It’s an age-old question, really. Should you buy an older car that hasn’t seen too many miles, or should you opt for a newer model that’s been around the block a few hundred thousand times? The answer is: it depends.
There are many factors other than age and mileage that can (and should) influence your car-buying decision. Which car has the technology you can’t live without? Which car delivers the gas mileage you need? How much money are you prepared to spend on repairs and maintenance? How much money can you afford to spend up front? The list goes on.
You don’t have to be stuck in analysis paralysis, however. There are some simple guidelines that can help you decide which car is right for you, whether it’s a newer car with lots of miles, an older car with low miles, or something in between.
Let’s start with the older car with low miles
First of all, what constitutes low miles for an older car? Generally, any car that has seen fewer than 10,000 miles per year since it was new can be considered relatively low-mileage. That means a 15-year-old car might have 150,000 miles and still be a “low-mileage” car—even though it might only have another 20,000 or 30,000 miles, if that, before it needs a major (read: expensive) service.
Some older cars may have seen fewer than 5,000 miles per year, making that 15-year-old example above a 50,000-75,000-mile car. Here, it might seem like a great idea—that older car has a nice vintage look and feel, it appears to be in good shape, and it should have another 75,000-100,000 miles of life in it, at least, right? Well, maybe.
When buying any older car, whatever the mileage, it’s important to learn as much as you can about the history of the car. That 5,000-mile-per-year average might be an honest 5,000 miles each of its 15 years, driven on a short commute, or driven infrequently as a third car, for example. But it might also reflect 15-20,000 miles per year, and a 10-year period where it sat, broken down or simply neglected. Knowing which situation applies to the specific car you’re interested in buying can mean the difference between years of satisfied ownership and a frustrating, time-consuming, expensive lemon.
Even if a car has sat for a long period, however, it may be just fine—again, it comes down to the particular circumstances. Was the car garaged in a temperature-controlled environment? Was it stored outside but shaded and protected from rain? Or was it parked in a grass lot and left to the elements? More importantly, how do you find out?
Figuring out exactly how a car has been treated throughout its life can be a difficult task. Services like CarFax can help, but it can’t give every detail, or explain every gap in the record. That’s why Instamotor pre-screens every car that’s listed through the app. The Trust and Safety Report helps fill in those gaps. Sometimes, you can even find an owner who has maintained their own records on the car, from oil changes to new tire purchases to major repairs and more. Some will even keep log books detailing how they used the car over its life. A car that comes with a binder full of details on its use might command a premium over similar examples, but it may well be worth it for the peace of mind.
Newer car with higher miles?
On the flip side, buying a newer car with higher miles holds its own challenges. Newer cars, being newer, have had fewer opportunities for mistreatment, abandonment, or neglect, so they can often be in much better shape to the naked eye—but that shiny coat of paint and clean interior may hide issues just beneath.
Take a three-year-old car with 60,000 miles, for example. That’s a fairly high-mileage car, but typical of someone with a longer commute. If they maintained it regularly, per the manufacturer’s recommendations, it’s probably a solid buy. But if they cut corners, changing the oil only once a year (or less—it happens), or if the car drove those 20,000 miles per year in a very hot or cold environment, there could be significant mechanical issues that won’t present until farther down the road—after it’s in your driveway and not the original owner’s problem anymore.
Likewise, how the miles are accrued is an important factor. It’s often said that highway miles are easier on a car than city miles, but that’s not always the case. Extended periods at higher speeds can mean more wear on items not commonly replaced, like wheel bearings and hubs, and it can also mean high average engine speeds, leading to more internal wear. On the flip side, a car that has seen 20,000 miles per year of stop-and-go traffic is likely to have soaked in its own heat regularly, potentially aging plastic and rubber pieces in the engine bay prematurely, as well as putting strain on the cooling and lubrication systems—which can also lead to premature engine and transmission wear.
Again, with the newer, higher-mileage car, it’s important to know the history of the specific car you’re buying, and the same tools that help with the older, low-mileage car’s purchase can help here, including Instamotor’s Trust and Safety Report.
Always get a mechanical inspection
Another tool that should be in every used car shopper’s belt is the independent mechanic’s inspection. If you live in any decent-sized city, you will be able to find several mechanics (dozens in larger cities) who will be happy to inspect a potential purchase for any obvious, or even not-so-obvious issues, usually for a minimal fee (often $100 or less). It’s a small price to pay considering the value of the purchase you’re about to make.
So, back to the age-old question: which is better, the low-mileage classic or the high-mileage stunner? Well, it depends…