Aaron Widmar
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How Many Miles Is Too Many for a Used Car?

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Advice for knowing if a used car you’re buying has good mileage on it

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Photo: The News Wheel

Buying a pre-owned car is a great way to save money. The more miles are on the odometer, the lower the price will be. Yet, there is a juncture where high mileage becomes a drawback instead of an advantage. Where is that point? When does a used car’s mileage go from a good deal to a problem?

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How to decide if a used car is a good value based on its mileage

There isn’t a universal answer to deciding how many miles is too many for a used car. Determining that point depends on multiple factors, so the answer can vary. Weighing all of these aspects will help you decide if the car you’re considering buying is a wise investment.

Find the average lifespan of the brand

Some brands have the reputation for lasting much longer than others, so you have to look at the average lifespan of that particular automaker. 60,000 miles on a brand whose models tend to last 120,000 miles is much different than a brand whose models last at least 180,000.

If you can’t find that information, Consumer Reports pegs the average life expectancy of a car to be 150,000 miles, though a particular model could be well below or above that. Still, it’s a reasonable rule of thumb to use.

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Determine the average miles-per-year

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, Americans drive an average of 13,476 miles every year. So a good rule of thumb is that a vehicle should put 12,000-15,000 miles on the odometer every year it’s been driven.

Any more than that and it could be evidence that the vehicle was driven heavily and mechanically overworked — perhaps being a fleet vehicle or rental car. So, be wary of a car that’s accrued 45,000 miles in two years.

Divide the total mileage by the age of the vehicle. Keep in mind when making these calculations that a 2020 model may have been sold in 2019, so don’t necessarily start counting at the model year.

Compare to the price

Another factor you need to consider is the price. Even if a used car as low mileage doesn’t mean it’s a good value. It could be far over-priced for how many tens of thousands of miles are on it.

Depreciation isn’t a steady annual rate; it drops steeply in the initial couple years and then levels out. So the best way to tell if a pre-owned car is priced well for its age and mileage is to consult a valuation guide like Kelley Blue Book.

My personal recommendation is to never buy a used car that’s over 120,000 miles, unless you’re getting it for next to nothing and don’t plan on driving it for very long. Once the age of the car exceeds that milestone, its original parts and systems will reach a point that they’ll be worn down and need major repairs or replacements.

So, you may not pay much for a high-mileage car when you buy it, but you could pay a lot more in the long run on upkeep.