When the owner brought it to a Toyota car dealership, it caught the attention of the automaker. Toyota offered the owner a new truck for his old car, and he agreed. The automaker's engineers then took the old truck apart to see why it was so long-lasting.
The "Guinness World Records" example for the highest-mileage car belongs to Irv Gordon's 1966 Volvo P1800. Not necessarily known for being an extremely reliable model, this car has piled up over 3,000,000 miles. That is an obvious outlier, and no one should expect ever to reach this much mileage. But it proves that with the appropriate commitment to maintenance, a vehicle can last decades.
That Volvo required a great deal of regular maintenance, including an engine rebuild, but the engine block and transmission were all original. Though it wasn't his first car, Irv did purchase the Volvo brand new in 1966, and his careful maintenance allowed the vehicle to outlive him. Irv Gordon died shortly after at 77, with his Volvo P1800 still in road-worthy condition.
What Kills Cars?
There are a few things that prevent cars from reaching high levels of mileage. Rust, accidents, and breakdowns can all end the life of a vehicle prematurely.
But these issues all boil down to the exact root cause. When the cost of maintaining or repairing a car approaches that vehicle's resale value, it no longer makes financial sense to pay more to keep a car running than to buy a newer, more reliable vehicle if that's what they really want.
Used Car Shopping Tips
Ultimately, car buyers can't always take mileage on a used vehicle at face value. There are far too many additional factors to consider than simply the numbers on the odometer. Following are some crucial tips when shopping for a used car:
You'll likely get more information and a better deal if you buy from a private seller, especially if you have cash.
Always look for as many flaws as possible when you test drive and inspect the car; use them as negotiating points, especially with dealers. Lower prices based on these flaws limit your risk and reserve a little money for possible repairs.
Look into the car's history. Ask questions and try to obtain service records or receipts. Check for recalls on sites like Mopar and get a vehicle history report from a place like Carfax or AutoCheck if you're seriously interested in a specific car, as these will show how many owners the vehicle has had, and likely a paper trail of maintenance and repair records.
Make sure to thoroughly research the make and model before shopping, so you know what kind of issues to look for and what services should have been done on it at specific mileages.
A common type of service that is neglected is the timing belt replacement, which for many vehicles is required around 100,000 miles. It's a relatively expensive job, so replacement included on the service history is a good sign.
Get the vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic before you consider purchasing it.
If you're concerned about high mileage, research your chosen vehicle and find out how many miles you can expect to get if it's well-maintained. Further, ask the owner what kind of miles were put on the vehicle, such as city or highway miles.
How to Maximize the Life of Your Vehicle
Once you have purchased your new vehicle, there are a few ways to make sure you get the most mileage under your ownership. Deliberately selecting a well-cared-for car means nothing if you don't continue the same proper care and maintenance into the future. There are a few easy things you can do to extend the trouble-free life of your vehicle.
Avoiding accidents is a significant component of keeping your car on the road. Modern cars with active driver assistance features, like automated braking, can help avoid and prevent accidents. Avoiding distractions while driving, such as putting away your phone, can also limit crashes.
But it's also worth looking at the history of repairs done by reputable shops. Systems like airbags, seatbelts, and those advanced driver assistance features need to be correctly reinstalled for them to work correctly again.
In certain parts of the country, particularly the Midwest, harsh winter conditions require chemical ice melt to be applied to road surfaces. These chemicals can cause significant rust, taking cars off the road in what should be prime years.
Avoid corrosion by washing the vehicle regularly, including thoroughly rinsing the undercarriage and suspension components. Washing your car is part of proper maintenance.
Stick to the maintenance schedule as described in the owner's manual for your vehicle. Change the oil, inspect and change consumable parts like brake pads, and complete major maintenance like timing belt services on time.
These tasks cost money, but it is much cheaper to maintain a vehicle than to pay repair bills caused by neglect. One worn component causes a cascading effect of damage to other parts, resulting in higher repair bills.
Generally, take it easy on your vehicle. When possible, avoid hitting potholes or curbs. Allow the vehicle to get up to operating temperature before any hard acceleration. Towing or other hard driving can accelerate the maintenance schedule, particularly for transmission maintenance, so check your owner's manual for information.
Modern cars are capable of pretty impressive feats, don't push your car too far too often, and it will be less likely to let you down.
Take all dashboard warning lights seriously. If your vehicle's diagnostic control system is telling you to check or service the engine, resolve the issue immediately. Do not assume that because the car is operating normally, it does not need a repair.
Develop a relationship with a mechanic. It is hard to find a good mechanic, so ask around before you need major service or repair. Find out where your friends or family take their vehicles and how their experience has been.
Test drive your mechanic with a minor repair or maintenance service to validate your research. When your car is out of commission, it is far less stressful to take it to your regular garage than to hunt for a mechanic after the fact.