December 14, 2023 | Sammy Tran

10 Red Flags to Watch For When Buying a Used Car


Signs You Might Be Buying a Lemon

For sale sign Tomasz Zajda, Adobe Stock

Buying a used car—especially from a private owner—might be better on your budget, but it comes with some risks. It’s important to be aware of possible red flags so you don’t end up with a lemon.

Here are some things to watch for that might signal troubles lurking beneath the surface of that seemingly good deal.

The Seller is Evasive or Rushed

Man checking watchgajendra, Adobe Stock

When you’re looking at a used car from a private owner its important to watch how the seller behaves. If they avoid answering questions, reluctant to allow a proper inspection, or seems in a hurry to close the deal, these are all huge red flags.

A good seller should have no problem answering all questions about the condition, value, and history of the vehicle.

Mismatched Paint or Over Spray

Red broken down carshchus, Adobe Stock

If there are areas on the vehicle that don’t match, specifically paint color, it could be a sign that there was a collision of some sort and something has been repaired or covered up.

This may not necessarily be a deal-breaker, but its important to find out exactly what happened and the extend of the damage and repairs.

The Vehicle Has a Salvage Title

Old used carmino21, Adobe Stock

A “Salvage Title”—also referred to as a “write off”—means the car was considered a total loss by the insurance company.

If an insurance company deems the car a total loss, it likely has extensive damage from an accident, flood, or some other huge event.

Salvage vehicles can be risky purchases if you’re hoping to use the vehicle for safe transportation. Most times you won’t know the extent of the damage, and it would have limited resale value.

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Fluid Leaks

Person checking under carCouperfield, Adobe Stock

If the vehicle has any signs of fluid leaks under the car can signal issues with the engine, transmission, or other critical systems.

Leaks are often a sign of poor maintenance, which can lead to both bigger problems and expensive repairs.

The Price is Too Good to Be True

Teacher Confiscated FactsShutterstock

We all love a good deal, but a price that is far below market value could be a red flag. It could be a sign of an undisclosed issue, or an attempt to offload a lemon onto someone else.

If you find a really good deal, be sure to ask a lot of questions and have a proper inspection.

Inconsistent Service History

Disrespected employeesShutterstock

Vehicles require regular maintenance. If the seller cannot confirm the service history it could mean that it has been neglected, and therefore may have some impending costly repairs.

It’s important that you purchase a used car that was well taken care of.

Unusual Noises or Smells

Woman kneeling down checking carmetamorworks, Adobe Stock

If the vehicle has any strange noises or smells when you start it, or drive it, this can signal underlying issues.

This can be anything from worn belts to engine damage.

Be sure to turn on the vehicle and leave it running for a short period to listen, and smell, for any problems. Don’t forget to put the vehicle into different gears, and test all functions. This is also important to do during a test drive.

Mismatched Tires

TiresShutterstock

Mismatched tires could be a sign that the vehicle is lacking in maintenance. It could also be a band-aid issue for alignment problems or issues due to frame damage.

If the tires are in poor condition, be sure to include that in your negotiations. Proper tires are imperative for vehicle safety.

Warning Lights on the Dashboard

Customer Questions FactsShutterstock

If the used vehicle you’re looking to buy has any lit-up warning lights on the dashboard, this is a red flag. Warning lights signal problems with the engine, transmission, or other vital systems.

Some issues may be easy fixes, but others can lead to extensive repairs.

If you’re able to have a diagnostics test done, or you happen to have a code reader to confirm the issue, this could save you the trouble of finding a bigger problem after it’s too late.

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Varying Wear on Brake Pedals or Driver’s Seat

Feet on car pedalsWorawat, Adobe Stock

If you notice significant wear on the brake pedal or on the driver’s seat, and it does not add up with the stated mileage, this could be a huge red flag that the odometer has been tampered with.

This scam happens a lot for older models with high mileage.

Check for consistent wear throughout the interior of the vehicle to see if the reported mileage is accurate.

Final Thoughts

Car for private saleTOATPHOTO, Adobe Stock

When buying a used vehicle from a private seller, it is important to be diligent. Take your time when inspecting the vehicle, and be thorough. As for maintenance records and damage history.

If possible, have a trusted mechanic take a look before you buy it.

Being informed can save you from buying a problematic vehicle that will end up costing you more than what you paid in the first place.