5 Used-Car Red Flags That Should Send You Running

There’s often a lot more — or less — to a used car than meets the eye.

Kicking used car in parking lotManuel Carrillo III/Capital One

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Purchasing a used car can be a challenging task. Once you’ve narrowed your search down to a specific year, make, and model, you still need to make sure you’re not buying a vehicle with hidden problems that will sooner or later cost you a lot of money. While each car has its own specific set of potential problems to watch out for, here are five general used car red flags that should send you running.

Check the NICB Database

The National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) is a nonprofit organization created to fight insurance fraud and crime. It offers a free look-up service called VIN Check that helps buyers determine if a car they’re interested in has been reported stolen or salvaged by an insurance company that’s an NICB member. If a car was reported stolen, the database also provides information about whether it was recovered.

Checking if a car appears in the NICB’s database is simple:

  1. First, find the car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN. It’s a 17-character sequence of numbers and letters that appears on the bottom of the driver’s side of the windshield and on registration documents
  2. Then open the VIN Check page and either type in the VIN or take and upload a photo of it. Submit the form, and the results will load

Motorists shouldn’t buy a car that appears in the NICB database without getting it thoroughly inspected first. As NICB president and CEO David Glawe explains on the organization’s website, “Cars damaged in floods or in accidents could be hiding some very unsafe parts, placing drivers, passengers, and others on the road at risk.”

The VIN on the car doesn’t match the VIN on the title

Before buying a used car, ask to see the title and look for anything alarming. Check that the year, make, and model are correct and that there are no brands indicating the vehicle has been severely damaged or could be unsafe. Also, verify that the VIN listed on the document matches the VIN that appears on the car. Carmakers have been using the standardized 17-character VIN format since 1981. Every car is assigned a specific VIN, and there are no duplicates, so that can be a very clear used car red flag

Don’t panic if the VIN on the car and the VIN on the title are off by just a single digit. That could be the result of a transcription error made at some point in the car’s history. For example, someone may have mistakenly written a B as an 8 (or vice versa). The real trouble normally begins when the VIN on the car is completely different from the VIN on the title. That could be a sign that the car was stolen.

If the title was already signed by a buyer who isn't you (and a seller who isn't the person selling you the car), the seller could be trying to avoid paying sales tax and other registration-related fees, a practice sometimes referred to as “title-jumping” or “title-skipping.” It’s illegal in every state and can cause problems for the buyer.

Obvious Flood Damage Signs

Water can wreak havoc on nearly every part of a car, which explains why flood-damaged vehicles often end up in junkyards or sold with a salvage title, which is issued when a car is declared a total loss by an insurance company. Consumer Reports notes, however, that some flood-damaged cars do get repaired and sold in areas of the country that are far from the site of the disaster. Insurance company Progressive urges buyers to check for unusual odors, a discolored interior, sand or dirt in unusual areas, rust, and moisture — all signs that a car might have been damaged by a flood. On your test drive, keep an eye out for smoke, electronic glitches, and unusual noises coming from the brakes or the steering system.

Selling a flooded car isn’t illegal if the issue is clearly disclosed to the buyer. Progressive adds that, depending on the severity of the damage, some flood-damaged cars can be repaired, while others are allowed to remain on the road with a salvage title. Keep in mind that a salvage title can greatly reduce your car’s value and make it difficult to insure.

Prior Repairs Need a Solid Explanation

Signs of prior repairs can be a major red flag, even if the car isn’t in the NICB’s database and the vehicle’s history report doesn’t list an accident. Consumer Reports recommends checking for misaligned panels and variations in the paint’s color and finish. While uneven panel gaps could be the result of a quality-control lapse at the factory, they can also indicate that body damage was poorly repaired. Mismatched paint and overspray are also signs of subpar body work.

Rust and rust-related repairs are common concerns as well, especially if you’re buying an older car or one that has spent time in cold-climate states. You can check for the presence of repairs made with a body filler like Bondo by using a magnet. If it sticks to the body, there’s metal under the paint. If it doesn’t, there could be body filler under the paint.

Obvious signs of neglect and corner-cutting repairs

When inspecting a used car for red flags, keep an eye out for signs of deferred maintenance, including mismatched tires, rust-colored coolant, and engine oil or transmission fluid leaks. Consumer Reports also recommends looking under the car to spot problems such as dents in the underbody components and constant-velocity, or CV, joint boots that are split and leaking grease.

Some sellers will show their car’s service history to prospective buyers as a way to prove it has been properly maintained. Service records detail the repairs and maintenance performed, and can help track the vehicle’s mileage. Some owners maintain their cars themselves, which is fine, but in that case the seller should show the buyer invoices for any parts purchased. Consumer Reports warns that it may be best to avoid a car sold without sufficient maintenance history, especially if you can’t get it inspected by a mechanic.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American journalist and automotive historian based in France. He enjoys working on old cars and spending time outdoors seeking out his next project car.