If you see visible signs of rust on the body of the car, that can be a cause for concern. Rust spreads easily when exposed to salt, water, and air, and it’s hard to get rid of, says Jon Linkov, CR’s deputy auto editor and devoted car enthusiast.
It’s also difficult to tell from the outside how extensive the rust damage may be. You might only see a small rust spot, but there might be many hidden, hard-to-access spots that have also rusted.
🚩 A smell of mold or mildew.
It could indicate that the car has a water leak somewhere or that it was in a flood. Other signs of flood damage include discolored carpeting, silt in the trunk, intermittent electrical problems, and rusted screws under the dashboard or on the rails that the front seats move on.
Water can ruin the electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems of a car. It can also corrode vital electronics, such as airbag controllers.
🚩 Misaligned body panels.
If certain body and interior panels look too new or have a slightly different shade of paint, they could have been replaced after a crash.
Even if the car has been repaired, the damage after a crash could affect its structural integrity and reduce its ability to protect you in another collision.
🚩 Spongy brakes.
If you press on the brake pedal and it feels mushy or spongy, or if the brake pedal has an unusually long “travel,” that can be a problem, says CR autos editor Mike Monticello, who has been testing, evaluating, and writing about cars for more than 20 years.
This could be a small problem that can be fixed by “bleeding” the brakes or flushing the brake fluid. However, it can also be a sign of a failing brake master cylinder or indicate a need for new brake rotors and pads, both of which are pricier fixes and pose a safety concern.
🚩 Worn-out shocks and struts.
You can test whether they’re working properly by pushing down on each corner of the car. If the shock absorbers are good, the car should rebound back up toward you once.
But if they bounce up and down a bit, that means they’re showing signs of wear. That could be a costly replacement, Mike says. You can also read more here on how to spot other potential problems with a used car.
And these are some of the red flags you should look out for about the seller.
🚩 The seller doesn’t have the title of the car.
You should consider a different car or seller if this happens. Without a title, you might be unable to register your car, says CR autos writer Keith Barry, who as a college student got stuck with an old Volvo wagon he couldn’t register for months due to this very issue.
Additionally, many state title documents disclose information about whether the vehicle has been wrecked, damaged by floods, repurchased under a state lemon-law program, or encountered other problems.
And if the state titles don’t have this information, you should check the vehicle history report. Speaking of which, it’s also a red flag if …
🚩 The seller is reluctant to show you a vehicle history report.
These reports from Carfax or AutoCheck often detail whether a car has been in a crash, its maintenance records, and how many owners the car has had.
It’s worth noting that these reports aren’t always perfect and can miss information about accidents and other events that can severely affect a used car’s value. You’ll still want to thoroughly check the car yourself and get it inspected by a good mechanic, Mike says.
🚩 You find out the car has an open recall.
Use the vehicle’s 17-digit vehicle identification number (called the VIN) and go to NHTSA.gov/recalls to research if it has any open recalls. If you do find one, ask the seller to provide a receipt showing that the recall-related fix was done.
If a recall hasn’t been addressed, you can take the car to a new-car dealership that sells that brand of vehicle to have the work performed free of charge. In general, we recommend that you don’t buy cars with an unfixed recall because of the safety risks involved. If the person is serious about selling, they’ll bring it to the dealership and have the recall work done before the sale is complete.
Bonus link: What if there’s no fix for your car’s recall? Here’s what you can do.