Used Car Red Flags

Used cars are something of a conundrum. On the one hand, they represent an outstanding opportunity for bargain motoring. After all, the second owner always gets to take advantage of the depreciation hit. 

On the other hand though, you’re also buying whatever the first owner did — or did not do — to the car. Fortunately, some of these issues have telltale signs. Looking for these used car red flags will help you find the peach in a basket of lemons. 

Spotty or Nonexistent Service Records

Cars are complicated mechanical devices comprised of a number of co-dependent systems. In some cases, the failure of one system can trigger problems in another, which can lead to a cascading series of maladies resulting in financial calamity. 

Anyone selling a car with no service history has likely skimped on key maintenance procedures. This can open the door to some very pricey repairs. Pass if you can’t get a reasonably complete service history — regardless of how good the car looks.

Clouded Title 

Salvage titled, flood titled, and junk titled cars pose significant financial and safety risks. Yes, it can be very tempting to grab that Audi R8 for a third of its retail price because it has a salvage title. But remember, we usually get what we pay for.

A clouded title usually results from a significant trauma that led to the car being declared unfit. Do not buy a car with a clouded title unless you’re in a position to go over it thoroughly and completely repair the underlying cause(s). Keep in mind that doing so will usually cost as much, if not more, than buying a similar car with a clean title in the first place.

If credit problems are leading you to consider a salvage car as a viable option, look for a reputable bad credit car loan from a company like RoadLoans. You’ll get a better car and avoid headaches.

Obvious Mechanical Issues

Check the oil: Is it a transparent golden color, or is it black? If it’s the latter it needs to be changed. If someone hasn’t the decency to perform an oil change before offering a car for sale— what else do you need to know about this person? 

Ditto the other fluids. Are they topped up and clean? 

Do the belts and hoses look dry or cracked? Do you hear any strange noises when the car starts up or idles? Does it brake in a straight line during the test drive? Do you hear grinding noises when you step on the brake pedal? Are there any squeaks and rattles as you drive over rough pavement?

Does the car track straight when you take your hands off the steering wheel on a level road? Do the tires have good tread? Are they wearing evenly all the way across? Do you feel any odd vibrations in the steering wheel?

These are overt signs, however there are also things only a trained mechanic can spot. Do yourself a favor and spend $100 for a pre-purchase inspection on any car you think might be the one.

Excessive Wear on Pedals

This one is a bit trickier to pull off these days, but odometer tampering is still a thing. If a car is being presented with low mileage but the brake pedal and clutch pedal (if it has one) shows wear, you can safely assume the mileage is higher than the odometer shows. 

Pedals wear with use. If the odometer says 50,000 miles, you can be certain that car has traveled 100,000 miles or more if the brake pedal has rubber worn away.

If the seller is lying about that, ask yourself what other untruths might be lurking. 

Spotting these used car red flags will help you find the best used car you can get for the money you have to spend. And again, whatever else you do, always get a pre-purchase inspection by a reliable mechanic familiar with the make and model you’re considering.

3 thoughts on “Used Car Red Flags

  1. Thanks for this interesting post! I am currently looking at used cars, so these tips will come handy in the near future. I still have to save up about a year (or two). Cars are ridiculously expensive in Finland, because the car tax is really high.

  2. Thanks for the insight. Car ownership is declining as ride sharing apps have become more useful. Also car dealerships make it worse for car buyers. They’re protect by politicians. Manufactures are not allowed to sell directly to consumers and this can add over a thousand dollars to the car’s price tag. Also, I’m working on some research right now that indicates used car prices will drop over the next few years.

  3. Solid tips for anyone in the market for a used car. Both of my boys work in auto shops and they are my go-to inspectors, although lately it has been cars for them. Another tip that we usually check is to bring along a magnet and check the usual spots for rust repair–if a car has had bondo / filler patched over rust, the magnet will not stick. That isn’t always a deal breaker but it is helpful to know some of the things that you cannot always see.

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