How Important Is Mileage When Buying a Car?

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Shoppers often rely on a vehicle’s mileage to get a quick idea how far along it is in its lifespan. While this may seem like a sensible and easy way to appraise the condition of a car, there’s more to the story than just mileage. In fact, the right high-mileage car will likely serve you better than an older vehicle with fewer miles on the odometer.

When Age Matters More Than Miles

Vehicle age is important. There’s a reason why factory warranties feature expiration dates determined by both mileage and age.

For instance, depending on where you live, the effects of your environment can play a huge role in determining your car’s expected lifespan. Harsh weather conditions can compound the wear on a vehicle over several years. During rough winters, constant moisture and road salt will damage any car. In a hot environment, the sun can deteriorate a car’s exterior finish, rubber components, and interior surfaces. Regardless of mileage, a car with rust or sun damage is expensive to rejuvenate and may be less reliable over time.

Old age can also lead to worn-out interiors, dented and scratched exteriors, and a stressed engine and chassis, regardless of how many miles the vehicle has covered. When shopping for a used car, always consider the physical condition of the vehicle and look for any signs of rough use.

Low Mileage Doesn’t Mean Worry-Free

In the United States, the average driver covers about 13,500 miles per year. Typically, vehicles that have this degree of mileage likely saw regular use and experienced substantial highway driving (where the least wear occurs and the most miles accumulate). Vehicles that are substantially under this average may have been sitting in storage or used in stop-and-go, short-trip environments—both of which can negatively affect a car’s long-term reliability. If you’re in the market for a used car and come across a suspiciously low-mileage car—for instance, one that has been driven only 5,000 miles per year—proceed with caution.

That isn’t to say that high-mileage cars are always a safer bet than low-mileage ones. High mileage does have its consequences: There is inescapable usage-based wear related to the distance a car has been driven. While its cosmetic condition may be good, the more the wheels turn and the engine runs, the more wear the car’s powertrain will experience. Fortunately, most modern cars will be trouble-free for over 100,000 miles.

Occasional-use cars like sports cars and collector cars are especially at risk for problems that come from lack of use or sitting. Batteries die over time, tires slowly lose pressure, and the metal surfaces on the brakes and inside the engine can slowly oxidize. Be sure to check for these problems when shopping for a used car.

Maintenance Matters

Used cars will sometimes come with maintenance records that were either kept by the original owner, are part of the vehicle history report, or are in the database at the dealership that serviced the car. All this information is just as important as mileage when it comes to understanding the car’s condition. See our article on the car maintenance schedule you should follow to learn more.

Assuming it’s from a moderate climate, a well-maintained, late-model vehicle with high mileage is almost always a better option than an older, low-mileage vehicle from a harsh climate and with an unknown maintenance history.

Always Check the Vehicle History Report

Accident repairs can affect the long-term reliability of a car’s mechanical components and cosmetic appearance. A vehicle history report will also give an indication as to where the vehicle lived. Based on that data, you can determine what sort of climate the car was likely exposed to. Avoiding extreme climates, if possible, may yield a better-condition car.

A low-mileage vehicle with an accident in its history may be riskier than a high-mileage car with a clean record.

The Bottom Line

Mileage may seem like the easy way to discover a car's condition. After all, mileage heavily influences used-car prices. But considering the other measurements of a vehicle’s condition, such as its age and maintenance history, and investing in a vehicle history report could reveal that the lowest-mileage car may not be the best deal.

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