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Car Buying

Buying a Used Car: Does Mileage Matter?

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author photo by Josh Sadlier May 2014

You may be blissfully unaware, but an endless debate rages among used-car watchers over the significance of low mileage. Some say it's the current condition that really matters, while others rejoin that if a car doesn't have low mileage, it's not worth buying at all. If you're buying a used car, it's crucial that you understand the arguments on both sides. Follow along with our in-house experts as they explain the pros and cons of low-mileage used cars.

Pros:

Less Wear and Tear

We want to stress that this is only theoretically true; even a car with very low mileage can turn out to be a total beater if it hasn't been cared for properly. But all else being equal, lower miles mean you can expect a longer life from most components, which helps keep ownership costs down. Also, many cars have transmissions that are known to go south around a certain mileage, for example, or oil leaks that start cropping up when the odometer hits six figures. The lower your initial mileage, the longer you have till you hit those not-so-magic numbers.

Higher Resale Value

If you expect to sell the car at some point, resale value is an important consideration, and nothing props up that value like low mileage. Just take a look at some of our classified ads; almost every seller advertises low mileage, even when that's obviously not the case. Here's the best way to think about it: If you buy a car with very low miles, it'll still have low miles a few years down the road. Accordingly, you might be able to sell it for around the same price you paid, or possibly at a profit if you made a really good deal in the first place. That's less likely to happen with a higher-mileage car, unless it has such a golden reputation for reliability (e.g., older Toyota Land Cruisers) that the market considers miles largely irrelevant.

Cons:

Cars Like to Be Driven

The biggest problem with older low-mileage cars is that they haven't had much exercise. Cars are full of plastic and rubber parts that tend to get brittle if they're not used regularly, and drivetrain components are definitely happier when they have hot fluids coursing through them on a consistent basis. In other words, as attractive as those low miles may be, they can also foreshadow big-bucks repairs and reconditioning. In some cases, the car might never run quite right despite your mechanic's repeated efforts. For this reason, we suggest cross-shopping that low-mileage older car with a higher-mileage specimen, especially one that's a few years newer. Assuming it has a robust maintenance history and drives well, it could actually be a better long-term bet in terms of running costs. Bottom line? Low miles aren't always your friend, and newer often means better, even if the miles are considerably higher.

Inflated Pricing

The flip side of the second pro (higher resale value) is that it costs more -- sometimes a lot more -- to get into a low-mileage used car. Now, as noted, if you're planning to keep the miles low once you own the car, you might get most or all of your initial money back when you sell it, particularly if the car has a strong following. But if you're looking for a daily driver that's going to serve you for many years, what's the real difference between, say, 30,000 miles and 60,000 miles? Or 60,000 miles and 90,000 miles? The more you drive, the less significant these gaps become, so it may be counterproductive to pay that low-mileage premium up front. If you're saving thousands before you even put a single mile on the car, you have a great head start on unscheduled repairs.

AutoTrader Says

Low-mileage used cars can be very seductive, but keep your eyes on the prize: namely, buying a used car that's the best all-around fit for your wants and needs.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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Buying a Used Car: Does Mileage Matter? - Autotrader