Red Flags to Look for When Buying a Used Car

Buying a used car is a great way to acquire a superb car for much less than you would have paid to buy new.

Depreciation hits cars hard, making deals that seem too good to be true ample.

No matter what car you are looking to purchase, and no matter how good of a deal it is, it is vital to put your emotions aside and make sure your potential purchase is all that it is cracked up to be.

As they say, if it seems too good to be true, then it probably is.

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There are many things to look out for when looking at a used car. Whether it be the vehicle itself or the seller, it's always important to keep your eyes and ears open.

Here are just some of the things that are important to look out for when buying a used car.

Crash Damage

Buying a previously wrecked or damaged car can turn out to be an absolute nightmare. When buying from a dealer, request a Carfax and an Autocheck report. If they don't oblige, I recommend using, where you can get a full vehicle history report.

However, it is important to keep in mind that no vehicle history website will report an unreported accident, as there is no record of it. You'd be surprised how often things go by without official documentation.

The fact of the matter is, it is sometimes impossible to repair a crashed vehicle perfectly. It is always possible to tell if an accident occurred in a car, though it isn't always easy.

I always recommend taking any car you are considering purchasing to the dealership of the manufacturer for a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). They can be costly, but it will save you from a lot of headaches. There are also simple checks you can do yourself, too.

What to Look For

When checking for signs of a crash, I recommend checking the consistency and alignment of panel gaps. Check the paintwork for runs and orange peel, too.

Most cars will have some orange peel from the factory, but excessive orange peel and uneven paint could be signs of a cheap and shoddy respray.

It can't hurt to bring a magnet with you to run along the metal components of the body of the car, too. This is an excellent way to detect body filler.

I also recommend checking the spare tire compartment for signs of damage. If damage has occurred, it is nearly impossible to correct here. Giving the under-body a good once-over is a good idea also.

Key spots to check are the front subframe, the underside of the spare tire compartment, and around the side-skirts. Look for any signs of damage or non-OEM welds.

Inside the car, be sure to check any airbag covers for signs of being glued or sewn after an accident.

Flood damage is harder to detect, but not impossible. A simple way to detect evidence of flooding is to check for a musty or moldy odor in the cabin.

It's also worth checking under the carpets, if possible, for signs of moisture or rust. Check the underbody for signs of rust or oxidation as well.


Scams are another thing that plagues the used car market. One of the biggest scams within dealerships is the "financing fell through," scam.

Basically, the financing manager tells you that you've been approved for financing and they let you drive off in the car after some paperwork. You think that financing is complete and that you can go on with your life.

However, the dealership calls back sometime later to tell you that financing fell through. They'll inform you that you have to put down a greater down payment and assume higher monthly payments. If not, they may threaten to report the car stolen, putting many victims in a tight position. This is just one of the scams that plague car dealerships.

As far as private sales are concerned, there is one big scam that plagues Craigslist. You'll find an outrageously good deal on a car. Something along the lines of a late-model, low-mileage Honda Accord for around $2,000.

When you email them, they may give some story about how they are out of the country. They'll say that they can't show you the car, but to just send them the money either through PayPal or some other electronic method.

Sometimes, they'll even send a fake eBay invoice to try and seem legitimate. Thankfully, very few people fall for this scam, but a number still do. It's a terrible shame, but something worth watching out for.

Buying a used car can be a great way to get an excellent car at a great price, but it is important to look out for any red flags. As long as you use good judgment and common sense, buying a used car can be a gratifying experience.