There’s no question that buying a used car can be a bit of a gamble. Did the previous owner turn it in because they got a huge raise and decided to go a bit more upscale? Or was this car a total lemon and they couldn’t wait to pawn it off on someone else? The angst!

But after you get past the make and model (and, ok, color … we get it), you’ll want to focus on the two key metrics of a car: its age and mileage. Which is more important?

Let’s take two cars that are pretty similar in type — both sedans, both equally equipped, and ok, yes, both red. One is six years old with 60,000 miles (we’ll call it Bessie), while the other is only three years old but has 120,000 miles (we’ll call this one Maude). What’s the best way to compare them?

What a car’s odometer reveals

The amount of miles a car has on it gives us a view into how much it’s been used. A high-miler is not your proverbial “granny car” that sat in the garage except to go to church and the grocery store every week.

Maude, our three-year-old car with 120,000 miles, has covered some ground — literally. But were those miles accumulated via in-town miles, say, delivering food or passengers as a side gig? Or did its owner take Maude out for one awesome long road trip, meaning they’re “highway miles,” which are typically less taxing to a car than the stop-and-go of many short trips?

It also depends on how well the car has been maintained. Did Maude’s owner take care to get it serviced regularly? Or did they skimp on the oil changes and other upkeep? Sometimes it’s hard to find out, but it’s worth asking if the car comes with service records.

In fact, buying direct from the seller can sometimes yield more information than from a dealer, especially if it’s the first owner. While you can’t be sure that the person selling is telling you the truth, you can at least know that you’re asking the right questions. And, as they say, trust, but verify. Before you buy a car from an independent party, have a trusted mechanic check it out.

What a car’s age tells us

Bessie, the car that’s been sitting around not being driven, won’t have a lot of wear and tear. But it’s still an “older” model. That means it may not have many of the safety bells and whistles that are now standard. It might be wise to compare the model in the year you’re looking at with a current model of the same car to see what the advances have been.

While some changes might be cosmetic — a sleeker style or upgraded sound system — the newer model might have important safety advances like a backup camera or better adaptive features that give you a safer ride, not just a more comfortable one. In addition, you should do some online searching to find out if there are any “skeletons” in Bessie’s closet, so to speak. The older a car, the more likely there’s been a recall at some time that affects it. So do your research and compare with the story the owner or dealer tells you.

Finally, an older car might have problems that come from not being used enough, believe it or not. The car might need new brake pads, tires, a radiator, or other components that haven’t aged well.

So … what to do?

The answer, as it seems to be with most things, is “it depends.” Here are some questions to ask to help figure out if you’d be better off going with an older car with fewer miles or a newer car with more miles:

  • Can you access records to see how well it’s been maintained? The dealer or owner might have them, or you can find a service that might give you a report for a small fee.
  • Can you find out what “kind” of miles were put on the car? Were they city-driving with lots of stops? Or were they longer highway trips with easier “road” miles?
  • Have there been any recalls or other red flags with this model year that might affect the car?
  • Do you see rust on the underside? Old tires or other components that might need to be replaced because of age, regardless of miles?
  • Has a mechanic taken a look to potentially spot any problems that aren’t apparent due to age or miles?

A used car can be a great deal … or it can set you up for problems. The best thing you can do is research as much as you can and see what turns up.

Make your choice

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Whatever you ultimately decide, whether you choose Maude or Bessie, make sure to baby your new baby by vowing to stick with a solid maintenance schedule and keep your car insurance up to date. You can only control certain things, but those are two important ones.

And when you’re ready to insure your new-to-you ride, get a free quote from Esurance.

Safe and smart | Car safety


about Cathie

Cathie Ericson writes about personal finance, real estate, health, lifestyle, and business topics. When she's not writing she loves to read, hike, and run. Find her @CathieEricson.