7 Red Flags To Look For When Buying A Used Car
3 minutes

What do you do when you need a vehicle but can’t afford to buy one new, or don’t qualify for financing? Buying a used car is the next best option. But not so fast! What seems like a great deal, might not be. 

To help you decide, we’ve put together a list of 7 red flags to look for when buying a used car. Knowing what to look out for will save you money and regrets down the line.

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Mechanical condition

Engine and transmission

If you suspect a lack of proper care and maintenance, your suspicions will be confirmed on a test drive. This is truly the only way to rule out engine and transmission issues.

When you start up the car, does gray or black smoke billow out the exhaust? If this is a turbocharged car, that’s a red flag that the turbo charge has blown. Walk away! That’s going to be an expensive repair.

Also, check for strange noises during your test drive. When you come to a stop, do you notice any oil leaks or radiator fluid pouring out onto the tarmac? 

Sometimes, these are not big problems. But massive leaking could be a red flag of a blown head gasket or a cracked radiator or even a failed water pump. The car’s engine will likely overheat if these issues are present.

Electrical and electronic systems

When you took it for a test drive, was the battery low, or did the headlights dim? These could be red flags of electrical issues.

All internal combustion engine cars have an alternator. The alternator charges the battery while the engine is running. When you take the car for a long drive, the battery will charge. If these issues persist, the alternator may have failed.

This is a real problem, as the alternator also supplies power to the car’s other electrical systems. Fortunately, it’s possible to buy a replacement alternator for cars. You can order one online.

Physical condition

Paint and body damage

A few scratches and small dents are to be expected when buying a used car. Few used cars are in pristine condition. However, deep dents can be a red flag pointing to a prior accident. 

If the owner couldn’t afford to get these repaired, chances are they couldn’t afford proper maintenance, too. That means you’ll have to be very thorough when checking the rest of the car.

Check for rust in these scratches and dents. Also, check the corners of the doors and lower edge of the vehicle, for metal corrosion. This is a common problem with cars that have been parked outdoors, near the coast. Unfortunately, it can be a pricey fix. 

Tires & Wheel alignment

To all those people who think you have to kick the tires to check they’re in good condition – don’t! All you’ll do is possibly hurt your foot, and it’s completely unnecessary. Kneel and check each tire, visually. 

Is the tread smooth, or uneven? You’ll need to get new tires. If you can’t see the bumps inside the tire groove, it’s past the legal limit and that tire will need to be replaced. 

If one tire is much more worn than the others, it could be a sign of wheel alignment problems. How do you check for that? When you take the car for a test drive, see if it drifts to the left or right. That means the wheel alignment is out of whack. 

That is not necessarily a red flag, as the car may just have hit a curb at some point. But severe misalignment could be indicative of a prior road accident.

Interior condition

Next, check the interior. If the seats, dashboard, and interior components are worn, that shows a level of neglect. This, too, could be a red flag that even more essential maintenance was not carried out.

Wear and tear of a used car’s interior is inevitable, but it can cost quite a lot to recover leather seats or repair the roof upholstery. Consider these costs before committing to a sale.


Ownership and title

How many owners has this particular car had? If it’s only a few years old but has had several owners, this could be a red flag, for two reasons.

First, it’s been subjected to more than one driving style and suffered more wear and tear, and abuse. 

Second, it could signify that there are deep-seated issues with this vehicle. It may explain why ownership has changed hands so many times.

If the seller cannot provide the ownership papers, it’s in your best interest to check the car is not a stolen car

Service and maintenance history

Check the service manual and maintenance record for the car. If the above problems were present, you’ll probably also notice gaps in the service manual.

Incomplete records are a red flag that essential maintenance, and when necessary, repairs, were not carried out.

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