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Can a 10-Year-Old Used Car Still Be Reliable?

There are plenty of reasons you might consider buying a 10-year-old used car, but ultimately, nearly all of them boil down to budget.

Where money is an issue, you must walk that fine line between affordable and dependable. The bad news: Typically, the more affordable an older used car, the less dependable it is. But, you didn’t need us to tell you that. What you may need us to tell you, though, is you can find a reasonably reliable 10-year-old used car.

It’s not easy, but it is doable.

Note: None of this discussion applies to collector cars or other exotic vehicles. Here we are focused on meat-and-potatoes transportation. So, forget about quirky or image cars. That’s another discussion completely.

Is a 10-Year-Old Car Too Old?

More than half of a car’s original value evaporates in the first five years of ownership. Poof, it’s gone. A car doesn’t really stop depreciating until it hits that 10-year-old wall. So, the good news in your quest for that decade-old car is that the value that does remain will erode slowly.

As you work your way along a car’s age line (five years, seven years, and so on), the key question is, will the car cost more to keep running (repair costs) than it will depreciate? Although there are sources providing reliability estimates, it’s a roll of the dice more often than not.

When buying a used car that’s 10-years-old or older, your primary concerns are purchase price and reliability. Don’t pay more than that 10-year-old car is worth. And, pick a car with a solid reputation for dependability. No car is really too old if you follow those rules.

Finally, remember it costs more to maintain and fix certain makes of cars than others. Replacing the spark plugs in a 2001 Mercedes-Benz E-Class will cost more than in a 2001 Ford Taurus.

How to Research an Older Used Car

As with buying a new car, research is key when seeking out that ideal older used car. Here, you are faced with a chicken-or-egg dilemma. Do you first find makes and models scoring high in reliability, or do you find cars for sale in your price range then research their reliability?

Either method works, but leave no stone unturned. Use the internet liberally to surf reviews and owner forums for the vehicles you are considering. They are a good source of common problems and experiences with a make and model. But remember, no matter how terrific a specific model might be, there is always someone out there who hates it.

Determine the book value of any car you are considering. Check sites like Autotrader for reliability history and so forth. As your search narrows to a few candidates, obtain a history of them from a vehicle-history-report site like AutoCheck or Carfax.

Remember to ask for owner records, if available, to see how they maintained the vehicle. If someone regularly changed the oil in the car and took it in for auto repairs at regular intervals, this is another sign that the car is well-kept.

Create a Used Car Checklist 

Even an experienced hand at used car shopping can become a little excited when meeting a candidate car for the first time. It’s natural. But, the task in front of you is to go over the car with a fine-tooth comb.

One way to do that without overlooking anything is to create a checklist of items to review.

10 Important Items to Check When Buying a Used Car

  • Exterior: Look for dents and dings.
  • Tires: Check for uneven wear and tread depth.
  • Glass: Does the windshield or windows show any chips and cracks?
  • Trunk: Look for rust under the mat or carpet. Any rust could be a sign of moisture getting into the car.
  • Engine: Inspect for rust or oil leakage.
  • Headliner: Look at the ceiling of the car, or headliner, and investigate to see if it shows any tears or if it’s loose.
  • Seats: Check to see if the seats adjust properly and to your liking.
  • Upholstery: Inspect the upholstery in the car to see if it’s worn or torn. See if it has stains.
  • Windows: Investigate to see if the windows rise and lower smoothly.
  • Heating and air Conditioning: Does the air conditioning work, and is the air flowing properly? How about the heat?

And, so forth.

Should I Find a Mechanic to Inspect a Used Car?

You probably aren’t going to want to do it. But before making a purchase, ask a mechanic to perform an inspection. Even if things look fine to you, a professional opinion offers value. Sure, it adds a step to the process and may cost $150-$200. But it could save you a lot of money in the long run.

Jump on your browser and search “used car inspections near me.” There are even online services with mechanics who will come to the car.

In Summary

There are some decent, reliable 10-year-old used cars out there. But finding one requires serious digging. You might think twice if the car’s owner takes issue with you requiring an hour of looking it over, a test drive on a variety of roads, or an inspection by a mechanic.

There are loads of 10-year-old used cars on the market. Do a little more research and find another one.

Read More Used Car Buying Stories:

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published. Russ Heaps contributed to this report.

Doug Demuro
Doug Demuro
Doug DeMuro writes articles and makes videos, mainly about cars. Doug was born in Denver, Colorado, and received an economics degree from Emory University in Atlanta. After graduation, Doug spent three years working for Porsche Cars North America. Eventually, he quit his job to become a writer, largely because it meant that he no longer had to wear pants. Doug’s work has been featured in a... Read More about Doug Demuro

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