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How Many Miles Should a Used Car Have?

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Those looking to buy a pre-owned car can’t help but wonder how many miles a used car should have.

It’s an especially important question now, as competition for used cars grows. Used car franchise dealers sold 40 million pre-owned cars in 2018, up from about 36 million in 2013, for an average price of about $20,080, according to Edmunds’ Senior Consumer Advice Editor Matt Jones.

“If you had asked me that question 10-12 years ago, I would have said you don’t want a car past 80,000 miles,” Jones said. “That’s not true anymore.”

Automotive engineering and manufacturing have improved at a rapid pace in recent years. This resulted in car owners driving cars long after the odometer registers from 100,000 to 150,0000 miles, said Jones.

Car shoppers are savvy and want the most for their money, so they spend around 14 hours researching a used car before buying, according to a recent report by Auto Dealer Today. In fact, many customers arrive at car dealers’ lots better informed than the salespeople.

“If somebody is looking for everyday transportation, 80,000, 90,000 or 100,000 miles no big deal,” said Jones. “The key is to have the car inspected prior to purchase. But there is no hard and fast rule [about mileage] anymore because cars are becoming more sophisticated and they can last far longer than they used to.”

Still, Jones draws the line at recommending cars that have hit the 150,000-mile mark, unless the driver will only take occasional trips with them.

Whatever the car’s model year or mileage, Jones recommends that a buyer have a vehicle inspected before they sign on the dotted line. He urged would-be buyers to search online for a mechanic certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). Mechanics with those certifications have completed extensive on-the-job training, received degrees, and must retake and pass tests every two years to keep their certifications.

So, really, how many miles should a used car have?

Like any other product, all cars are not created equal. While Jones’ advice is an excellent rule of thumb, smart used car buyers will consider many different factors beyond mileage before they buy, he said.

First, of course, is the reputation of the car brand based in part on how it’s built. Anytime you buy a car you want to check reliability ratings. Edmunds no longer publishes reliability reviews, but suggests that prospective buyers check the ratings offered by J.D. Power & Associates.

Take a Tesla for example. As Jones points out, it has fewer moving parts than a conventional vehicle, but Teslas are widely reported to have problems related to their electronic and battery powered parts. As they age, batteries hold less charge, and that can be a problem if you are purchasing a used Tesla.

That’s why it’s essential to research used car histories in several ways.

In addition to J.D. Power reports, you should search for reviews from car owners and experts. Know that car owners will be implicitly biased, so take consumer reviews with a grain of salt. Consumer Reports also has a dependable research site, though it is restricted to members.

Don’t stop there, added Jones. He suggested looking online for a mechanic that will inspect the car and offer an assessment of a specific used car’s reliability.

“The key is to have the car inspected prior to purchase,” said Jones. “The more miles a car has the less expensive it will be. Cars are better than they used to be, but you still need to have them checked out. They’re living longer. They’re more reliable.”

How to find a great used car with low miles

  1. If you shop at a used car dealer, consider Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) cars. Only cars that are in the best condition qualify for such ratings. Dealers thoroughly inspect and recondition CPO vehicles, offer extended warranties, low-interest financing, free maintenance and other extras. Still, CPO benefits vary among manufacturers, so do your research.  Cars that had frame or other significant damage are not eligible for CPO designations, said Jones.
  2. Obtain a car history. The best way to do so is to request a report based on the car’s 17-digit Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). Many used car dealers routinely offer such reports to prospective buyers. If you buy a vehicle from a private seller or even a dealership, but you can quickly obtain one for free online from sites including the National Insurance Crime Bureau. For more detailed information you will likely have to pay to obtain a vehicle history report from a provider like Carfax or Autocheck.  Both offer various levels of vehicle history reports for a relatively affordable price.
  3. Don’t overlook rental cars. Rental cars are well-maintained and used for straightforward tasks such as airport transportation, said Jones. “People do put some miles on them quickly, but they can present a fantastic value,” he added.
  4. Consider stop-and-go versus highway miles. When cars are started and stopped consistently – like when driving in stop-and-go traffic – deposits can form in and damage the engine. There’s no real way to determine how a used car was driven, but you can make an educated guess based on the age of the vehicle and mileage, said Jones. A five-year-old car with 100,000 miles, likely has traveled many highway miles, he said.
  5. Determine the previous owner’s profession. A dealer won’t know or divulge anything about a car’s former owner, said Jones. If you buy from a private seller, though, it’s not a bad idea to find out the previous driver’s job history. If they used it to deliver newspapers or otherwise travel door-to-door or in stop-and-go traffic, that could be a red flag about potential engine wear.
  6. Check garaged cars. Some older model year cars have very low mileage and can be great bargains. It’s vital to have those cars thoroughly inspected before you buy, though, said Jones. The car’s fluids may need to be flushed and changed to ensure there is no engine trouble. Hoses and belts should also be examined for damage and replaced if needed. Perhaps most importantly, car tires should be inspected. Rubber disintegrates and causes tires to explode without warning.
  7. Check the odometer. Make sure the number of miles the car has on its odometer aligns with the amount stated on the seller’s report. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported there are 450,000 vehicles sold each year with false odometer readings. A VIN report will alert potential buyers to odometer inconsistencies. NHTSA also offers other tips to spot such fraud including misaligned numbers on the odometer, wear-and-tear on the car and its tires compared to its age. If a car’s odometer registers it has 10,000 miles, its tires should be new and its gas, brake and clutch pedals should have little wear-and-tear.

Used car buyers are right to ask how many miles a used car should have.  The answer, though, depends on many factors, especially the buyers’ needs. Once those questions are answered, the buyer can find a used car that allows them to find the bargain that best suits them.


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