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Buying Used: Which Matters More Age or Mileage?

How many miles should a good used car have? How old is too old? And which matters more age or mileage? We’ve got answers.

False Dichotomies

Couple looking at a new vehicle
Couple looking at a new vehicle

The process of finding and purchasing a quality used car can be daunting. Once you’ve narrowed down what vehicle(s) you’re most interested in based on your specific needs, then the real “fun” begins. And that’s finding the actual vehicle to purchase.

The low inventory of the current car market, both for new and used cars, makes this even more challenging than usual. But certain heuristics for narrowing your search remain. Among them is the importance of seeking out vehicles in good running condition, with age and mileage serving as proxies for condition.

Used car lot
Used car lot

Age and mileage are two of the easiest and most salient criteria at hand to quickly and easily evaluate the quality of a used vehicle. What you’ll quickly find in your search is the relative value of age versus mileage is both unclear and often set at odds when comparing vehicles. Say you’re looking for a Toyota RAV4 with a budget of $18,000. You find one example that’s a 2017 model year with 95,000 miles on it and another that’s a 2015 with 70,000. Which is the better value?

It turns out age versus mileage, while valuable signposts are just two among many criteria you’ll need to consider when buying a used car. With that said, here’s what age and mileage can and can’t tell you about a potential purchase.

What Age and Mileage Can Tell You

Woman doing research
Woman doing research

Before we tease out the complications surrounding age and mileage, let’s talk about why they’re important in the first place. Most car searches involve the internet as a first step. Sure, there are those who like to walk into a dealership and drive out with a new car, but that approach is waning. Whether you’re inclined to compare vehicles on the lot or on the Internet, two of the most prominent pieces of info you’ll be presented with are the age and the mileage of the vehicle.

As I noted above, mileage and age are proxies; easily grokked values that are supposed to tell you something about the relative wear and tear the vehicle has sustained in those years and over those miles.

Ideally, you’ll want to have an idea of what your parameters are for these two numbers. That means knowing a bit about the vehicle you’re shopping, what features it has, what the trim levels contain, and where the generational thresholds lie, in the case of age. Note that even minimal modern safety equipment like anti-lock brakes, side airbags, and rearview cameras were only phased in following new regulations and may be absent on older cars.

Car odometer
Car odometer

Mileage gets a bit stickier. The average vehicle in the US is driven nearly 15,000 miles per year. That means a three-year old car can had already racked up 45,000 miles. You’ll want to set yourself an upper-bound limit on the amount of mileage you’ll consider, while leaving the option open to bump it higher if the deal is right.

Generally, examples of a model will average out between their price, age, and mileage. And yet, it’s those examples like the one above with the $18,000-dollar RAV4s that make weighing the balance of age and mileage so difficult and yet so important.

What Age and Mileage CAN’T Tell You

Heavy commuter traffic
Heavy commuter traffic

Having a maximum threshold on miles is all well and good, but what about when you’re comparing vehicles? It’s important to remember that not all miles are equal. A vehicle that’s been a commuter most of its life, stuck in stop-and-go traffic will have worn parts, like the brakes and transmission, more than a vehicle that’s spent most of its life shuttling along the interstate.

The Best Time to Buy a Used Car

High mileages aren’t necessarily the death knell we imagine them to be. Regular maintenance, accident and repair history, and general care play integral roles in the overall condition of a vehicle. A well cared for vehicle, even at 20,000, 35,000, or even 50,000 extra miles, might be in better condition than the next example.

Vehicle receiving maintenance
Vehicle receiving maintenance

In fact, a vehicle carrying significantly lower mileage than average can often be a red flag. Sometimes this means the vehicle hasn’t been in use much at all or in storage for long periods of time. This can lead to deterioration of components (like rubber gaskets and belts for instance). Other times below average mileage indicates a vehicle has been in an accident or carries a salvage title.

Not all years are equal, either. Just because a vehicle is newer doesn’t mean it’s in better condition. The reason why sellers often tout single-owner vehicles as such is because it’s easier to know that vehicle’s particular history. One of our RAV4s may have been owned by a retired couple who drove to and from their lake cabin upstate. The other, of similar age and mileage, might have been owned by a young family with three kids and a high-strung Jack Russel terrier and commuted every day from office to school to soccer practice to doggie daycare and back. Which RAV4 do you suppose is going to be in better condition?

What Else to Consider When Buying Used

Car history report
Car history report

In the end, mileage and age are just two of many important criteria when evaluating a used vehicle. While all miles aren’t equal, they do matter. Knowing the nature of those miles, and how they’ve weathered the vehicle, is invaluable. Ask for a vehicle history report for any car you’re considering so you can know about any accidents and its repair and maintenance history. Also make sure to research a vehicle’s reliability history, any common mechanical problems, and any recalls it may have.

Vehicle receiving an inspection
Vehicle receiving an inspection

Once you’ve narrowed things down to a single vehicle, you’ll also want to check it over for common signs of wear and tear like frame rust or squishy brakes. Here’s a thorough used car check list to help. Even with a keen eye, you’ll also want to have a professional mechanic do an independent inspection before purchase.

So, when you’re asked how many miles should a used car have, you can confidently answer, well, it depends.

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Chris Kaiser

With two decades of writing experience and five years of creating advertising materials for car dealerships across the U.S., Chris Kaiser explores and documents the car world’s latest innovations, unique subcultures, and era-defining classics. Armed with a Master's Degree in English from the University of South Dakota, Chris left an academic career to return to writing full-time. He is passionate about covering all aspects of the continuing evolution of personal transportation, but he specializes in automotive history, industry news, and car buying advice.

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