Photos credit: Yoel Espino

It’s taken you weeks of searching. You’ve finally found it. The perfect car for your budget and your Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. It’s even a low mileage car. Unusually low mileage. Very, unusually, low mileage. Here’s where that can go wrong.

People who have bought a lot of cars will often nod sagely, and tell you that it’s not good to buy a car with too few miles. This isn’t just some moral outrage, a precursor to a “cars are meant to be driven” rant. There’s some practical knowledge at work here.

Just as an example, I’ll use this 2002 Lexus IS300 Sportcross, which was recently for sale on CarGurus.com with a mere 73,500 miles on it. These things are rare these days, with only a little over 3,000 built when it was new, and even fewer on the roads today. Finding one with less than 100,000 miles on it, and not asking a relative fortune, and you’ve got yourself a unicorn.

But when buying any used car, it’s smart to take it for a pre-purchase inspection at a reputable mechanic. It’ll typically set you back around $100, give or take a few bucks, but it’s worth it. Maybe the car was damaged, and it wasn’t reported. Maybe there’s a significant mechanical issue that you weren’t aware of.

It’s a low mileage car, though. It drove less than 5,000 miles a year over the course of its life. How bad can it be? The engine is even aesthetically perfect.

And then the report comes back. There’s blood on the page.

Valve gasket – leaking. Rear main seal – leaking. Drive belt – cracking. Suspension bushings – dry. Required timing belt service at eight years or 90,000 miles – who knows. Cabin filter?

You don’t even want to know.

And if the car is far away, and you can’t examine it yourself, that’s all you’ve got to go on. A report, and a bill totaling into the thousands for repairs.

Sure, much of that could be due to a mechanic trying to squeeze water out of a rock. But just as likely, it falls down to one squishy, flexible thing. Rubber.

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Rubber is what makes up the gaskets in your car, sealing up all the places where large metal subassemblies join together. Usually it’s great at making sure nothing leaks, everything’s got a bit of flexibility, and everything stays all hunky dory.

But when a car sits for a while, as a car tends to do when a 15-year-old car has less than 100,000 miles on it, that rubber just sits, too. And sits. And sits. It dries out, and becomes brittle. Over time, the rubber does the opposite of what it’s meant to do, and it’s all got to be replaced. If it’s bad enough, it could need to be replaced immediately. In the case of the rear main seal, that means the transmission has to come out – an expensive job, if you’re not doing it yourself.

The car looks pretty good, though. Maybe it’s not so bad. Maybe the mechanic is just trying to get business. Maybe it’ll all be worth it to fly down to the seller, pick it up, and drive it 800 miles back home with two extra quarts of 5W-30 just in case.

Because that’s exactly what I just did.