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How many miles should a used car have

How many miles should a used car have?

Are you wondering how many miles should a used car have to still be in good condition? The answer is – it depends. And that is because not all miles are created equal, with some taking a far bigger toll on your car than others.

Mileage is unequivocally linked to a car’s perceived value and knowing the average mileage for used cars depending on their production year is a good place to start when inspecting a car’s condition. But mileage alone doesn’t mean much. That is why getting access to additional information is vital if you want to judge the true state of a secondhand car.

In this article, you’ll discover how to interpret a car’s mileage beyond the classic (and often lacking) “12,000 miles per year on average and no more than 100,000 miles in total”. So that you’ll always know if a used car is over-, under-, or reasonably-priced.

Is mileage a good indicator of a vehicle’s condition?

There is a direct relationship between how many miles you drive and the wear and tear your vehicle registers. The more you drive, the more the car’s moving parts will deteriorate, eventually requiring replacing. Mileage affects small, relatively cheap parts such as brake pads and discs, but it also takes a toll on the vehicle’s transmission, its engine, and suspension. 

Many drivers believe that a car hits a wall around the 100,000-mile mark, past which its reliability declines and its cost of operation increases with the constant need for repairs. Most modern vehicles, though, are built to drive double that with just basic maintenance. But, as you’ll see from this article, not all miles are equal.

When it comes to judging an odometer reading, the most important aspect is context.

Who drove the car and what is their driving style? Where was the car driven? How many owners did it have in the past? Was the maintenance schedule followed or has the car gone through long spouts without being serviced?

Buying a high-mileage used car isn’t necessarily a bad idea. Ultimately, a car’s condition depends on details from its past more than it depends on its odometer reading. There are many car manufacturers known for the reliability of their vehicles and there are many drivers that took good care of their cars, effectively prolonging their lives. Unfortunatelly, the opposite is also true – there are less-resilient brands out there and car owners that abuse their vehicles every chance they get. So…

What is good mileage for a used car?

The average US driver ranks up 13,476 miles every year, according to the FHWA (the Federal Highway Administration). But that average gives you very little insight into an individual car’s past since mileage is highly dependent on age and whether the driver is male or female. 

The average yearly mileage

According to the same set of data from the FHWA, male car owners between the ages of 35 and 54 drive the most with a yearly average just shy of 19,000 miles, while male drivers between the ages of 20 and 34 come a close second with 17,976 miles driven annually.

On the other side of the spectrum, female drivers 65 and up don’t even hit 5,000 miles every 12 months, with an average of just 4,785 miles driven every year.

Even male drivers tend to get behind the wheel less often after they reach 65 years old, averaging just 10,304 miles annually, almost half the distance driven by younger generations.

So, what can these figures tell us?

They reinforce the idea that interpreting a car’s mileage is all about the context. Sure, you can simplify things and consider a car’s annual average to be around 12,000 miles. Anything above that, it’s too much and anything lower is a good sign. But that can only get you so far. It’s important to look at who owned the car, so you can get a clearer picture of what you can expect from its odometer. If you’re buying a vehicle from a 37-year-old man, you shouldn’t be surprised if the odometer reads 50,000+ miles after just three years. And no red flags should pop up if a car has only 15,000 miles in the same time interval if it was owned by a 66-year-old woman.

How many miles on a used car is too much? How about too little?

Even though low mileage is a plus when it comes to used cars, having too few miles can be a red flag. As we already know, the average mileage for used cars depends on who drove them – with young men ranking in far more miles (sometimes by a factor of 3) than older women, for example.

That being said, be weary when you come across an offer that seems too good to be true, like a car that has just 40,000 miles registered, even though it’s eight years old. With low mileage, the car’s odometer might have been tampered with. Especially if the profile of its previous owner doesn’t justify that figure. 

As far as how much is too much, with proper care, some models can go on indefinitely. Japanese as well as German cars, if maintained as instructed by the manufacturer, can drive well over 200,000 miles without needing any major repairs. The 200,000-miles benchmark does tend to act like a wall for most car models out there, though – once hit, the vehicle is likely to need more and more repairs to function properly.

And since cars are a depreciating asset, extremely high-mileage vehicles will eventually get to a point where repairing them would cost more than their total value.

The optimal mileage range depends on many factors such as the number of previous owners and how the car has been maintained over the years. Regardless of the model and the car’s history, though, you should expect major repairs after the 200,000-miles mark.

Faking odometer data

A vehicle’s odometer reading is and will always be directly linked to its perceived value. And that is why quite a few car sellers resort to faking odometer data – the less the odometer shows, the more money they can ask for their cars.

According to the NHTSA, “odometer fraud is the disconnection, resetting or alteration of a vehicle’s odometer with the intent to change the number of miles indicated.” And it’s a crime that costs US car buyers over 1 billion dollars every year, as there are 452,000 cars with false odometer readings being sold in the United States annually.

You can guard yourself against odometer fraud by buy a vehicle history report to see odometer readings from the car’s past and by taking the vehicle to be inspected by a mechanic. They can tell if the wear and tear the car shows doesn’t match its current displayed mileage.

Important information that corelates with a car’s mileage

If there is one thing to learn from this article is that you read mileage in context, not on its own. When trying to figure out if a used car has good mileage or not, make sure to find out about: 

The number of previous owners 

A vital piece of information about any used car is the number of owners it had in the past. And that’s because of two reasons. First is the fact that a large number of previous owners might indicate that there’s something wrong with the car and it just keeps getting passed from one buyer to the next. 

Second is the fact that one type of driver might have a very distinct driving style from the other. It’s one thing to buy a car from a senior person who sticks to the legal driving limit and takes the car’s maintenance schedule seriously, but quite another to buy a car from a young person who likes to do drag races. The number of previous owners is directly tied to a car’s depreciation curve. You take on more risk when buying a second-hand car with every extra owner it had previously, regardless of what its odometer shows.

Was the maintenance schedule followed?

If you are to interpret a car’s odometer readings correctly and get a clear picture of its current condition, you also have to put mileage in the context of the vehicle’s maintenance schedule. 100,000 miles with proper maintenance is preferable to 50,000 miles with no to little maintenance.

To protect a car’s engine and have it deliver optimal performance over time, you must do regular oil changes followed by oil and air filter replacement. Even though figures vary from one manufacturer to another, generally speaking, you need to take your car in for interim maintenance every 6,000 miles and for full maintenance every 12,000 miles or every year, whichever comes first.

When you buy a second-hand car, make sure to check its maintenance records. Ask for receipts and get a car history report. Compare maintenance records with odometer readings and see if the car’s been looked after.

Not all high-mileage vehicles are equal

If for people age is just a number, so can be said about mileage and cars. Even though mileage is important, prospective buyers should focus more on the type of miles the car has registered

Highway miles Vs city miles

A great example of how similar mileage can translate into distinct levels of wear and tear is the difference between city and highway miles. Although modern cars are sturdy, it’s universally accepted that highway miles are in many ways easier on a car than city miles.

In an urban environment, you’ll encounter what’s called stop-and-go driving as you’ll have to stop repeatedly in traffic when you enter an intersection, at a stop sign, etc. This will put a lot more strain on your engine, on the vehicle’s transmission, and on its braking system compared to the smooth, constant-speed driving you can expect on the highway.

Out on the open road, you’ll register fewer engine revs per mile than inside the city and your engine will have to deal will less load which means less stress on its cylinders’ walls and piston rings. There are also fewer reasons to use the brakes on the highway and you won’t have to change gears nearly as often – which means that your brake pads and discs, plus your gearbox and clutch will last longer.

The car’s suspension system is also more protected on the highway and the incidence of serious damage or small dents and scratches on the car’s body is lower per highway mile.

Finally, driving in an urban environment means that the car will go through lots of short trips during which the oil may not have had time to reach optimal temperature. Since oil is a vital lubricant for every internal combustion-powered vehicle, if it isn’t warmed up enough, it will lack the proper consistency to ensure minimal wear and tear.

Consider road conditions in different regions

There’s a big difference between a sunny region such as Florida and a windy, snowy one such as Alaska. If in Florida your paint job will lose its sparkle much faster because of the extra UV exposure, in Alaska you’ll have to deal with the negative effects of salt-treated roads that help corrosion spread on the bottom of your car’s body over time. Location-dependant problems can be severe, especially if the car is 5 years or older, leading up to paint job chalking, blistering, or worse, brake and transmission issues.

Mileage milestones to consider

Modern vehicles are generally reliable and can be driven relatively problem-free for up to 200,000 miles. But even so, there are some milestones along the way that you need to be aware of:

  • Battery change: batteries last for 50,000 to 60,000 miles and they are easy and inexpensive to replace.
  • Spark plugs: most modern cars have platinum or iridium plugs that last for up to 100,000 miles, while older models might work with copper plugs that need replacing every 20,000 miles. A new set of spark plugs can improve fuel efficiency.
  • Timing Belt: Older models need their timing belt and chain replaced roughly every 60,000 miles while newer cars around 100,000 miles. A worn-out timing belt can severely damage the engine or destroy it completely. Early signs of severe wear and tear are engine misfires, oil pressure decline, and rough idling. 
  • Hoses: responsible for the good functioning of lots of systems, hoses tend to wear with age as well as miles. Replace them every 6 to 7 years or every 70,000 to 80,000 miles.
  • Brake pads and discs: expect to replace your brake pads every 40,000 miles if you drive primarily inside the city and every 80,000 miles if you take your car on the highway more often. Discs can hold up to 120,000 miles. 
  • Shock absorbers and struts: a vital part of the suspension system, shock absorbers need replacing every 80,000 miles, on average. Shocks in good condition will ensure that your car’s tires are in constant contact with the road’s surface, giving you more control of your car and making for a smooth ride over bumps.
  • Transmission: one of the most expensive elements to replace on a car, a well-maintained transmission should last for 200,000 miles if not more.

Is it wise to buy a car with high mileage?

As you’ve seen in this article, a high mileage reading is only relevant after you consider the context in which those miles were accumulated. Things such as proper maintenance, accident history, driving environment, and driving style might count more than what the odometer shows. So, at the end of the day, is it wise to buy a car with high mileage?

Make sure to know the vehicle’s history

If you’re looking to buy a used car that has over 100,000 miles on board, the best thing to do is to find out all you can about its past.

The great benefit of buying from a private seller is that you can meet the previous owner in person and get a clearer idea of how the car was maintained over time. You can ask them questions directly and you can also observe how they drive the car and what state they keep it in. With dealerships, not only will you not get to meet the previous owner, but you’ll also get access to an already cleaned-out car that holds no clues about its previous life. In this case, your only option is to obtain a vehicle history report.

What is a vehicle history report and how to read one

A vehicle history report allows you to see into the car’s past, so that you have factual proof to count on, instead of taking the seller’s statements at face value. Has the car been involved in an accident? If so, how serious was it and where on the car was the damage done? Have previous owners respected the car’s maintenance schedule? Has the car been used as a taxi or a rental before? Has the car had its mileage clocked? These are the sort of questions a vehicle history report can answer.

Services such as the one provided by carVertical, gather information from hundreds of official databases belonging to state authorities, insurance companies, auto shops, etc and compile them to create easy-to-read reports for individual cars, based on their VIN codes.

The number of miles a car has on its odometer will forever impact its value. But, judging a car’s mileage is all about context, as not all miles are equally impactful on the car’s general condition. Highway miles are far less damaging to a car than city miles, and things such as driving style, driving conditions, keeping up with the manufacturer’s proposed maintenance schedule, and the number of previous owners play an important role in what you can expect from a used car.

If you find yourself wondering how many miles should a used car have to still be considered reliable, just remember – mileage, at the end of the day, is just a piece of the puzzle.

FAQ

What is high mileage?

Generally speaking, any car that has passed the 100,000-mile mark is considered a high-mileage vehicle. That being said, it’s more important for a car’s condition what type of miles they were and how good its previous owners took care of it.

How to know if my odometer data is fake?

There are two ways you can spot a fake odometer reading – a vehicle history report and an inspection done by a professional mechanic. We suggest that you do both when buying any second-hand car.

Should you buy a car with 100K miles?

It all depends on the car’s condition. Modern vehicles are built to last for a long time, with more and more models passing the 200,000-mile mark with little service care required. A high number of miles is a warning, not a sentence. You can find cars in great condition that have over 100,000 miles on their odometer, just as you can find beat-down vehicles with barely 30,000 miles registered.

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