The Hidden Costs of Ultra-Low-Mile Cars and Trucks

A low-mileage used car or truck can be a rolling catastrophe if you're not careful.

Classic mercedes benz sedan wagons in fieldManuel Carrillo III | Capital One

Article QuickTakes:

I once bought, what I thought, was a steal of a deal for my used-car lot! A 15-year-old Chevrolet Malibu with only 28,000 original miles for just $500. The car looked like a rolling time machine — no rips or tears on the seats. A dashboard completely free of any cracks or creases, and my biggest surprise was a radio that worked! It was as if I went back in time to Las Vegas with a magical $500 coin at a monster-sized slot machine that spat out brand-new cars.

That ultra-low-mile used car dream crashed into reality when I turned the key. The Malibu's transmission thunked and jerked with every shift on the open road. Its engine leaked oil everywhere, and I couldn't drive the car more than a few miles without it knocking like crazy. I probably spent more than five times the original auction price getting that "ultra-low-mileage" car roadworthy, and by then, the joy was gone.

Sometimes you can't rely on looks and luck. Here's what you should always look for on any low-mileage used vehicle.

1993 Toyota Camry LE front-quarterManuel Carrillo III

Check the Condition of the Car's Paint and Rubber Seals

A lack of exterior care is often an old car's biggest enemy. So look carefully at each panel of the vehicle. Paint cracks, fading, and a disappearing clear coat can lead to an expensive repaint of the entire car.

If you buy it, consider waxing it. Then check every piece of trim on the outside that's black. Rotting windshield moldings and door weatherstripping can allow water into the car. This can lead to mold, nasty smells that last for years, and even insect and cockroach infestations if that car has food crumbs under the seats.

Getting the car waxed and replacing any outside rubber moldings that look worn out can do wonders for the vehicle's existing and long-term condition.

1993 Toyota Camry LE interior dashboardManuel Carrillo III

Uninvited Animals Love to Hang Out in Low-Mileage Cars

Under the hood is a perfect home for rats, squirrels, and other rodents who like to keep their food supply dry during winter. If you open the hood and see a cornucopia of acorns or rat droppings, don't be surprised if some of the wires in the engine bay were chewed and gnawed on, too.

From severed spark plug wires (that cause misfires) to wiring harnesses (that, when damaged, will make your brake light disappear entirely), a chewed-up wire can be tough to diagnose. These days fixing an older car can require a rare part no longer available from the original manufacturer. So open the hood, test everything, and find an expert to look at it.

1993 Toyota Camry LE rear quarterManuel Carrillo III

Even Low-Mileage Used Cars Should Be Road Tested and Mechanically Inspected

From bulging lower radiator hoses to a leaking water pump, some minor issues may only become visible when the car is already broken down on the side of the road. It could help to always take an older, low-mile used car for an extended test drive to prevent the worst case scenario.

The final step is to get the car inspected by an expert mechanic. A repair shop can help quickly find little hidden problems before they become big ones — whether that old car has 20,000 or 220,000 miles.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
author photo
Steven Lang
Steven Lang is a special contributor to Capital One with nearly two decades of experience as an auto auctioneer, car dealer, and part owner of an auto auction. Some of the best-known auto publications turn to him for his expert insight. He is also the co-developer of the Long-Term Quality Index, a survey of vehicle reliability featuring over two million vehicles that have been inspected by professional mechanics.