I’ve been looking at cars lately to replace Crayola before we move to The Great Next. I created a spreadsheet cataloging prices, years, and miles on used cars. I also created a formula to gauge cost-per-mile. The first assumes 100,000 miles because that’s how long it takes before more serious repairs start being required. The second assumes 150,000 because that’s the presumed life of the car. The third assumes 200,000 because that’s the farthest any car I’ve owned as driven. By and large, cars for sale that do well on one category do well on the remaining categories and vice-versa. So a deal is a deal regardless of what I assume the mileage to be.

The big exception to this are mid-range mileage cars, between 50-100k. The thought occurred to me that one possible solution would be to get an old car with low mileage for its age. For instance, an 8-year old car with only 70,000 miles on it. These do very poorly on the 100k check (as expected) and dominate the 200k check (not a surprise), but are also the leaders on the 150k (by a smaller margin). I recognize that the 150,000 is biased a bit because it doesn’t really take into account that miles 20-50k are cheaper than miles 120-150k. On the other hand, there is an added flexibility that this car can be replaced sooner. And the price difference is substantial (bringing a car price down from $18k to 7k.

  • The sheer size of the price difference got me looking into bluebook values and I’ve noticed a definite trend. Old cars, regardless of mileage, are cheap even when you account for the mileage. This is one of those common-sense things, but I had been so fixated on mileage that it escaped my attention. The question I have is… are they cheap because:
  • They look old. With the except of a few models, cars date relatively quickly. Looking at pictures of some of the old cars, the design looks old. Light trucks in particularly from 2000 or so have more in common aesthetically with Jeeps from the 80’s than anything coming out today (except, well, Jeeps).
  • They lack features. They have a tape deck instead of a CD player, for instance. Certainly no bluetooth or navigation or anything like that. Or the cars had these features but maybe they’ve stopped working. I’m not considering any cars without AC, but that’s the only thing I’ve really looked closely at. I should look more closely at cruise control.
  • They’re much more likely to break down. My obsession with mileage notwithstanding, a 2000 model with 50,000 miles is more likely to break down than a 2008 model with the same. And it could well be that a 2000 with 50,000 miles is more likely to break down than a 2005 with 100,000 miles. That would actually sort of match my own experience. Crayola has 120,000 miles and seems to be in a startlingly similar place than Rudat was last year when he had 200,000 miles. Wildly different mileage, but they are the same make, series, and year. And further, it’s unlikely that I took better care of Rudat than Dad did of Crayola. On the other hand, Rudat did a lot of freeway travel and Crayola was mostly 5-mile drives for work between 40k-95k miles (when my father had it).
  • They’re more expensive to fix when they do break down. Having an older car has never remotely been a problem for me in this regard. But this may be an area where Fords and domestics have advantages over foreign cars. There may have been a problem when I was driving the Trawler, but that car was over 20 years old.
  • Warranty, or lack thereof. This one is an issue that I’ve approached independently. For whatever reason, most of the cars I’m looking at newer or older don’t have a warranty. It’s possible that we’ll decide that a warranty is a must have and that would change our perspective considerably. And while warranty could factor heavily into the comparison of deals, I assume that bluebook values don’t really take that into account. Though maybe they do.

This will be the first car that my wife and I have ever purchased either together or individually. So there’s a lot we don’t know, which is why I am asking for your help. If it’s simply a matter of (1) then I really don’t care. In fact, I don’t like a lot of the newer designs so it would be a net benefit. For (2) I would just need to add the cost of a CD/MP3 player installation to the cost. And consider how much I really need that cruise control. But if it’s (3) and (4), I would need to add that into my formula somehow. But I’m not sure how much I would need to weigh that in.

The formula is not a strict method by which we will choose a car. There would be too many variables for that. However, every now and again I will run into some impressive outliers. Cars that outwardly seem like a really good deal. You have to be suspicious of that a little, at least, but when I’ve run across them there’s generally been a pretty good reason for it (it’s a theft recovery, it’s sold at a high-volume consignment lot, it was a trade-in at a lot with a different marquee, etc). It’s hard for a newbie like me to really “game the system”, and I don’t really expect to, but I do want to make sure that I have some basis with which to compare sales the same way I do with computers.

So… what is your experience? What do you know about used cars? Does age matter as much as mileage? Or is my non-desire for a new-looking car an opening for us to get a better deal than I otherwise might?

Category: Road

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7 Responses to Age vs. Mileage

  1. web says:

    Find a mechanic you trust.

    Ask the used-car dealer for permission to take the car over for a once-over and get the mechanic’s opinion of the car.

    That’ll tell you a lot. If they refuse to allow someone else to take a look at it, you have a shady dealer and shouldn’t be buying there period.

  2. ? says:

    Does age matter as much as mileage?

    Is this a metaphor about cougars?

  3. kevin says:

    Don’t waste your time with carfax. Instead, get the vehicle identification number and contact your insurance company and ask them for the complete history of that car. They’ll be able to uncover things that carfax can’t.

  4. web says:

    Another nice thing about asking a mechanic to give the car a once-over is that certain makes/models of cars are “known lemons” that have certain glaring design flaws or tendencies to suffer certain repairs at certain points. A reputable mechanic at least has a good chance of being able to tell you if you’re looking at one of them.

  5. trumwill says:

    There are all sorts of precautions to consider when actually purchasing a car. I’m looking more towards the process of eliminating the hundreds of cars for sale right now into a few that I may be able to investigate more thoroughly.

  6. Linus says:

    Here’s the options as I see them, in order from highest TCO to lowest:

    1. Buy new every few years
    2. Buy new and sell once it starts needing significant maintenance
    3. Buy new and run it to death
    4. Buy slightly used and sell once it starts needing significant maintenance
    5. Buy slightly used and run it to death
    6. Buy the cars that #3’s & #4’s are selling and run them to death

    It’s a trade-off between dollars and time/convenience. Even older cars that go into the shop several times a year are way less expensive than a car you’re making payments on. We’ve basically fallen under the #6 category lately, but we’ve realized that we’re willing to pay a little more to not have to deal with repairs as often. So we’ll probably move up to #5 and try to keep one car that’s totally reliable (so we don’t break down in the middle of nowhere and ruin our vacation) and one that might need periodic work.

    My thinking on warranties is similar. It’s not whether they save you money in the long term (it’s like gambling, most of the time they won’t), but whether the additional cost is worth not having to worry about unexpected repair expenses. As experienced used car owners in decent financial shape, we’re willing to take on the financial risk of unexpected repairs and spend the time to deal with it all in order to save money for other things.

    If domestics are any cheaper to repair than Hondas & Toyotas, the difference isn’t much. It’s the BMWs and VWs that you want to avoid from a repair expense standpoint.

    Just my $0.02…

  7. Becky says:

    I haven’t been around in a while, so you’ve probably already made a decision by now. I was fortuante in that when I was looking, I had two car experts on stand-by to ask any questions when I was shopping around. I know that one thing that I was always told is that mileage won’t matter if the previous owner drove it hard. In terms of lasting longer and holding their value, I was advised to japanese cars — Nissan, Honda or Toyota.

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