Low-mileage used cars are harder to find than ever (Get... Low-mileage used cars are harder to find than ever (Getty Images).
David Perry's 1998 Honda Civic CX had given all it could.

He had racked up 172,000 miles since buying the car from a friend in 2002.

"It had, I think, like 90,000 miles on it when I bought it, and then I took it up to 262,000," said Perry, who lives in Nashville and relies on his wheels to get to and from work at The Village Chapel, where he is audio-visual coordinator. "Yeah, I pretty much squeezed the life out of it."

The little Civic was in need of major work and just wasn't worth fixing. So Perry set out to find a similar replacement: something small, reliable, fuel efficient and with a manual transmission, which he prefers.

It wasn't easy.

"If you want to find an old used car that's been pretty well wrung out, then you'll have no problem," said Jeff Bartlett, deputy editor, Autos at Consumer Reports. "But it's a little harder to find that three- or four-year-old, great-condition car."

Because of the recession that hit in late 2008, people have been holding onto their rides for longer than usual, waiting for better days before trading in their old wheels for new ones. The fact that vehicles in general are more reliable than ever has only exacerbated the lack of low-mileage used cars, as owners rack up tens of thousands of trouble-free miles before finally trading them in.

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Making matters worse for the used-car shopper, automakers have been leasing fewer vehicles in recent years due to credit issues in the financial markets, Bartlett says. So all of the pre-owned vehicles that used to flow back into dealerships once leases were up simply vanished.

"When the recession hit and new car sales dropped to that 10.3 million level, it took a lot of used cars out of the marketplace," says Ricky Beggs, senior vice president and editorial director of Black Book, a Gainsville, Ga.-based firm that tracks automotive residual values. "And then, when they started coming back into the marketplace, we weren't seeing two- and three- and four-year-old good quality used cars coming back into the marketplace, as much as we were seeing some eight- to 10- and 11-year-old used cars being traded in."

It's no wonder the average age of "light vehicles" on the road today reached an all-time high of 11.4 years in 2013, according to Polk, a research firm that tracks the auto industry. (Light vehicles are defined as passengers cars, minivans, SUVs and light-duty pickups.) A decade ago, the average age of a vehicle on the road was 9.8 years.

What does all of this mean for car buyers?

Well, for one thing, it might be worth looking at a few new vehicles when shopping for used ones. Automakers are also feeling the pinch of the economy and have been offering pretty sweet deals on brand-new models, some of which bring prices close to that of late-model used equivalents.

For example, when you look at monthly payments -- as opposed to the total price of the vehicle -- and factor in the lower financing rates offered on new vehicles compared to used ones, a brand new GMC Acadia and Toyota Camry Hybrid end up costing less than a one-year-old equivalent, according to Edmunds.com, a website that tracks car pricing. This is assuming a 60-month loan with no downpayment and typical financing rates for new and one-year-old used vehicles, the latter of which are priced using Edmunds' True Market Value transaction pricing. (See the full list of new versus used vehicles, here.)

The same case can be made for certified pre-owned vehicles, which tend to cost more than non-certified used models because they go through rigorous inspections and have a factory-backed warranty. If you're in the market for a certified pre-owned Hyundai Elantra Coupe, Nissan Titan SV Crew Cab, or Toyota Prius, then you might as well get the new version, according to Edmunds.com's calculations.

A new Hyundai Elantra Coupe will cost about $341 per month, versus $352 for a certified pre-owned equivalent, Edmunds.com calculates. And you'll save $12 a month and $25 a month, respectively, going with a brand-spanking new Nissan Titan SV Crew Cab and Toyota Prius over a certified pre-owned one.

But don't get the wrong idea. Remember, this is contingent on the rate of finance. So if you have bad credit, the new-versus-used argument might be less compelling.

Used cars will almost always cost less than new ones when looking at the total price. What's more, used car prices are finally settling back down again, after jumping in previous years for reasons discussed above. The average rate of depreciation, which is a vehicle's biggest single cost, for used cars went up 0.4 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to Black Book data. "Not a big difference, but just a trend that says the depreciation is going to be a little bit greater going forward," Beggs said.

That's partly why Edmunds.com's list of vehicles that cost less new versus used has been dwindling. "It was very lengthy in the crazy 2009 days," says Jessica Caldwell, director of pricing and industry analysis at Edmunds.com.

A new vehicle still might be worth considering over a used one even if it costs more, because in some cases, the surcharge is almost inconsequential -- at least when looking at monthly payments. According to Edmunds.com data, a new Honda CR-V LX with all-wheel drive will only run you an additional $540 over the course of a 60-month loan term compared to a used model. Meanwhile, a new Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Sport has a $1,080 premium over a one-year-old used model.

"If the price was that close, I'd imagine most people would opt for the new vehicle," Caldwell says.

But those holding out for a low-mileage, used-car bargain shouldn't lose hope. As Perry's experience proves, there are still good deals to be found. Just be prepared to do the legwork.

When looking to replace his rundown Honda Civic hatchback, Perry considered both new and used models. He test drove a 2014 Nissan Versa, which is among the lowest-priced new vehicles on the market. But he passed on it because it felt too stripped down and feature-less compared to the used Chevrolet Cruze and Hyundai Accent he checked out.

"I looked at a couple of Hondas," Perry said. "A couple of them were gone by the time I was able to get there. Those seem to be hard to keep around in the used lot." The same happened with a Ford Fiesta he wanted to scope out.

Ultimately, Perry was able to find a great deal on a used car. After searching for days across a handful of dealerships, he managed to score a 2012 Hyundai Accent with a manual six-speed transmission with only 4,500 miles on the odometer. Quite a haul, considering the five-year/60,000-mile factory warranty is still in effect.

"It's very quiet, it's very responsive and I'm really enjoying it so far," Perry said.


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