Those who have been through the process of buying a used car know there are some sketchy cars out there with some pretty sketchy sellers. In fact there are more sketchy cars than you could imagine. You could say buying a used car is a gamble.
Mileage: Anyone with the know-how can change the mileage on today's cars. A car with 165,000 miles can easily be changed to 65,000 miles and some older cars actually only have 5 spaces on the odometer so the car could have "turned over" multiple times.
Lemons: There are tens of thousands of "lemons" that major auto companies have bought back from buyers and illegally resold in other states.
Theft: In 2006 there were over 1 million cars stolen in the United States. A good percentage of these cars were, and still are, resold illegally.
Water Damage: Hurricane Katrina caused 571,000 vehicles to become "flood-cars" which are being found all over the country after they had been resold with irreparable damage.
Accidents: Cars that have been in accidents which are fixed up and repainted could be a safety hazard, could have damage to critical parts, or they could just not be worth a dime.
Warranties: Many used car dealers will be quick to sell you a warranty to make you feel more confident but it's very likely it won't cover major repairs.
Misuse: Cars are misused by neglect, abuse, and simple ignorance. If the car hasn't been well maintained there will always be problems with it. This can be a very difficult thing to detect since the car will probably be nice and cleaned up for you.
Bad Titles: Some cars have title issues including engine swaps, mismatching mileage, fake titles, and some cars have no title at all.
Inspection: My advice is to stay away from a car without an inspection sticker.
Recalls: Many models have factory recalls that can be fixed by the dealer free of charge, but some owners neglect or forget about the recall and never get it fixed. Failure to take care of recalls can cause serious injury.
Lemons: Many issues with used cars can be resolved with a vehicle history report. The popular websites Carfax.com and Autocheck.com are easy ways to find out if a car has been deemed a lemon, has been in an accident, has flood damage, has been reported stolen, or has title issues.
A much cheaper way to find this information is through a government site called www.add123.com which is available in 28 states and soon to be 11 more. Although they are helpful, history reports cannot tell you everything about the car. For example, the car could have been in an accident but just not reported.
Theft: When it comes to theft, you must check multiple vin numbers on the car to make sure they all match. Stolen car's vin numbers can easily be changed for a clean history report so checking as many vin plates as you can is important.
There's usually one vin number on the front door frame on the driver's side or passenger's side, one on the the dashboard near the windshield, one on the engine itself, one on the car's firewall, one on the left hand inner wheel arch, one on the steering column, and there's one on the radiator support bracket. All numbers should match the number on the title/registration and if they don't it could be an indication that the car has been stolen.
Stay away from cars that need to be started with a screwdriver or that look like the ignition has been tampered with. This could be a sign of a stolen vehicle.
Water Damage: Although a history report can uncover water damage, unfortunately if it hasn't been reported it is difficult to spot because water damage can easily be cleaned up. A car with water damage can have major electrical problems that aren't obvious.
Check the engine bay first for water damage. Look for mold and other residue left behind from dirt and leaves. Do the same inside the car and in the trunk in addition to smelling the interior parts for musty or moldy stenches. Also, check the history report for past locations of the car. If it was shipped from New Orleans in 2005 or 2006 it might be a good idea to steer clear.
Accidents: Again, the history report is a great place to start but all accidents aren't reported. To physically check for accident damage open the hood, doors, and trunk to make sure everything opens and closes properly.
A sticking door can mean the car has been hit. Look down the sides of the car to see how "straight" the panels are. When you open the hood, check to see that the walls of the engine compartment are all straight with no bends or welds that look like they were done recently. See that the front panel of the engine compartment is completely parallel to the side walls. If it isn't, it means it has been in a front end collision.
With newer cars, if it has been repainted it might mean it has been in an accident and the insurance payed for a paint job. Look for "overspray" on rubber seals, gaskets, and boots. Overspray occurs the painter sprayed an area that wasn't supposed to be painted. Areas that frequently get hit with overspray are in the door hinges, around the inside of the engine compartment, under the wheel wells, and in the trunk compartment.
Look to see that all body paint matches. If there are areas that don't match in color it means certain panels of the car were painted or replaced. Snoop around these areas to catch any problems. Another sign of accident damage is mismatching headlamps. If one looks new, it is possible that that side has been hit and replaced.
I'll say this over and over, take the car to a mechanic to be inspected. It will be worth every penny you spend. He will be able to tell you if the car has ever been hit.
Mileage: Unfortunately mileage might be the most difficult of all to diagnose aside from a history report. Cars built before 1982 don't have available history reports and many cars built before this time only had 5 number places on the odometer. So, did the odometer pass 99,999 miles? Once? Twice?
One simple way to judge the approximate mileage on the car is simple wear and tear. In what condition is the interior? If the seats, steering wheel, and shift knob have lots of wear and tear the chances are the car has done a lot of miles.
Again, take the car to a mechanic who will be able to tell the difference between a car that has driven 99,999 and 199,999 miles a matter of minutes.
The same goes for buying more modern used cars, if it doesn't run like a car that only has 60,000 miles on it, chances are that the mileage has been changed. You have to look out for this with dealerships and garages more than private sellers.
Warranties: When buying from a dealership the car salesperson will want to sell you a warranty. Don't waste your money! They'll tell you you need it because if something expensive goes wrong it will cover it. If something expensive goes wrong, chances are it'll still be coming out of your pocket. Warranties only cover certain items so make sure you read every word of the warranty to find out exactly what is and what isn't covered.
Misuse: I could probably write a whole book on car abuse and neglect but I'll keep it short and sweet. Bring it to a mechanic if you think the car may have been misused or not taken care of.
Bad Titles: If you're buying a car for an everyday driver and the car you're looking at has any title issues don't bother looking at it. There are plenty of other cars out there that are the same make/model/color without any title issues.
With all of these issues you should always be prepared. A few things you can do to slim the chances of getting stuck with a car with big problems are;
- Research! Before looking at anything do plenty of research on the car you're looking to buy. Find out problem areas, cost of repairs, general wear and tear, and cost of maintenance. Some cars have high maintenance costs some just have lots of problems. Also research recalls and ask the owner if the recalls have been fixed. If so, does he or she have proof.
- Bring a friend: Having a person with you while looking at a car is a huge benefit. It allows a second pair of eyes and ears to check the car. Have them start the car and rev it for you while you stand at the back and front of the car to listen to the exhaust and engine. You can also have your friend talk to the owner of the car while you pay attention to the car itself. Bring a pad to take notes on and if you're really ambitious, bring a camera.
- Look at more than one: If you have a car in mind, try to look at and test drive as many as possible. Go to a few private sellers and dealers even if the cars are over priced and aren't exactly what you're looking for. This way you'll have something to compare and you'll make the best choice possible.
- Take it to a mechanic: Ask the seller if you can take the car to a mechanic before you buy. If they don't approve then it's your choice, but I would walk away. A local mechanic would be happy to inspect a car for a fee of course, but the fee is well worth it when you think about the amount of money you might be spending on continuous repairs in the future. A mechanic will tell you exactly what's wrong and right with the car.
- Tires: A car should have all the same make and size tires. It is dangerous to drive with mismatching tires.
- Inspection: Make sure the car has an inspection sticker. If it doesn't you could be spending a lump sum to pass inspection. If the seller doesn't have it inspected as him/her to have it inspected this way you'll know what needs to be done.
- Service History: Ask to see the car's service history. Any receipts or proof that the car has been maintained is needed to see exactly what has been done to the car.
If you are patient and take measures to find a great car, you should find a car that is worth buying. Remember, the car is only as good as the previous owner(s) have kept it so if you don't trust the owner don't buy the car. If it doesn't feel, sound, drive, or act right then walk away. Good luck with your next purchase and drive it how it was meant to be driven!