Every used car has a story to tell. Unfortunately, cars only talk in the movies. So when you’re thinking about buying one, it’s up to you to do some detective work. You need to know about the skeletons in that car’s closet.

Why? Because buying a car is almost like entering into a marriage. There are major financial, legal and time commitments involved. Wouldn’t you rather find out about any troubling situations before taking the plunge and plunking down your hard-earned cash?

Fortunately, there are tools you can use to ensure that your next used car purchase won’t end in a messy divorce. Companies like AutoCheck and Carfax provide vehicle history reports that contain the juicy back stories you need to make a good decision. However, don’t rely completely on the reports, cautions Pat King, purchasing manager for retailer Carmax. “If somebody doesn’t report an accident to the police or their insurance, it’s not going to show up on a history report,” he explains.

So how do you find out about these hidden issues? First, you can look for signs just by spending time with the car. Second, you can arrange a pre-purchase inspection with a mechanic. We’ll walk you through some of the most important warning signs so you know what to look for.

These are red flags that King, who has performed over 16,000 appraisals at Carmax, looks for when his company buys cars. Many of them are also factors that show up on vehicle history reports. We asked AutoCheck’s Senior Product Marketing Manager, Edie Hirtenstein, to walk us through some of this information.

If you see evidence of the following deal breakers in a history report or on the car itself, run the other way and don’t look back – you may have come across one of the worst kinds of cars money can buy.

Deal Breakers

Frame Damage

When a car is involved in a severe accident, it can sustain frame damage. This is a serious safety issue because even if a body shop repairs the damage, the car’s frame will never be as structurally sound as it once was. “Cars are single use,” says AutoCheck’s Edie Hirtenstein. “If it’s hit again where the frame was hit, it won’t crumple properly.”

Auction houses always announce frame damage for the cars they sell. AutoCheck is the only company in the industry to report these auction announcements in its vehicle history reports. However, even if a car wasn’t sold at auction, you can still check for frame damage.

Whether or not you know the car was involved in an accident, you should always have a pre-purchase inspection performed. Carmax’s Pat King says you can also look for signs yourself. Red flags will show up in the form of clamp marks on the frame rail or uneven and inconsistent panel gaps.

Lemon Car

Lemons are models that have recurring problems and continuously fail to meet typical standards of quality and functionality. Luckily, they are relatively easy to spot.

“A Lemon Law car has to be branded by the automaker when they buy it back from the customer,” says Carmax’s Pat King. “Absolutely avoid that car because it has a history of problems.” King notes that a sticker is required by law to be placed inside the driver’s door jamb of lemon cars.

Lemons are one of the only cases where consumers have legal recourse. Under the federal Lemon Law, you may be entitled to a full refund or a replacement vehicle if you bought a lemon.

Title Brands

A title brand provides important information about the vehicle and will show up on a vehicle history report. Brands vary by state, and some are more serious than others.

You’ll always want to avoid a Salvage brand, which means the vehicle has been damaged to the extent that the cost of repairing it is nearly as much as the vehicle’s value. Similarly, an Insurance brand means an insurance company has previously totaled the car. Also be on the lookout for a Not Actual Miles brand, which means the odometer stopped working at some point – so the current odometer doesn’t reflect actual mileage. 

Water Damage

A flood damaged car is one that’s been sitting in water for a period of time. If the car was submerged completely in water, flood damage will probably show up as a title brand. But you’ll have to spot more minor water damage yourself.

Carmax’s King says a big sign is the buildup of silt or dirt in the trunk where the spare tire is kept. Also look for water marks on the interior. Even if the signs seem small, you shouldn’t take water damage lightly. It can mean that there are other electrical issues and corrosion beneath the surface. This is another reason a pre-purchase inspection is so important.

Missing or Altered VIN Plate

A car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is similar to a person’s Social Security Number. It’s a unique identifier that is used to access vehicle history reports. Car thieves will often remove or alter the VIN plate so that a stolen car is less traceable and can be illegally re-sold.

The VIN plate is usually located on the dashboard just inside the windshield and/or inside the driver’s door jamb. When you’re looking to buy a car, make sure the VIN plates are present and don’t show signs of tampering. If they look fishy, you may be looking at a stolen vehicle.

Former Police Car or Taxi

A car that was used as a police vehicle or taxi has undergone much more use than a typical car. That means a lot of wear and tear plus other problems that may not even surface for quite a while. Again, this type of information will show up on a vehicle history report.

Deal Makers

In its vehicle history reports, AutoCheck gives each car a score based on its negative and positive factors. While negative factors, like the ones we've discussed, lower a car’s score, there are a few surprising factors that can raise it and even others that have no impact at all.  

Former Rental or Leased Car

A car that was previously leased can be a good deal because the dealership usually provides routine maintenance. “If a vehicle has been leased, that’s a positive indicator,” says AutoCheck’s Hirtenstein. “They have to be turned in in a certain condition and with a specific mileage threshold.” Likewise, rental cars also tend to be highly serviced. In both cases, AutoCheck finds that these cars last just as long as any others and may even be in better shape.

Previous Auction Sale

Some people may think a car sold at auction is somehow inferior to a non-auctioned car, but that’s not true. In fact, most cars are sold at wholesale auction simply because that’s how dealers redistribute their excess inventory. According to AutoCheck, auction sales have no bearing on a car’s worthiness. “We have found that being at auction is a non determinant in a vehicle’s longevity over time,” Hirtenstein says.


Surprisingly, AutoCheck has also found that the location of a car does not usually make a difference in its longevity. But what about all the snow and road salt in certain states, you say? Carmax’s Pat King doesn’t discount cars just because of where they come from. “On Northern cars you will see more surface rust,” he says. “But it doesn’t mean that’s a bad car. Mechanically, it could still be in great shape.” Again, a pre-purchase inspection will confirm whether or not that’s the case.

Protect Yourself

So what happens if you get ripped off and end up with one of the worst cars money can buy? If you can prove that you were misled about the car, you have legal recourse in some states. However, the best way to protect yourself is to do your homework up front and buy from a reliable party.

Carmax offers a five-day money-back guarantee and a free AutoCheck vehicle history report. AutoCheck itself even offers Buyback Protection, which covers you against major title brands when buying a used vehicle, up to 110 percent of the retail value (though some cars, including those flagged with frame damage, are excluded).

Likewise, manufacturer dealerships often sell certified pre-owned cars which are pre-inspected for any major problems. They often come with warranties as well. But remember that even in these cases, it’s always best to have your own pre-purchase inspection performed. Just as in a marriage, you can never be too careful when you’re committing several years of your life -- and several thousand dollars of your hard-earned money -- to that one special automobile.