If only cars could talk. It would make the buying experience a lot easier, wouldn't it? Because verbalized or not, every used car has a story to tell. And to avoid getting ripped off, it's up to you to listen. You need to know about the skeletons in that car's closet, the dark secrets of its past.
There are so many problems that can hide easily under the surface -- accident damage, a counterfeit title, failing mechanical parts. It's not as if you're marrying the car, but you are making quite a financial commitment. Wouldn't you rather find out about these red flags before saying "I do" and plunking down your hard-earned cash?
With this list of warning signs, you'll be able to make your next used car purchase confidently -- and if you do find "the one," we'll bet the relationship won't end in a messy divorce.
Red Flag #1: No Service Records
One of the most important aspects of a used car is its maintenance history. You want to make sure you're buying a vehicle that has had routine oil changes and major mileage services. Always ask the seller, even if it's a car dealership, for all service records. If they can't provide those for you, you have no way of knowing if the car has been maintained properly. In addition to asking for records, look for a windshield sticker indicating when the car's next oil change is due. If there's no sticker or it shows an oil change is past due, ask why.
Red Flag #2: Vehicle and Accident History Issues
A vehicle history report is essential for any car purchase. You can ask the seller or dealership for the report or access it yourself online using the car's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number). AutoCheck charges $19.99 for a single report or $29.99 for unlimited reports for 60 days. The report shows accident/damage history as well as title problems, frame damage and an odometer rollback check -- any of which should be deal breakers.
Red Flag #3: Mechanical Problems
A quick look under the car can reveal fluid leaks, but unless you're an expert, you'll need to have someone else do a thorough inspection to make sure it's in good working condition. A PPI, or Pre-Purchase Inspection, is performed by a neutral third party (such as a certified mechanic or automotive technician) and costs about $100 to $200.
The inspection is a detailed assessment of the cosmetic and mechanical condition of the vehicle. It is an invaluable asset since it can alert you to problems, maintenance issues and even frame damage hiding under the surface. The mechanic should put the car on a lift to check undercarriage components. Make sure he or she also uses a paint meter gauge to catch any re-painted body panels -- which mean the car may have been in accidents that weren't reported to the insurance company (if they had been reported, they would show up on your AutoCheck vehicle history report). Choose the party who will perform the inspection, rather than going with someone recommended by the seller. Ask to have the results sent directly to you.
You may be tempted to skip a PPI, but it's almost always well worth it. You're making a large investment in a vehicle, and the price of the PPI is only a very small fraction of that. If any problems the PPI shows are deal breakers, you can walk away from the sale. If not, you can still use them to negotiate a better price.
Red Flag #4: A Problem Title
Your AutoCheck vehicle report will show any problem titles on the car's record at any point in its history -- everything from hail damage to fire damage. Most of these issues are red flags, but here's just a sampling of those to avoid at all costs: Flood titles, which means the vehicle has received extensive water damage; salvage titles, which mean an insurance company has at some point declared the car a total loss due to sustained damage; and junk titles, which mean the vehicle indicate that a vehicle is not safe enough for use and the car cannot be titled again in that state.
Red Flag #5: A Fraudulent Title
A problem-free title doesn't mean it's valid. Criminals can create counterfeit or fraudulent titles and use them to legally register and then sell stolen cars. If you buy a car without a valid title, it's the worst-case scenario -- you don't legally own the car you just bought.
The first step to verify the title is to check with the DMV. Usually, you'll just need the car's VIN number and may be charged a small fee (often these transactions require you to go to the DMV's office). You need to make sure the VIN on the car matches the VIN on the title and the seller's name matches the one on the title. This record check is also valuable because it will show any outstanding liens on the title, which means that the owner is still making payments on the car and doesn't own it outright. This could complicate the sale later, especially if you're buying from a private seller.
However, even if the title appears to belong to the seller, it could still be fraudulent. There are a few signs that may signify foul play. Play close attention if the vehicle was recently brought to your state and titled or if the VIN number on the car is obscured or shows signs of tampering. The title should look official, meaning it will be printed on special paper with watermarks (visible when held up to the light). All text, graphics and borders should be sharp, not blurred. If you can, compare the title with an original (perhaps from a friend's car in the same state) and make sure the two look the same.
The Bottom Line
Checking for all these red flags may seem excessive, but they can save you time and headaches down the line. In the end, the PPI, AutoCheck vehicle history report, DMV records and seller should be consistent. If any of the information seems fishy, consider walking away from the sale. If any of the above warning signs do surface, you may not even want to give the car a second thought. It doesn't hurt to walk away, but it can sure hurt a lot to buy a problem vehicle. Plus, with the internet, you can find virtually any car, anywhere. And as they say, there are plenty of other fish in the sea.