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What to know about buying a car with high mileage

A car’s mileage is more than a reminder of the journeys it’s taken — it can also be indicative of that car’s health and lifespan. There was a time when a car with high mileage was virtually guaranteed to be on its last legs and not worth buying. But that may not be such a hard-and-fast rule anymore.

Modern cars are often capable of driving a lot more miles and still maintaining a certain quality. If you know what to look for, buying a high-mileage car could net you a reliable car at a reduced price. Let’s learn more.

What is a good mileage for a used car

As recently as a few decades ago, buying a high-mileage car was considered a losing proposition. Many odometers didn’t even reach six figures back then, so driving beyond an estimated 100,000 miles was practically unthinkable. Today’s cars are manufactured to be much more durable.

When it comes to stating what is “good” mileage when you buy a used car, the truth is there’s no one number. Cars need to be driven on a regular basis to help keep the parts moving and prevent rusting out. When it comes to evaluating a car's mileage, it's helpful to look at both the quantity and the quality of its miles.

Mileage: quality vs. quantity

The quantity of miles is a number we can measure and easily read off the odometer. For that reason, it tends to get the most focus when people evaluate a car’s health. What often matters a good bit more, however, is the quality of those miles. That can mean various things, including:

Highway miles vs. city miles

While highways are a quicker way to rack up more miles compared to city driving, those highway miles may be better for your car’s health. You can cruise at a more consistent speed on the highway, and the engine doesn’t need to shift as often, which gives your transmission a much-needed break. Speaking of which, highway driving is also gentler on brakes than stop-and-go city traffic because you’re engaging them less frequently. Finally, highways are also less likely to have potholes and other hazards for your car than city roads, potentially leading to less wear on tires and suspension.

Active use

It may seem a little bit counterintuitive at first, but a car that’s used daily may be in better health than a similar car that was sitting on blocks for several years. Cars are meant to be driven, and regular driving may help some parts stay properly lubricated. Long periods of sitting idle can potentially cause these parts to start rusting out. Even though the car that sat idle all those years has far fewer miles on it, it may cost you significantly more in maintenance to get it back into working condition. 

Tow load (if any)

The more weight a vehicle has to carry on a regular basis, the more potential strain on its suspension. Due to this, cars that were used to regularly transport or tow a lot of weight may need more maintenance compared to a car that was purely for passenger use.

Considerations beyond mileage

As you’ve learned, these days high mileage isn’t the dealbreaker it once was when buying a used car. While mileage can still be helpful when evaluating a car you’d like to buy, here are some other factors you may wish to consider:

General condition of interior and exterior

The general interior and exterior condition of the car needs to pass at least a basic eye test before proceeding any further. Is everything where it should be with no obvious leaks? Do the doors, windows, trunk and hood open and shut properly as designed?

This preliminary check can potentially help determine if the car’s even worth your mechanic’s time for a real inspection. If the interior has been well-cleaned and maintained over the years, there’s a better chance the rest of the car has too.

Vehicle history

Vehicle history can tell you a bit about the overall upkeep of a car. Beyond obvious things like major accident reports, it may also be helpful to obtain maintenance records, if you can. This helps you determine how regularly the car’s been serviced. 

A vehicle history report can also tell you where the car was driven, which could influence your decision. A car that was driven over salty roads in North Dakota winters, for instance, is likely to have sustained more corrosion on its undercarriage than a car driven in a warm, dry place like Arizona.

Expected future maintenance

Most cars have certain mileage milestones for essential maintenance procedures. This helps prospective buyers estimate some of the future repair costs.

For example, many manufacturers recommend rotating the tires every few thousand miles. Others might call for the transmission to be replaced after a certain mileage milestone. These types of repairs happen on a predictable schedule, which helps prospective buyers plan out their cost of ownership.

Results of a mechanic’s inspection

There’s no real substitute for a qualified expert’s opinion. Getting a car inspection from a trusted mechanic is good practice for buying any used car, regardless of its mileage. You may even be able to ask them to review the vehicle history records to get a qualified second opinion.

Test drive

If there aren’t any red flags at this point, it’s probably time to take the car out for a spin. A test drive is great for getting a “feel” for the car. It’s also a key opportunity to note if there are any rattles, hums, hisses, squeaks or leaks that need looking into before you sign the dotted line on your purchase.

Potential pros and cons of buying a high-mileage car

Like the many winding roads its miles were earned on, buying a high-mileage car has its ups and downs. Let’s take a look at some of the most prominent pros and cons:

Pros

Price: Since many customers still automatically think high mileage means poor health, cars with higher mileage are often sold for less. Older and high-mileage cars also have the advantage of depreciating at a much slower rate than newer models. That means you’ll lose a smaller percentage of the value you paid, which could mean a more stable resale value down the line.

Uniqueness: Higher mileage vintage or classic cars are likely to have higher mileage since they’ve been on the road longer (and, as you learned earlier, hopefully not just sitting idle in a garage), but they’re often fun to own, tinker with, and draw attention when you take them out on the road.

Cons

Uncertainty: Perhaps the biggest drawback of buying a high-mileage car is the uncertainty about its history and actual condition. While you can usually get vehicle history reports (and it may be a red flag if you can’t), even those may not be able to tell you the full story of the car. Did the driver love to slam on the brakes or round corners at high speed? These things may cause unseen damage to the car that doesn’t show up in reports.

Future repair costs: While cars are built to last longer these days, cars with higher mileage are predisposed to needing frequent repairs. This, coupled with the fact that they may be nearing major repair milestones, can add to the cost of ownership.

In summary

Buying a high-mileage car may have been nearly unthinkable at one point in time, but that may no longer be the case. Today, many cars are built to last for potentially hundreds of thousands of miles. When considering buying a high-mileage car, it may be helpful to examine the quality of those miles driven. Prospective buyers may also want to consider details beyond the high mileage, such as the car’s vehicle history and the results of a trusted mechanic’s inspection.