Red Flags to Avoid When Purchasing a Used Car

For many drivers, buying a new car does not make much sense. This is because when you buy a new car, you are paying a premium that immediately disappears as soon as you drive that car off the lot. This is why many drivers prefer to buy used cars, even if they have the cash (or financing) for a new one.

Of course, even though buying a used car could be a great investment potentially, it is not without risks.

Buying a used car is generally a much more involved process than buying a brand new car. Buyers must carefully inspect any used car before they purchase it. During the inspection, there are multiple things the buyer must consider. While there are numerous potential red flags when investigating a car, it is important to note that the severity ultimately varies depending on the issue.

Some red flags will indicate that the car is not safe to drive, while others just impact how much the car is worth. Buyers can still purchase a car even if there are red flags during the inspection, but they should use those warnings as an opportunity to ask for a price reduction.


Rust is one of the first things buyers will spot when they are investigating a vehicle. Rust is a little tricky, because whether or not it is a red flag depends on how extensive the rust is and what part of the vehicle is rusty.

A little rust on the door or part of the floor will not cause any harm. However, if the vehicle is covered in excessive rust that actively has flakes of metal coming off, then it becomes a riskier purchase. It is possible to replace rusted out body panels, but it is a very time-consuming process, which ultimately means it is also very expensive.

Rust on the actual frame of the car is even worse and while it can be treated, it will greatly weaken the overall strength of the frame. Even if the car is intended for a restoration project, excessive rust is a very serious red flag.

Issues With the Trunk

One of the areas buyers often overlook is the trunk of the car. Most buyers only give the trunk a cursory glance. While buyers should keep an eye out for any visible damage in the front, it is actually more important to pay attention to the smell of the trunk. If the trunk has a particularly musty smell, it likely means the car has mold, likely as a result of water damage.

Water damage can sometimes be serious for a vehicle, since it can get into the car’s systems and mix with fluids. Sellers have a much easier time hiding visible trunk damage, but it is much harder to mask the scent.

Mismatched Paint or Carpets

A common trick to hide damage to a used car is to apply a new coat of paint to hide any damage. Sometimes the paint is used to cover up repairs, so the seller can claim the car is in much better condition than it actually is. However, most sellers are usually unable to perfectly match the color.

As long as the buyer is keeping an eye for it, he or she should be able to spot any mismatched paint tones. It is important to note that mismatched paint is not always a sign of something being wrong with the car. Some sellers just paint the car to make it look better and are not trying to hide anything.  

It is also important to check the carpets. If the car has flood damage, sellers may replace the carpets to try and mask the damage. If a car has a musty-smelling trunk and mismatched carpets, there is a very good chance the car has been through a flood.

Now, physical evidence that a car has been through a flood does not necessarily mean that you should stay away from the car. As long as the owner was diligent about seeking the help of a professional to check the car’s fluids, filters, brakes, etc. after a small flood, the car may have no issues.

However, if you notice any possible water damage, be sure to speak to ask the seller about it. If you are not satisfied with the response, then it may be better to be safe and to walk away from the purchase.

Seller Red Flags

Sellers are naturally going to try and get the best deal possible, which means showing their car in the best possible light. This is not necessarily an issue, unless the seller is being deceptive or hiding important information about the car.

There are two specific things to watch for in sellers. The first has to do with test driving the vehicle. If the seller refuses to let the buyer drive the car at all, this is an immediate red flag. Also, if he or she does allow for a test drive but tries to keep the driver from doing specific things, there is a good chance the seller is trying to hide something. 

The second red flag has to do with inspecting the vehicles. All sellers should realize that buyers want the car to be inspected, whether by themselves or a professional. If the seller does not agree to the car being inspected, there is a very good chance something is seriously wrong with the vehicle.

Checking the VIN and Title

The biggest red flag is whether the seller has proper documentation for the vehicle. If the seller does not have any title or registration numbers at all, walk away. Even if the seller provides documentation, it is important to confirm the information.

Buyers should check to see if the car title has the proper state seal on it. Buyers must also confirm that the VIN actually matches the car and that all the documents have the proper names on it. If none of the information matches up, the vehicle is most likely stolen.