How to value an atypically low-mileage used car?
January 8, 2017 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Changes in my work life (positive changes, for the most part) have wrecked my ability to rationally assess an atypical car-buying opportunity. Help?

Since 1989, the most I've ever paid for a car for myself is $2000. I'm mechanically adept and usually a good bargain-hunter, so despite the low price points I've gotten along pretty well. I have changed cars more frequently than most people, but I stay on top of problems and no longer worry about getting stranded far from home. Sadly my current vehicle, a 17-year-old Subaru Outback which still runs and drives very nicely, is starting to have structurally meaningful rust problems, and that has led me to put feelers out for potential successors. I set up a standing Craigslist search for cars in the '05 - '10 range, expecting to spend a little more than usual and get something a little better.

A couple of days ago, that search turned up something unexpected: a 2007 Subaru with just under 24K miles on it, in such nice condition that the asking price seems like it might be reasonable despite being well above what Edmunds or KBB suggest. To complicate things, the seller is a private individual who's also a career car salesman working for a Subaru dealership. The story is that this car came to the dealership as a trade-in, and this salesman snagged it for his "sweetie," who quickly decided she wanted a Toyota instead. So, Mr. Salesman is selling a privately owned car but he's doing it the way a dealership would do it. The car has been detailed, he bought new OEM floor mats to spruce it up, etc. It looks and smells (oh, the smell of new floor mats!) almost indistinguishable from a new car despite being 10 years old. He's priced at $2k over the top KBB estimate for the model, in outstanding condition with the mileage specified. The KBB price is itself about $1700 over the Edmunds price. But still, it's in such nice shape that it seems like he might not be crazy, and with stuff going on in my life and with the non-rusty loveliness and the smell of the floor mats and the sense that it's a rare opportunity, my brain is not serving me well. Help me think through this in a way that doesn't lead me to a decision I'll regret next month.
posted by jon1270 to Travel & Transportation (25 answers total)
Pass on the Subaru and buy a bottle of New Car Smell car freshener.

Take your time buying the next one. If you're really in a jam consider car share services or even a long term rental if you really need it.

If this had actually been his car for a long time that's one thing but this sounds like a flip. Like flipping a house for cars. You can flip your own car for yourself for much cheaper.

And you know that age on plastics and electronics will get you too.

Unless you want to flush some cash just to make your life easier for right now. But I don't think that's what you would do.

Good luck! Tell us when you find the right thing!
posted by littlewater at 10:08 AM on January 8, 2017 [3 favorites]

Age and mileage are interdependent but logically independent factors in a car's condition. Some parts age without being used. Some parts age worse from lack of use.

You're dealing with a professional car salesman, which in far too many cases means a professional liar. Be careful. Get it fully inspected.
posted by spitbull at 10:08 AM on January 8, 2017 [9 favorites]

Depends on what the Subaru market is like in your area. I don't know Pittsburgh at all, but where I'm from (Pacific Northwest) Subarus regularly went for $2K over book for even average condition so this wouldn't be crazy. That said, yeah, professional car salesman = you do not have the advantage in this situation. Personally I would pass.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 10:10 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Nothing about low mileage makes a car worth double it's Blue Book unless it is a genuine classic. I'd say the low mileage on that is still worth some extra money. I'd offer him what I thought was fair (maybe $2,800) and very nicely explain how much you'd love to have it and say that is your last offer.

No need to walk away, just offer what you think the car is worth and be firm. Only walk away if you can't get the car for what you think it is worth.
posted by Brockles at 10:12 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Having said that, I've done some digging and I think a 2007 Subaru that is likely to be as reliable as that one is worth $2.5-3K. The ongoing reliability is worth factoring in, for me, so I may have been a little hasty on the pricing.

Are there a ton of Subaru's in your area at book? Or are they all over that?
posted by Brockles at 10:15 AM on January 8, 2017

Negotiate. Offer what you want to pay. Do not pay a penny more.

In sales "He who says the first number, loses." He said the first number when he named his price, you might win this exchange!

That said - his story is bullshit, of course. You should pay $50 to have the car inspected, of course. And because you own a car that's rusting plus obviously live somewhere that salts roads, THE MILEAGE DOESNT MATTER BECAUSE AGE/RUST ARE THE REAL FACTOR HERE.

Pitch him a super low price, only pay the Edmunds price, or walk. I've lost great older cars to structural rust. No low miles will fix that. You know this. Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 10:15 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

We just bought a very low-mileage car that is 12 years old, also from a dealer. He accepted it as a part-exchange and decided to clean it up and sell it himself rather than give it to auction as it was such a nice example (it looks nearly new). So I see the attraction! But the key difference is - he actually priced our car lower than most cars of the same age, as he just wanted to clear it and thought it would be a lovely wee car for someone. I think asking $2000 over the top price is a wee bit rich - it is still an old car, and at that low mileage, it probably has a few parts that will need a some work to get running smoothly (our gearbox cables had corroded and needed WD-40, for example). We love our wee car, but we're definitely having to put more cash in it to get running well - so that might be worth considering!
posted by ukdanae at 10:15 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Nothing about low mileage makes a car worth double it's Blue Book unless it is a genuine classic. I'd say the low mileage on that is still worth some extra money. I'd offer him what I thought was fair (maybe $2,800)

Oh, it's not that big a difference in percentage terms. Edmunds puts the private party value a bit over $7k, and KBB at almost 9. He's asking nearly $11K.

Edmunds shows you the mileage adjustment they've used, which was about $2100. But "typical" mileage for this car at this age is 110K, so they'd only be knocking off $2100 if the mileage were 85K higher, which doesn't make a lot of sense.

I completely understand the suspicion about car salesman. My brain has been sounding that alarm the whole time, but for unrelated reasons I'm not trusting my brain right now.

Subarus are very popular in Pgh. Icy winters and lots of hills.
posted by jon1270 at 10:18 AM on January 8, 2017

Subarus tend to hold their value well, especially in certain regions. I love mine dearly - a 2006 Forester. I would definitely consider this car if I were you, but get it inspected as thoroughly as possible by a mechanic as if it had 100,000 miles on it. It is a ten year old car and hopefully has been maintained mechanically as such.
posted by umwhat at 10:19 AM on January 8, 2017

Also, did you pay to get the car history? Are you sure where the car is from and if it's had any accidents? This is also worth spending money on. If there are any discrepancies in his ownership history vs. the history you independently pay for, RUN.
posted by jbenben at 10:19 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

It's a ten year old car with 2,400 miles per year, well below the 12,500 or so we'd consider average. It's worth some premium over a ten year old car with the odometer in six figures. There are plenty of parts that are time dependent and not milage dependent. Did it ever have 25,000 mile service performed? Etc. Coolant flush? Brake fluid? Between $2,000 and $3,700 above used car guides? Make an offer.
posted by fixedgear at 10:20 AM on January 8, 2017 [2 favorites]

My philosophy when buying cars on Craigslist is that you are buying the seller, not the car. A trustworthy seller is the key to getting a car without hidden problems. This guy, being a pro car salesman, does not inspire trust. He likely knows every trick in the book to get you to agree to a deal on his terms.

I would guess that what's really going on here is that he was under intense pressure to fill his monthly quota at the dealership. These quotas sometimes come with substantial bonuses (think $10k+ if you hit your quota for several months in a row) so salespeople pull out all the stops, including selling cars to themselves or their family members that they don't really need, just so they can hit that all-important number. So this guy bought a car to make his quota and is now trying to unload it. It's probably in fine condition but isn't worth nearly as much as he's saying it is.

I'd suggest either lowballing him with a firm offer of what you're willing to pay, or buying a different car and then having it detailed for $100-150 to give it that clean fresh look and feel. It's amazing what a difference a detailing can make. And it's much cheaper than the $2k markup on this specific car.
posted by danceswithlight at 10:35 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'd want the full service history too. Hopefully the owner changed the oil and did other routine maintenance based on time elapsed and not mileage.

Did you Carfax this thing?

To reiterate: a professional car salesperson knows every trick in the book and you are an easy mark if you can be seduced by new floor mats and a detailing -- those are not even the advanced tricks of the trade. What you care about is whether the engine burns oil (Subarus of this vintage often have this problem), if it's ever been in a wreck, and whether it has any rust underneath.

Have you proposed sending it for a detailed inspection? That won't cost $50, as someone said above, if it's done right. Try at least twice that for a serious look. Minimally you want an engine compression check and a look at all the wiring and rubber parts and known rust traps.
posted by spitbull at 10:50 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Also new floor mats cost $75.
posted by spitbull at 10:54 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Excellent answers all. I'm not sure what I'll do, but I feel less intoxicated about it. Thanks!
posted by jon1270 at 11:16 AM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Brockles: Are there a ton of Subaru's in your area at book? Or are they all over that?

FWIW, area dealer prices on 2007's of the same model range from $5k-$8500, but none of them has less than 114K miles on it.

Also, the ad claims a clean Carfax report but I haven't seen it.
posted by jon1270 at 11:46 AM on January 8, 2017

Pull your own carfax! Do not rely on his!!
posted by jbenben at 12:19 PM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

Definitely start by the carfax report. It will confirm whether there was just one prior, local owner (which supports the sellers story) or multiple owners from a different state (in which case this probably part of some inter-state auto auction deal.
posted by metahawk at 1:55 PM on January 8, 2017

Well I got all screwed up with the numbers (not enough coffee) but I hope what I was trying to say was clear enough.

FWIW, area dealer prices on 2007's of the same model range from $5k-$8500,
So he is $3K+ more than any other dealer? He can clearly afford to sit on that car. I do think it is worth more than any car with >50k on it, but... only what you are willing to pay.

I don't think I'd pay more than $10K for it, if that is the going rate for cars in your area.
posted by Brockles at 3:34 PM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure that I'd really put a lot of positive value on extremely low mileage. If it means this vehicle has sat unused for one or more long periods of time... that is actually really hard on vehicles. I'd probably ignore it in my calculations.

Also I don't buy a lot of cars so I say this with a lot less confidence, but I don't think you should ever pay over the high book value. (Of the appropriate category, of course... KBB gives different values for retail and private-party sales.)
posted by teatime at 3:59 PM on January 8, 2017

Response by poster: I wish I knew how the car sites' algorithms worked. The section of dealer prices on KBB said their range of fair prices for the relevant year and model was based on only 18 transactions in the last 180 days, which does not inspire confidence given how far outside of typical this particular car is. It reminds me of the crappy realtors I talked to (but didn't hire) when I sold my last house. They presented me with a custom printed and bound booklet showing their "analysis" of what my house was worth, but they'd produced their booklet before ever seeing the house, and the analysis boiled down to "Well, with the housing crisis, values in this county are worth x% of what they were worth 10 years ago, so your house is worth x% of what you paid for it 10 years ago." It was shiny and colorful with all sorts of graphs, and it was spectacularly wrong.

benben: Pull your own carfax! Do not rely on his!!

Why? Are you assuming that his might be doctored?
posted by jon1270 at 4:21 PM on January 8, 2017

As the owner of a 17-year-old Corolla with only 100k miles on it--but which needs a quart of oil every 200 miles because it sat undriven for a few years and seals dried up somewhere in the engine--I am very skeptical about very low-mileage cars unless I know their history and the reason for the low mileage.
posted by needs more cowbell at 7:21 PM on January 8, 2017

We just bought a used Subaru (much older with more miles) and what you're describing sounds completely worth it to me. I would take it to an independent mechanic to get it checked first, but I think it sounds like an amazing deal.
posted by guster4lovers at 9:23 PM on January 8, 2017

Less than 300 miles a year? Hard pass. That car is going to be a pain in the ass to own.
posted by mikek at 5:05 AM on January 9, 2017 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Welp, I requested the VIN so that I could get a history report, but I was too late; he found a buyer yesterday, the day after listing it, and the sale was completed this morning. Guess he wasn't too far off on its value. :(
posted by jon1270 at 9:07 AM on January 9, 2017

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