Can I Trust the Odometer Reading on a Used Car?

YouTube is not only for cat videos and large scale wedding proposals. It has also become a university for the common man. Need a haircut? Not sure how to brush your dog’s teeth? (Kudos to you for even wanting to brush your dog’s teeth, by the way.) Want to figure out how to change the air filter on a 1978 Camaro? From teepee building to tooth extraction, YouTube has you covered.

Unfortunately, this kind of widespread information has its drawbacks. One of those drawbacks is that a curious person with a willingness to be dishonest can figure out how to make an odometer look like their 1999 Volvo miraculously only has 50,000 miles on it.

Don’t worry, we are here to help.

First, let’s get back to basics. What exactly is an odometer? In simple terms, it counts how many times your wheels go around and uses that information to track the number of miles on a car. While there are many questions you ask before buying a previously owned vehicle, probably the first on everyone’s list is: How many miles are on it?

That number is a clue to the wear and tear, and gives you a guess as to how many more it has on it. Also, it is a signal for any upcoming maintenance that the car might need. That little number on the dashboard holds quite a bit of power. So, you want to make sure that the number you see is the actual number that the car has seen.

There are two main kinds of odometers: analog and digital. You won’t see many analog odometers anymore. They work on a pretty simple gear system, tracking the rotations of the tires and spinning the numbers on your dashboard accordingly. Its simplicity also makes it easier to tweak–you just need some simple tools and no moral compass.

Digital odometers are more common and, luckily, harder to change. Digital odometers also track the tires. It is just a more refined system. It uses magnetic or optical sensors that then send pulse signals to the engine unit. There, some magic math is done and up on your screen pops your mileage. So, if it is so complicated and sensitive, how can someone possibly mess with it?

Good question.

The first method a dodgy seller might use is an odometer correction tool. This is a basic mechanism that simply blocks a car from counting miles. It doesn’t take any miles off, but it also doesn’t put any new miles on. If an unscrupulous driver installs one of these the moment they buy a car, then in a few years their Civic will magically not have aged a day or driven a mile.

If someone didn’t have the forethought to put on a mileage blocker, then they can get creative and roll back the miles on the actual odometer. This involves removing the equipment from a car, connecting to a computer, and reprogramming the odometer to display new mileage. Sound complicated? It is, and that’s where YouTube comes in. In the words of Uncle Ben, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Unfortunately, some people that sell cars ignore their inner Uncle Ben.

These methods are difficult to spot right away, especially if someone is good at it. But, there other clues that can help you avoid this trap and get a good car at the right price. The first rule is “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.” If the mileage numbers seem too low for the year of the car, pay attention to that. It’s your first red flag. Sometimes, there is a good explanation for that. It might be a car with very few owners, only driven on the weekends, etc. There’s no need to dismiss it out of hand, but it is worth a bit more digging to make sure everything checks out.

First, ask for a paper trail. Make sure you have every record possible for the car. Documentation will often note the mileage of a vehicle. Look at the title, warranties, oil change records–anything you can get. If every piece of paper checks out with the numbers on the odometer, then you are probably in good shape.

If there aren’t papers available, use the car itself to investigate. First, look at the tires. Does the wear and tear on the tires match with the mileage count? If the tires are brand new, then there should be paperwork for them. Ask to see that.

It is often worth the investment to have a mechanic look at any previously owned car you are considering buying. This is true even if you aren’t worried about the mileage count. But, if you are concerned with that, ask a trusted mechanic to take a look. They can probably spot any odometer tampering better than you can. Also, ask them to check belts and parts to see if their wear and tear matches the odometer count as well.

These tips aren’t designed to create paranoia or generate a sense of mistrust as you shop for your next car. Look at the whole car as you start shopping. The number on the dashboard is only one piece of the puzzle and keeping your eyes open to details will help you avoid lots of problems. We are here to help you find the best car at the best price and we are committed to do it with honesty. We are a branded title car dealership in Utah that is dedicated to selling used cars that have been carefully selected and inspected to give you the best car for your money. We sell to buyers in our own neck of the woods as well as those across the country who want us to ship their car without hassle or headaches.

Hopefully, some of these tips will help you feel more prepared as you begin the search for cars and wonder about those odometer readings. If you need more, well, YouTube has you covered for that, too. We’re happy to answer questions as they come up, just don’t ask us to cut your hair or brush your dog’s teeth. We’ll leave that to you.