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A family member of mine is in the market for a used car. Being the “car guy” in the family, she asked me how much of a factor mileage is when deciding on a new car. For the same price, should one opt for the car with the lowest mileage, the latest model year or the one in seemingly best nick?
Most people would say lower mileage, and with reason; mileage is often a significant factor in determining the price of a used car, which makes many people think that low mileage cars are always a better deal than high-mileage cars – and will last longer.
The logic seems simple, right? If the original owner only drove a car for say 50,000 km, you can probably get atleast another 50,000 km out of the car before it requires any major repairs or part repalcements!
Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. While there are good reasons to buy a low mileage car, it’s not always the right choice. In order to help you decide whether or not to opt for a low mileage used car, let’s examine some of the common assumptions surrounding car mileage, and see if they always hold true.
In most cases, this is true. A car with fewer kilometers driven will generally last for a longer time before it requires major repairs. This is because most vehicle components have a lifespan which is measured in terms of kilometers rather than years. For example, a decent driver should be able to get atleast 50 000kms out of a pair of brake pads, 75 000kms on a pair of shock absorbers and so on.
The design lifespan of most mechanical components is in terms of kilometers – therefore less kilometers equates to more remaining life on those components. The notable exception are rubber parts and certain lubricants which degrade with age, regardless of kilometers driven. Buying a car with lower mileage therefore makes sense; it means that you can enjoy a lower cost of ownership, and the car will be a more reliable car that won’t require constant maintenance.
Again, this is mostly true. It is generally easier to sell a low mileage car for a good price, because mileage is one of the primary things that buyers consider in determining the overall quality and condition of a car.
If you buy a car with low mileage now, and you keep it in relatively good condition, after a few years you could sell it and buy another car without losing a huge amount of your investment.
However, if you buy a high-mileage car, you are far less likely to be able to find another buyer – even if you maintain the car well as most people will be turned off by the high odometer reading. So if resale value is important to you, you may want to look for a car with low mileage.
There a certain caveats to the assumptions above, particularly that low mileage equals better condition. One of these is maintenance. A car that has over 150,000 km on the odometer but has been fastidiously cared for, serviced and maintained well throughout its entire lifespan will be a much better purchase than a car that has 75,000 km on the odometer, which has been neglected by a previous owner, who has been derelict in servicing and maintaining the vehicle.
A verifiable service history is the first thing to look for in any used car. While a service history only shows you what has been done (and not what hasn’t), it at least provides some indication that the car has been serviced as required, and that the mileage is likely to be truthful. We will touch more on both these points a bit later on.
So, while low mileage cars are usually in better shape, it is critical to make sure that the car you’re purchasing has been cared for properly. If not, you risk wasting money on a low mileage car that ends up costing you a lot of money in repairs. A survey conducted by the AA showed that on average, ‘new’ used car owners in South Africa spend in the region of R20 000 in the first year of ownership on unforeseen repairs to their vehicles (mostly stemming from undisclosed problems or imminent problems when the car was bought).
Here is another caveat. Cars like to be driven. In fact cars need to be driven. While low mileage is generally a good thing, beware of cars which have too low a mileage for their model year. The average South African driver does 15 000 to 20 000kms a year. Of course, some people do considerably less and others considerably more. But either way, I would be suspicious of cars that are 10 or more years old, but haven’t been driven very far. At the very least, I would seek to verify the mileage is accurate and hasn’t been rolled back.
When cars aren’t driven regularly, they’re usually not maintained well. Cars that sit around for extended periods of time can also suffer from mechanical failures – wires and metal parts can be corroded, rubber hoses and parts tend to become stiff and brittle, and electrical systems may break down.
Cars are built to be driven – and when they aren’t, they can suffer from a whole host of problems. Because of this, you should conduct a careful inspection of any car that’s very old but still has a relatively low mileage rating.
When inspecting a vehicle, it is important to try and ascertain how it was used. For example, a bakkie that has high mileage from highway driving will most probably be in better condition than a bakkie that has a lower mileage but spent its life on dirt roads.
The same goes for all cars really, a car with 50 000kms of city driving will have substantially more wear on the clutch and brakes than a car with 50 000kms of mostly highway driving. In the long run, the stop-and-go traffic of urban usage can be harder on a car's engine than long, continuous drives on highways.
Mileage is a great way to get an idea of a car’s overall health and functionality – but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In order to choose a great used car, you have to consider many other factors.
You have to consider how well a car has been maintained, whether or not it has been involved in any accidents, how old it is, what repairs have been done to it to name but a few factors.
Mileage is part of the puzzle – but it’s not the “be-all-end-all” of used cars. There’s no guarantee that a car that’s only been driven for 40,000 kilometres is in great shape – and a car that’s been driven for more than 150,000km can easily provide you with years of reliable performance. It all depends on the individual vehicle.
As discussed in a previous articles, Don’t Buy A Lemon and Popular Used car Scams, you cannot be too careful when buying a used vehicle, especially considering the amount of scams and shenanigans that there are out there.
Buying a used car means you’re taking a gamble on the vehicle’s mechanical history. During your research, play attention to kilometres on the odometer, investigate things like the car’s service manuals and ask about its accident history and if it comes with the spare key.
On that note, be aware that service histories can be forged. It’s a known trick for used car dealers to stamp the missed services using fictious workshop names. Also bear in mind of odometer fraud. Digital odometers are by no means tamper-proof. They can be rolled back by removing the vehicle’s circuit board to change the odometer reading or using rollback equipment that hooks right into the vehicle’s electronic circuit.
If a car has no service history, I personally would never take the kilometres on the clock at face value.
Even a car which has a full service history may be fraught with problems. A service history only tells what work has been done on a car, not what work hasn’t been done. Also, don’t assume that a service history guarantees that you won’t encounter future issues. Lot’s of people trade their cars in to avoid big upcoming expenditure. Turbodiesel engine starting to smoke? Trade it in. Car overheating on long trips? Trade it in. Even if it a car has been serviced until now, it doesn’t mean it isn’t a ticking time bomb.
In order to mitigate this risk somewhat, and to limit unexpected repair and maintenance expenses, I would advise sending the car for an independent check-up to better determine the actual condition of the car, or to bring your trusted mechanic with you to test drive the vehicle. DEKRA is currently the leading supplier of roadworthy tests in South Africa and provide full bumper-to-bumper mechanical inspections. It is well worth the cost considering the cost of not doing one and landing up purchasing a lemon.
There is no definitive answer if lower mileage is always a better buy. This is because, when shopping for a used car, you can't just base your decision on mileage alone. You have to take a look at the car's overall condition, history of use, and repair and maintenance report.
If possible, you will need to check where and how the vehicle was used – different terrains, climates, and frequencies of use affect vehicles in different ways. In addition, ensure the vehicle underwent thorough and consistent maintenance. Always request the vehicle's maintenance history and service receipts from sellers and dealers too. Better yet, hire a mechanic to do a full, independent inspection of the vehicle to check for unreported damages and issues.
Due diligence when buying a car can save you from many headaches and mounting bills down the road.
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