There’s a certain amount of mystery that comes along with any used or pre-owned car purchase. Has the vehicle ever been in an accident? How did previous owners maintain the car? Is it due for an expensive repair? Before you commit to purchasing a used vehicle, do your homework and avoid these 10 things. 

10 red flags to look for when buying a used car

1. There’s an accident history
Always use a car’s VIN number (Vehicle Identification Number) to run a vehicle history report. This report will show any accident history, damage, and/or title issues associated with the vehicle (more on title issues later). If any of these issues are present, proceed with caution.

2. There’s a salvage title
When a car has a salvage title, that typically means the car was stolen and recovered, damaged in an accident or flood, or otherwise written off by an insurer. If you’re considering purchasing a car with a salvage title, do plenty of research about its history, have it thoroughly inspected for safety, and look into how much work it’ll be to re-title and insure in your state.

3. Outstanding auto recalls
Use the car’s VIN number to check the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration database for outstanding vehicle recalls. When a car’s under recall, it means there’s a safety-related issue that needs immediate repair. Cars that are under recall but have not been repaired may be dangerous to operate and may also indicate owner neglect.

4. No maintenance or service records
Cars that’ve been properly maintained and serviced are more desirable than their counterparts. Responsible car owners typically save records to document regular maintenance, like oil changes and mileage service. If the seller can’t provide these records, be sure to inquire why and where those records may have gone.

5. Lots of recent repairs
A long list of recent repairs may indicate something seriously wrong with a car … and that more costly repairs could be on the way. Proceed with caution and ask the seller why they’re making these repairs now, just prior to selling.

6. Lots of previous owners
Check the vehicle history report to see how many owners a car’s had. If a car has had more owners than it has years in existence, it could be a sign of bigger problems or outstanding issues with the vehicle.

7. A low, low, low price
If the price seems to good to be true, it just might be. Occasionally a seller will have a good reason to sell their car way under fair market value. But more often than not, ultra low prices indicate there’s something very wrong with the car — something a seller hopes a buyer may overlook because of the cheap price tag.

8. A rusted frame
An excessively rusty car frame is expensive to replace, and repairs may sometimes further weaken the car’s structural integrity. If you see rust and metal flaking off in key areas of the car, you might want to walk away from the sale.

9. A musty smelling interior
A smelly car isn’t just a turn off — it can be the sign of major damage. Mildewed smells originating from a car’s trunk or interior may indicate that the car suffered significant water damage, like the kind that occurs after a flood. Flood-damaged cars often have major (and costly) electrical and mechanical issues that should make most buyers reconsider.

10. Mismatched paint
A bad paint job that doesn’t match up with car’s exterior trim could indicate that a car’s been in an accident or had a repair. Inquirer with the seller about accident damage, and be prepared to walk away from the sale if you don’t like the answer.

What are certified pre-owned vehicles?

Not all pre-owned cars are created equal. Certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicles are low-mileage and late-model used cars that have been guaranteed by the car manufacturer. This means they’ve passed a manufacturer’s rigorous inspection by a factory-trained mechanic and typically come with a manufacturer’s limited warranty. Because of these guarantees, CPOs tend to be pricier than their non-certified counterparts.

In contrast, non-certified used vehicles can save you a lot of money on a car, but offer no guarantees from the manufacturer, shifting more responsibility onto prospective purchasers to avoid buying a “lemon.”

What to do if you buy a non-certified used car

Remember, to be on the safe side when buying a non-certified, used vehicle, you should always:

  • Run the vehicle identification number (VIN) to get a vehicle history report.
  • Take the car to a mechanic for an inspection before purchase.
  • Compare used car prices and prepare to negotiate for the best price.
  • Check with your insurer to get a  get a car insurance quote.

And even if you’re not in the market for a used car, now’s a good time to see if you could be saving more money on your car insurance. Get a free quote today


Safe and smart | Car safety


about Rebecca

Rebecca is a freelance copywriter and editor living in the SF Bay Area with her husband and two kids. She enjoys productively channeling her anxiety into safety-minded articles for home and garden, running with her robot trainer, and advocating on behalf of the Oxford comma.