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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


The quest for low miles

During a recent chat with a car dealer, the subject of used-vehicle miles came up.  As we spoke, we discussed one of the first questions asked by virtually every potential buyer:  “How many miles?”

I believe that’s a universal query, because as a licensed dealer, I’ve heard it countless times.  It’s a legitimate question, and is definitely a price-determiner for later model vehicles.  It’s not, however, a definitive quantifier of condition for every vehicle, especially older cars and trucks.   

As an extreme example, the question is irrelevant if considering a totally restored 1947 Military Jeep.  And I’m aware of a case where that really happened!

If you seek a late model vehicle, the quest for one with low miles may be worthy.  There is no shortage of them, but be ready to pay accordingly.  A low-miler at the price of a high-miler may have undisclosed or hidden defects.  The title should reflect if a vehicle has totaled, salvage, or rebuilt history, but some may slip through the cracks.

Always look for signs of undue corrosion under the vehicle or under the hood, which may indicate flood damage.  If you are not confident in finding “red flags,” seek the assistance of a qualified and trusted technician to help you check things out.

Newness is no assurance of condition.  When recently looking for a 2014 SUV at the dealer auction, about 7 out of 10 did not pass my initial screening.  Cigarette burns, missing floor mats, mismatched tires, and a mud-packed chassis are not things I look for in a current-model-year SUV.

The bottom line is that there are good cars with high miles and bad cars with low miles.  Even with “objective” reports offered from services such as Carfax, there is no assurance.  I’ve seen good reports on cars that don’t stand up to visual inspection and reviewed bad reports on cars that pass physical exams.

By the time vehicles are 7 years old, most of them have 100,000 miles.  So if your price range puts you in that category, just look for the vehicle with the best cosmetic and mechanical condition, and don’t focus on the miles.  The good news is that today’s autos can offer dependable transportation well beyond 200,000 miles if properly maintained.

For cars and trucks 10 years old or more, states no longer require recorded odometer reading disclosures.  They did the right thing, because by that age, due to multiple owners and unknown repair history, odometer readings are not reliable.

On that note, don’t pay much extra money for a 10 year old auto with low miles. In fact, the lack of odometer documentation opens the door for unscrupulous sellers to alter mileage readings or even replace a speedometer cluster with a more “favorable” one from a junk yard.  I have noticed that most 7 to 9 year old auction vehicles have over 100,000 miles, but many of the 10 year olds have 70.000 to 90,000 miles.  Go figure.

The exceptions to that scenario are collector cars.  Those 20 to 50 year old cars with low miles command top-dollar when accompanied with adequate history and low mileage documentation.  An excellent low mile collector car will set the high standard for value, even exceeding that of a restored example.

Some buyers purposely look for late model vehicles with higher than average miles.  A 2 year old car, for example, with 90,000 miles, will be bargain priced but have usable life remaining.  A car or truck like that was undoubtedly highway driven since there’s not enough time in 2 years to accumulate those miles at low speeds.  That means it has endured fewer of the stop/start cycles that contaminate oil during the warm-up process.  The transmission has made fewer shifts than a vehicle driven in town for 90,000 miles, and the brakes and suspension have hardly been taxed.

If your budget allows a late model car or truck, the question, “How many miles?” may be an important “screener.”  Still, even if the answer to that question is favorable, it will not assure you of quality; for older vehicles, the question may have no relevance at all.

Readers may contact Bill Love via email at


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