Can car mileage be checked on old used cars?

Not sure if this is a problem in America, but here in east Europe when you buy an older car (1995-2010), you automatically know that whatever mileage is written, it’s probably fake, if it says 180.000 kilometers, it’s probably like 250k or more, even if the ad says things like “imported from Germany!”,etc, in fact those imports are the ones with most mileages being reversed.

So, if I want to buy an older car, is there a way to check for this with 100% certainty or do I just have to believe whatever I’m told? For example let’s say I want to get an older BMW E39 or E46, they aren’t produced for almost 2 decades now, even though they are extremely common here, can those cars be checked at the official BMW repair shop or any other place?

Are there legal penalties for odometer rollback where you live?

It can be a problem in the US as well. AFAIK, most states now require the mileage to be documented on the registration application, including renewals. That means, the state has a record of the reported mileage for each year the registration was renewed. Now, I don’t think they actually verify the mileage, but if one is going to lie about it, you would have to at least be consistent about it. Most dealers will record the mileage when they service the vehicle. I am pretty sure independent shops also record the mileage, but that may not be universal. Now, you would have to know what shops the previous owner used for service, and probably have the previous owner agree to let you see the service records, but if they won’t agree to that, it would be a big red flag.

Interesting that you mention specifically BMW E39s and E46s. as these were some of the first cars that, again AFAIK, stored the mileage both in the car’s computer as well as the instrument cluster, and if they did not agree they would display an error. The programming was, in fact, was sophisticated enough so that if you replaced the instrument cluster with a new one, the car’s computer would recognize the zero value in the new cluster and replace it with the value stored in the computer. It was a pretty bullet-proof system, but about 10 years ago, someone posted a procedure that, if you could get a copy of the BMW software, you could change the value in the car’s computer. Now, the procedure is fairly complex and if you did it incorrectly, you would “brick it”, that is, make the computer about as useful as a brick. Not something a backyard mechanic would attempt, but a competent mechanic working for a shady used-car salesman could probably be successful with it.

Another thing that is common in the US is that if the age of the vehicle is over 10 years, the registration requirement for reporting mileage is often optional and they will accept a value of “UNKNOWN” for title purposes. The last car I titled had the mileage on the title, but it also had the disclaimer that because of the age, the mileage reported may not be accurate.

The only thing a buyer can do is either buy from the original owner and review the service records. If that is not possible, assume the mileage may or may be accurate and base you decision on that fact.

A good mechanic can probably tell the age within a certain range.

At least in Texas, the odometer value is often recorded on the title when the car is sold. I’ve bought/sold vehicles that had gone past their odometer’s capability (older vehicles where the odometer rolled over at 100K miles). In that case, the title states Mileage Exceeds Mechanical Limits.

But yeah, odometers used to actually be more difficult to fool with back when they were mechanical. They’d usually just break. On the other hand, there are other things you can look for. A car with 100K miles is going to have wear and dirt you can usually see. There’s no place that can verify that the car you’re buying hasn’t had it’s odo tampered with, but there are lots of things to check about the cars condition that would tell you if the reading is realistic. Also, Texas keeps a database of cars they know have had their odometer tampered with. I’d imagine other states/nations have that, too. You can at least check those for the known places this car came from, and make sure you’re not buying one that is known to have its odometer tampered with. Here’s Texas’ DMV’s page on odometer fraud with things they suggest, and a PDF list of VINs that are known to be tampered with.

However, on such an old car, I wouldn’t worry that much about the mileage, other than I’d be suspicious of any car that had less than 100K miles on it that was 15 years old. A car that old can deteriorate sitting still, or simply have been driven hard and/or not maintained for the miles on the odometer. I’d make sure it’s not leaking, the interior looks OK and doesn’t smell funny, and runs relatively smoothly. If it does all that, then take it to a mechanic to have it checked out.

It happens. I have a 2002 VW. It’s got 60,000 miles on it.

In some cases the car check services can tell if there is a discrepancy with the mileage. Sometimes the regular service checks or other maintenance actions will cause the mileage to be recorded. If the numbers look weird, they can tell you. For example: https://www.carfax.com/press/resources/odometer

Oh, I don’t doubt it. Seen similar cars myself, but they’re not the norm. It’s just that on a 2002, the mileage isn’t as important. The care and maintenance of an 18 year old car is more important than the mileage. If your car looks to have good paint, no leaks, no rotting hoses, a clean interior, and runs well, then I’d suggest taking it to a mechanic for a once-over if you were selling it to the OP. I said be suspicious, not walk away from it.

@Czarcasm not that I know of

@Bijou Drains it’s not just about the age though, not everyone lives the same distance from their workplace, for example I live just a mile from my workplace and probably should walk instead of being lazy and using the car, other than that I maybe go once a week to the supermarket and once a month to somewhere that’s 10 to 20 miles away, so in total that’s 100 to 120 miles per month, on the other hand my coworker lives 3 miles from the workplace, so 6 miles per day and that’s around 130 to 150 miles just for the work, he has a house in another city that’s 50 miles away and goes monthly there, so 100 miles return trip, trips to the supermarket and so on that’s already 250 to 300+ miles per month. Another coworker lives in a town 25 miles away, some people from further towns like that go together in a car and switch cars, one week one guy drives, then another guy the next week,etc, and even he drove just one week a month, that would be 50 miles daily or 250 a week, though I think that he is the only one with the car among the coworkers he rides with, so he actually drives 1000 miles a month.

My car is from year 2000, the first coworker’s car is a 2001 car and the third guy’s car that crosses 3 to 10 times more than us, is from year 2007 I think, so if you looked at it just by the age, I would have the worst car, but it’s the exact opposite, the newest car is much more used and the oldest one the least.

@Scabpicker verifying whether a car passed 10k or 100k miles is probably not that hard, but in this case all cars have 100k+ miles, so it’s a question of whether they have around 100-120k miles (like many supposedly have) or is it 220 to 250k miles (like many others do), so all of these cars are thoroughly used and probably have some problems here and there, so that makes it much harder to figure out the real mileage.

Most US cars now have the mileage stored digitally. That’s true since at least 2010 .

**So how do you tell if a used car has had its mileage “rolled back”? **

I know in BMWs, the mileage is stored in the instrument cluster and the light control module along with the VIN. If either one is replaced, the odometer will have a little dot near it to show that the mileage is not correct. A BMW-specific ODBII reader can show the mileage value of the two modules.

By looking at its teeth.

scabpicker is correct. For an E39 or E46, the actual mileage is almost irrelevant. Cars can sit and deteriorate, or they can be 45,000 mile creampuffs that never had an oil change. Get a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) and look for documentation from the seller, those are going to be your best defenses.

The only place mileage really comes into play is with auction and wholesale. A dealership buying a ton of late model cars from a wholesaler isn’t inspecting everything, their basing their prices off of formulas and black book values. A shady wholesaler who’s rolling back an average of 10k per vehicle can make substantially more money based on those formulas, maybe a couple hundred bucks on a $20k vehicle but that adds up.

But yeah, that doesn’t really matter on an E46. Something with 200k miles and meticulous records could very well be a better purchase than something with 30k miles and no history.

My first car was a Volkswagen Beetle. I loved that car and took excellent care of it. I also disconnected my odometer/speedometer, not really thinking about the implications. I took it for state inspection and the mechanic smacked me upside my head (he knew my dad and felt that he could do that), pointing out that apparently I’d only driven 4 miles in the past year.

I reconnected my odometer/speedometer.

The mileage is actually mostly irrelevant. How it was maintained, what conditions it was driven in, how it was stored when not being driven are more important.

The best thing you can do is have a reliable mechanic take a look at it. My 18 year old car is a daily driver, but I maintain the hell out of it. The weather here is often wet but the underside of my car is pristine compared to other cars from different parts of the US because the road dept. does not salt the roads. I swear that some of the underbodies I have seen from other areas look like they have been driven through strong acid. My sway bar links are new, shocks, new, and the rest of the suspension has been maintained so that I still have the driving experience of when the car was new. Oil changes are done frequently, much more often than required by the manual. If you pull the valve covers you will see little difference from a brand new engine. Hoses, belts, etc are changed well before they could fail. It has 140k on it now and the only reason that I won’t get 300k on it is that I probably won’t put that many miles on it while I am still living.

Mileage is irrelevant. Maintenance, upkeep, TLC, storage, driving conditions, these things matter much more.

Forgot to mention, many of those readers can also change the mileage and VIN information in the modules, so you can’t always count on that being correct. Earlier models of BMW (pre 2002?) could do a soft reset, but later years required some kind of chip to be soldiered in to change the info.

In the USA tampering with the odometer is a criminal offense since at least the 1970’s, when the governments got involved in limiting shady auto dealer practices.

There’s the famous case of the Chrysler(?) executive who was charged with this. Apparently one perk of Chrysler big shots was, they could go down to the assembly line, pick any car that rolled out, and mechanics would disconnect the odometer cable. Then they’d take it on a vacation, often rolling up several thousand miles. When they were done, they brought it back and the thing was sold as new with no miles on it. Seems like the definition of entitlement, they did not know it was illegal:

https://www.nytimes.com/1987/06/25/business/chrysler-is-indicted-over-mileage-shown-on-some-new-cars.html