Home / Auto News / News article: Tips For Buying a High Mileage Used Car - AutoGuide.com News
 |  Jun 04 2012, 11:29 AM

Buying a used car is a lot more complicated than buying a new one. You can quickly judge a car’s life by looking at its odometer, however, there are numerous other things to look out for when buying a second hand vehicle; especially one with high mileage.

While most issues can be identified by a trusty mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection, they can take time and unless your mechanic is a friend, they’ll charge for the service too. Here are a few things you can do yourself to identify some big problems.

HOW DO YOU KNOW THE CAR’S REAL MILEAGE?

One of the biggest worries about a high-mileage vehicle is the odometer rollback. This is where the seller rolls back the odometer of the car indicating a lower mileage than the car really has. This is especially worrisome for cars that already have high-mileage because the vehicle in question could potentially have an incredibly high number of miles on it.

Some argue that digital odometers have helped reduce the risk of odometer rollback, but that’s not necessarily true.

“It still does happen but it is risky because Carfax and CarProof all record mileage now,” Said Lou Trottier, Technician and Owner of All About Imports. “The paper trail wins in this case because it keeps people honest by fear of getting caught.”

According to Trottier, the biggest asset when buying a high mileage vehicle is getting the right papers. Asking for a Carfax or service booklet and looking at the mileage of the vehicle during its maintenance intervals can be a great help.

SEE ALSO: Used Car Reviews

“If a used car has all the service history and owner history, that’s a huge bonus,” said Trottier. If you have these, it should help put you at ease. Service history can help identify if oil change intervals were performed on time, and what type of oil was used. A properly cared for car should last longer than one which has a spotty service history, so make sure to look for gaps of time or mileage when servicing, or when oil changes were performed.

RUST, AND WHAT’S HIDING IT

Another important aspect of buying a used car is rust. Although rust is a scary and potentially dangerous problem, it’s one of the easier things to notice when looking at a used car.

“If a car has original paint then rust will obviously be showing through either bubbling just under the surface or complete perforation,” said Trottier. He explained that it’s more important to look for original paint, and while some sellers try to hide rust, a bad job can really stand out. Generally hasty paint jobs will show up a different shade, and should be easily noticeable.  Another tip-off is if the outside of an old car looks like it just rolled off the lot. As they say, if it looks too good to be true, it is.

A trickier area of a high-mileage vehicle is the suspension. An abused, or worn out suspension is harder to point out without doing a pre-purchase inspection. The best you can do is to go out on a test drive and listen carefully for noises that can hint at a number of things.

HOW DO YOU KNOW IF THERE’S AN ENGINE PROBLEM?

Compression tests can help identify whether or not a car’s engine is performing optimally, and if anything is wrong internally. Not really something you can do yourself, unless you have the right tool. In a compression test, a mechanic will put a compression gauge in place of a spark plug and then crank over the engine until it does five or so revolutions. The mechanic will then record the gauge’s reading (in PSI) and move on to the next cylinder.

“We are looking for consistency between the cylinders,” Trottier said. Compression readings between cylinders shouldn’t fluctuate more than 25 PSI, and Trottier mentioned that ideally every one should be within 15 PSI.

He explained that while compression tests are useful, there’s just as much useful information in a test drive. “Any engine that has slightly low compression will cause the car to missfire slightly and I can feel that on a test drive.”

Low compression can indicate a bad exhaust valve, head gasket leak or if an entire engine needs to be overhauled.

IS THE ENGINE BURNING OIL?

A bigger concern for Trottier, and one that’s easier to observe, is if a high-mileage vehicle is burning oil.

“With the thin oil and extra-long service intervals we get a lot of cars that have carbon-ed up and seized oil control rings,” Trottier said. “Most sellers do not think to check their oil level at time of sale. I can’t tell you how many cars come in for a pre purchase inspection and I pull the dip stick only to find next to no oil showing.”

For manual transmission cars, also play attention to the clutch, and the clutch pedal. A worn clutch can be a costly repair both in regards to labor and parts, so Lou looks carefully for any signs of improper wear.

“I always check the left side of the clutch pedal for wear,” he said. “This tells me if the previous owner rested their foot on the clutch pedal and not on the dead pedal like they are supposed to”

It’s simple enough that even a non-car person can identify and pay more attention to when it comes to a test drive. “I regularly see clutch pedals with a lot of wear and this tells me to pay more attention to clutch operation,” Trottier said.

WORN INTERIOR

A car’s interior can also tell quite a lot about its age. Wear and tear on the seats can expose potential odometer rollback, so pay attention to the condition of the car’s interior.

Other areas to note come straight out of the used-car buying handbook. Take a look at things like rust on rotors. A car sitting at a dealership can accumulate rusty rotors. It’s often overlooked, but these can cause headaches for buyers, who will have to deal with vibrations, squeaks, squeals and possibly even a the purchase of some new rotors not long down the road.

Also watch out for brand new brakes as sometimes a dealer may try to hide a car’s shortcomings. “If the dealer does put new brakes into the car they are going to put the cheapest parts available which means lots of noises and premature wear,” explained Trottier. “I deal with this all the time. Someone buys a car and within one year we are replacing all the brakes with factory parts because the new owner cannot live with all the squeaks and noises.

CHECKING THE TIRES

Additionally, take a look at the tires of any second hand car you’re interested in. Tires that are older than six years should be replaced, and take extra care to look for any cracks in the tire’s sidewall. As for gauging the amount of tread left, it’s not an exact science, especially if the tires are low rolling resistance or high-performance models that don’t offer a lot of tread depth to begin with. Look for uneven wear, checking particularly if some of the tread blocks appear to be glazed over.

Also look for punctures and previous repairs, though a repair job isn’t necessarily a sign that you should stay away or replace the tires. Some punctures may affect the longevity of a tire. “A large nail puncture may create a weak spot and the tire will be prone to a premature belt shift.” Trottier said.

NO SMOKE IS GOOD SMOKE

Finally, with any second hand car pay attention to any exhaust smoke that occurs when you turn the car on. Any smoke is pretty much a no-go area of any kind. Blue smoke is a product of excessive oil burning, which indicates an engine problem. Black smoke means there’s a fuel system problem, which is producing excessive unburned fuel. White smoke comes thanks to burning anti-freeze, which could indicate a head gasket failure.

It’s not easy to search for a car, and adding the many unpredictable variables associated with a second hand car can make things even more stressful. If a good looking deal on a car is stumping you with its high-mileage, try looking it over yourself. And even if the items mentioned above check out, consider a pre-purchase inspection from a mechanic or shop you trust.

  • Keith H

    Some genuinely useful info in here. Great story. 

  • Ol’ Gil

    A buddy of mine bought a used car that I saw had rotors that were rusted to hell… Sure enough he had real weird problems with the brakes ride that never really went away…

  • Car Guy

    Just bought my second high mileage Mercedes and I think two things made it a better purchase than the one I bought five years ago: A clean Carfax report and service booklets indicating the car had been properly cared for at a Mercedes dealership. As for the engine and suspension, I agree that a test drive is the best way to find out if there any issues with the vehicle, especially if it pulls or tracks improperly (worn or damaged suspension/steering components) or the engine feels rough or underpowered which may indicate more serious problems lurking under the hood.

  • Vincent39brooklyn

    “ .. consider a pre-purchase inspection from a mechanic or shop you trust.” That should have been the entire article.

  • Albanypark

    Look for mismatched tires on a used car. Maybe one tire can be different than the others – people do get blowouts. But if you see three or four tires from different manufacturers, the seller either stripped the good tires prior to sale, or it’s a sign that the car is both older than advertised or that the owner never invested in good tires, but only bought cheap used tires. I learned the hard way, and from a dealer in Carbondale, Ill., at that..

  • quatra

    Look at the pedals, especially the brake.

  • Keither

    Something else I’ll add from personal experience. Make sure to check the radiator. If it’s not branded by the automaker, then it’s a replacement and could be a sign the car was in a front end collision.

  • Wise Merlin

    Yeah, that or just DONT BUY A HIGH MILEAGE CAR…

    R u kidding? With 0% financing who wouldn’t just buy brand new. wow. Dumb. It’s FREE MONEY. 0% = less than the rate of inflation, which means the company is paying YOU to drive the car. ZING!

  • Jaydon S

    Maybe because everybody can’t afford a brand-new car?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Steele/1103720453 John Steele

     Because a new car loses 1/2 its value in 5 years? I see their marketing works just fine on you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/John-Steele/1103720453 John Steele

    Miles don’t tell the life “left” in a car. Maybe a compression test or oil analysis. I have a CRV with 275,000 miles on it that doesnt burn or leak a drop of anything…has a brand new leather interior…and not too much luck selling. I would just keep it but 3 cars is too many. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/Monkedelic Michael Dawson

     Things must be slow around the showroom… but at least you get to surf the ‘net.

  • west

    this guy has been taking math lessons from the prez.

  • Kenneth-lupton

    i had an aa man look at the volvo  i bought he said its ok, but when you turned right there was a grinding noise,itook it back to the dealer he sent me to a garage they used they  said nothing wrong, i checked it meself it was a jammed  faulty front brake, i had the volvo 12 years and changed the oil twice,i sold it and its still going strong at 180,000

  • Ktom626

    Yea right! More like loses over half it’s value in 2-3 years! You lose a couple thousand just driving it off the lot..

  • Bri guy

    Because once you drive it off the lot it loses @ 30% of its value and I am sure they jack the price up don’t forget sales taxe and license. Car payments keep a person broke even at 0% 

    Sincerely, 

    Not so Dumb

  • joyce b

    A person who cannot afford car payments! That’s who wouldn’t buy a brand new car. Anymore questions??

  • Paul Sheppard

    Hi..I am looking at purchasing a 1996 Toyota truck. it runs pretty good but the Car Fax Full History only shows one odometer reading in the early years . Everything else comes up as “Unknown Odometer” reading. The present reading is 102K. Should I walk away

  • greg

    Funny…no mention of timing belts and replacement. One of the first things I ask especially on newer “interference” engines

  • Los

    I say yes, it may mean the meter was fucked with.

  • David

    How much $$?

  • Huckabay Debra

    can’t afford the payments, not everyone is rolling in money some of us are on disability which isn’t enough to live off of

  • Kojo

    I am interested in a Dodge Grand Caravan 2008 with 470,000 on it. It looks descent inside out. There is a little rust on the covers of one of the upper part of the engine. Should I walk away?

  • joe

    that sounds impossible, thats 258 miles a day straight for 5 years. if it was a misprint and 47,000 miles, id say go for it.

  • searching

    I am looking into buying a 2006 Toyota Prius, and I found one that it’s a good deal but it has 168,000 miles on it. I haven’t checked it out yet but does that seem ok? I know Toyota’s and Hondas can last longer so higher mileage usually isn’t as scary.

  • FayFay

    on new cars especially japanese designed that’s not that many miles. it’s more important to see how the car was taken care of and if it was well maintained.

  • Mario

    Check for blue smoke :)~

  • Mario

    Whoa, that mileage is good for a space shuttle, not a car :)~

  • Mario

    Yeah, the pedals tell quite a story. Look at the chain and pinion too.

  • chip

    I bought a 2005 Chevrolet with 51K miles in September 2013. My Tahoe now has 63,536 miles. My son changes my oil most of the time, but I needed it changed now so I took it to get the oil changed and it states the mileage is 150K. I asked the guy changing my oil and he said it’s based of engine hours? The engine hours are 2,525.60. So I bought a vehicle with 51K miles or 100K plus? I bought the vehicle at a reputable auto dealer. any help is greatly appreciated. thank you

  • InuKun

    Not necessarily. I have three brands on my 2004 Ford truck, but that’s due to two tires having been replaced when the treads wore down, and one tire being replaced when it was punctured on the edge by a nail which couldn’t be patched. And it hasn’t affected the handling of the vehicle at all. The fourth tire, which is still an original, still has more than 30% of its tread left. As I rotate the tires to even the wear, I (nor any mechanics I’ve spoken to at places like Ford, NTB, and Midas) don’t find the tires needing to be replaced as often as they might for someone who doesn’t care for their vehicle.

  • InuKun

    Yes, and what you’ll notice is that unlike loans with even a 2% interest rate, there are NO rebates or discounts applied with the 0% loans, so you’re buying the vehicle for full sticker price minus any trade in or down payment you make.

  • InuKun

    Not to mention that unlike any loans that have an interest rate (even brand new), they still make money as NO rebates or discounts are applied. You pay the full sticker price, minus trade in and down payment.

  • jason

    I’m interested in purchasing a 2006 Infinity M35x at about 14k with 103,000 miles. Any thoughts? I’m also interested in a Land Rover 2004 Range Rover at 13k and it has about 140,000 miles any feedback would help.

  • Nate Rector

    not all the time,OEM parts can cost to much

  • Nate Rector

    a used s class is the way to go.A 100,000 car for $10,000

  • Kevin

    I’m thinking of purchasing a 2006 Lexus GS300 with 99k miles for 15k. It’s a one owner vehicle that’s been regularly serviced at the local Lexus dealership. It’ll replace my second car which I only drive 3k – 5k miles per year. Is this too much money for the mileage for this car?

  • Adam

    Whatever I get will be my first car. I’m interested in dodge chargers, but what I can afford is a used one with over 200 thousand or even 300 thousand. A couple friends say stay away, what do u think?

  • John M Mununga

    my 2001 toyota tazz has 270000 kilos on the clock and iam worried a bit though it is still running nice with the same engine. what can i change whenever the mileage is extremely high like this?