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Used Car Red Flags: Part One

Lyndon Bell
by Lyndon Bell
February 23, 2011

Shopping for a used car can be something of an adventure. If (as we've repeatedly advised) you've done your homework first, you've a real good idea of what you can afford, you've narrowed your choices to a particular configuration of car, and you're about to start the inspecting and test-driving phase of your search. While we cover how to conduct a test drive in another article, during your pre-drive inspection there are a number of red flags you can watch out for to save yourself time and money.

In most cases, the cars you'll be looking at are approximately five years old or less, so any cars you run across that exhibit any of the following symptoms should either be walked away from immediately or subjected to extremely intense scrutiny before making an offer.

While not an absolute deal breaker, a lack of maintenance records probably indicates a less than fastidious previous owner. Practically everyone gets the value of showing a full service history when trying to sell a used car these days, so if the records aren't available, you're looking at a car that either got very little service, or was driven by an owner who really didn't care. Either way, you could be buying a basket of problems, beware.

Odometer discrepancies are an indicator of rather significant problems. Given it's illegal to tamper with a car's odometer, any seller willing to take the chance definitely has something to hide. This is where a Vehicle History Report can serve you in good stead. At each registration renewal the DMV records a car's mileage. If the mileage you're looking at on the odometer is lower than what is represented on the VHR, something's amiss. Pass on the car. BTW, never accept a VHR offered by the seller; always get your own.

New transmissions and engines in a car five-years old or less can be an indication of abuse. Both of these key components are designed to last hundreds of thousands of miles under normal use. While the seller may tout these as selling points, (New Engine/New Transmission! signs adorn windshields on many used car lots), any car less than five years old with a new engine or a new transmission is one you'll want to subject to extreme scrutiny, or pass on altogether.

Similarly, a new interior should also cause your trouble-o-meter to trigger an alert. Like engines and transmissions, interiors are designed to go well past five years of 'normal' service. Of course, if the car's been through a flood, a fire, or some other unfortunate malady rendering the interior fit to be replaced'¦well'¦do we even need to say it?

Expired registration, or about to expire registration, while not a definite indicator of problems, means they do potentially exist. In most states, to renew the registration, a car has to be smog checked and safety inspected. When the car passes these tests, a certificate is forwarded to the DMV by the test facility, clearing the registration to be renewed. If the car you're looking at is close to expiring, or has expired, it could mean the owner tried to renew the registration and the car failed to pass inspection. And now, here you come along and unwittingly purchase it'”only to find you're going to be cost another $3,000 dollars to get the car to pass smog.

Salvage Title, Auction Title or anything other than a good clean ownership title is another sign something may be amiss. Here's where that Vehicle History Report comes into play again. While an auction title might not be a bad thing, a salvage title most assuredly is an indicator the car has experienced a traumatization that is going to leave it with some serious emotional problems. If you're looking for a good used car to serve you for a number of years, avoid salvage titles at all costs.

These are a few of but several indicators a used car will give you when its seller is being a bit less than forthcoming about its true condition. In part two of this feature we'll cover several more.

Bottom line though; as they say in Latin'”caveat emptor'”let the buyer beware. As always, a trusted professional mechanic, one specifically familiar with the particular make and model, should subject any used car you're seriously considering to an inspection.


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