How Many Miles is Too Many for a Used Car?

Thom Blackett | Nov 30, 2020

Like many things in life, selecting the right used car is often about balancing priorities and making compromises. For example, let’s say you want high performance on a subcompact budget, and you find a vehicle that checks both of those boxes. The catch? It has high miles. Some shoppers may immediately pass on a high-mileage vehicle, envisioning a future of headaches and unexpected repair bills. In reality, when properly maintained, many of today’s cars and trucks regularly clock hundreds of thousands of miles without needing a major repair. 

how many miles is too many for a used car

What is a High-Mileage Used Car? - Find the best car deals!

According to the Federal Highway Administration, U.S. drivers rack up an average of 13,500 miles per year, though we suspect that average will dip a bit in coming years due to the increase in telecommuting brought on by the 2020 pandemic. Based on that figure, a three-year-old car will have about 40,000 miles, a five-year-old car will have clocked about 67,000 miles, and a ten-year-old car will rack up 135,000 miles. 

Where you live and, as a result, how far you need to routinely travel for work or to run errands will determine how you perceive those numbers. For example, a city dweller who travels less than 100 miles per week and a suburban commuter who drives 100 miles per day may have differing opinions on what constitutes a high-mileage used car.

There’s also the correlation between vehicle age and mileage. Fifty-thousand miles on a five-year-old vehicle would be considered low, whereas the same mileage on a one-year-old model would be considered high.

When to Consider a High-Mileage Used Car - Find the best car deals!

Generally speaking, the value of a car drops as its mileage increases, which makes for some particularly tempting opportunities. A car you typically can’t afford might actually fit your budget when it has 120,000 miles and is priced accordingly. Before you buy a vehicle like that, however, it’s important to thoroughly investigate how it has been maintained.

One of the quickest ways to verify a car’s maintenance history is to view a vehicle history report, which details not only annual registrations and inspections, but also services performed and by whom. Dealers should offer these reports free-of-charge, or you can purchase one online. 

Check the vehicle’s owner’s manual for suggested service intervals, consider whether the vehicle was used under normal or severe conditions (extreme temperatures, constant stop-and-go traffic, towing or hauling heavy loads), and compare that with what you see on the report. The report should contain a record of consistent oil changes, along with frequent tire rotations and, in some cases, significant service. Manufacturers suggest replacing various fluids, filters and belts at specific mileage intervals. Failure to do so may lead to poor performance or, in worst-case scenarios, catastrophic engine damage. 

Unfortunately, a vehicle history report doesn’t always detail the specific services performed on a vehicle, so it’s important to also review the receipts for all of the work done on the car. That detailed paper trail can provide you with a certain degree of confidence that a high-mileage vehicle was cared for properly.

Of course, there are other considerations that almost go without saying. As with any used car, though especially those with high miles, you’ll want to make sure there are no leaks, hidden rust issues, worn or damaged suspension components, or outstanding maintenance needs. And, if at all possible, have the vehicle thoroughly inspected by a certified mechanic, who may also do a compression check to evaluate the “health” of the engine.

Finally, we should note that diesel engines are known for lasting longer than their gasoline-powered counterparts, due to lower rpm operation and the lubricating properties of diesel fuel. For this reason, vehicles equipped with diesel engines (usually trucks) are commonly found on the used car market with higher miles and higher resale values, though the need for documented maintenance is equally important.

When to Avoid a High-Mileage Used Car - Find the best car deals!

Regardless of mileage, any vehicle without maintenance records should be removed from your shopping list, as should those that appear to have been otherwise neglected. If the brakes squeak, the paint is scratched and dull, or the interior smells of cheese and is littered with Diet Coke cans, chances are good that treating the car with care wasn’t at the top of the last owner’s to-do list. Continue searching for something better.

Also, it’s worth your time to do some online research of the year, make and model in question. In most cases, you’ll quickly find owner discussions about the pros and cons of the vehicle, and you’ll get a sense of what issues may crop up as miles increase. Additionally, used-car listings can be helpful by showing how many – or how few – examples of a vehicle are still operating with high mileage. 

Taken separately, these extra pieces of information won’t tell you if a certain high-mileage vehicle will be reliable, though together they can help steer you away from those you should avoid.

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