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Jan. 25, 2020, 10:21 a.m. EST

Mileage vs. age: Which matters more when buying a used car?

Weigh these two scenarios to see which might be the critical factor

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By Rick Kranz


iStock/Getty Images
High mileage may not be an issue in some used cars.

Shopping for a used vehicle? Well, the factors that determine value are mileage, age and condition. But in the used car world, you might find a few surprises that can leave you scratching your head.

Here’s two scenarios:

Scenario 1:  Say your family needs a second or third vehicle and you come across an unbelievably low-mileage cream puff. The car looks nearly new, there’s only 35,000 miles on the odometer, but the sedan is eight years old. The price is right, you feel like you have won the lottery, but you are wondering what issues might later materialize because of the vehicle’s age.

Scenario 2:  Perhaps you’re shopping for a used vehicle that has the latest technology such as adaptive cruise control and cameras that provide a 360-degree view of the surroundings. You can’t afford a 2-year-old model with average miles, but the dealer has the car of your dreams, and it’s thousands less. There’s one problem: This 2-year-old model has over 100,000 miles. Should you stay clear?

Here’s a few tips to help make a decision on either one of these cars.

The first thing to do with any vehicle is head to the internet and research that model’s history. Check if there are repetitive problems, such as serious (and expensive) issues with the transmission, power steering, electrical system and engine. Replacing the engine’s timing chain, for example, can run $2,000 to $3,000.

Knowing a car’s history is important. Ask the dealer to show you data that includes the vehicle’s repairs, maintenance schedule, recalls, and in some cases, even oil changes. Carfax or AutoCheck are good sources for this information and you can buy a used car report for about $40. Generally, a vehicle that has been well-maintained should have a longer, potentially trouble-free-future compared with the vehicle that has been ignored.

Also see: Should you buy a car with all-wheel drive?

“An odometer reading of 200,000 miles is nothing, really nothing,” said one Midwest new car dealer. “These late model cars just run, run, run, as long as you change the oil and maintain them” according to the owner’s manual. So, in the case of Scenario 2, that high-mileage car could be a good buy.

A much older car, such as the 8-year-old model in Scenario 1, has components that rust over a longer period. The underside of cars from states that use salt to melt snow should be inspected before purchase to determine whether the brake lines and suspension systems are safe. In addition, if scheduled maintenance has not been followed, shock absorbers, brake rotors and pads, tires and other components likely will need to be replaced. If the tires are old, they likely have dry rot, essentially cracking due to age, that makes them dangerous.

Don’t miss: Virtual used car dealers may be the future of auto shopping

Other age-related components include the radiator and heater core. For example, the heater core might be getting weak and suddenly blows out. Well, you fix the heater core and the radiator might fail because suddenly you are pressurizing the system back up to specifications.

“There’s always a risk factor,” the dealer said. “In your mind, you can say, I bought that 8-year-old car at a good price, it is worth it. And if you bought the high-mileage car, you can say, well, if it has gone this many miles, it probably will go a lot further because they maintained it.”

Also read: The pros and cons of buying a certified used car

In any event, have the vehicle inspected before you buy. A new way to take the hassle out of getting a used vehicle inspected has been introduced by Alliance Inspection Management (AiM) designed for both buyers and sellers. AiM, a unit of Kelley Blue Book parent Cox Automotive, is the nation’s leading vehicle inspection company than evaluates more than 13 million autos annually. The company has launched a new website, AiMCertify.com to provide an easy and convenient way to find out the condition of any car or truck located in the U.S. before buying it or putting it up for sale.

This story originally ran on KBB.com .

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