Woman checking front end of broken down car

8 Signs of a Bad Used Car

Buying a used car instead of a new one can be a really smart investment. You avoid getting slammed with depreciation, you pay lower registration fees and insurance premiums, and you can typically get a lot more car for your money.

But it all depends on the actual car you buy. If you don’t do your homework or if you get pressured into purchasing the first model you see, you can end up owning your worst nightmare.

There are plenty of excellent used cars in Cincinnati, so don’t get suckered into buying one that’s sub par. Look for these nasty signs when you’re shopping, or you might end up with a clunker that you’ll totally regret.


Man smoking in car

If a car has been smoked in, there’s really no getting rid of the smell. It seeps into the upholstery, and that’s where it stays forevermore.

Purchasing a car that’s been smoked in also usually means you’ll find burn marks, and you’ll typically see buildup around the window frame.

That’s not to mention that the car has likely been driven with the windows down in all sorts of weather. And it’s probably been sprayed with every type of air freshener known to man to try to tame the odor.

Unless you’re a smoker and truly don’t mind the smell, steer clear. On the other hand, if you do intend to smoke in the car anyway, you can probably haggle and get a good deal.

Mismatched Body Panels or A Noticeable Paint Job

If it’s clear that part of a car’s body has been replaced, that indicates there was substantial damage done to the vehicle at some point.

A little fender bender isn’t such a big deal, but cars that have been in significant collisions are a big risk. Not only can they have sneaky mechanical issues that don’t arise until later, but they can also be unsafe.

For instance, if the vehicle’s frame was compromised, it might not hold up in another accident. The frame is meant to take the impact and act as a barrier between you and the other car in a crash. Without that protection, you’re much more likely to be seriously injured.

So if you come across a car that has a conspicuous panel replacement or a mismatched area of paint, it’s probably best to move on to the next model.

Mismatched or Worn-Out Tires

Tires cost quite a bit of money and buying a used car that’s already in need of new rubber will set you back several hundred dollars. If you’re really interested in a vehicle that has tires with minimal tread left, try to negotiate with the dealer and work a new set in.

Now, if the tires are mismatched, that shows they were replaced at different times and not a lot of money was invested in the vehicle. That’s a clue that the previous owner probably didn’t care for the car very well in general.

Dirty Fluids

Checking a used car’s fluids is critical. It can tell you a lot about how well the vehicle has been maintained, and it can reveal costly mechanical problems that you don’t want to deal with.

For example, if there’s oil mixed with coolant, there’s a pretty good chance that the head gasket is on its way out. Checking the transmission fluid can also give you a lot of insight.

If the transmission fluid is low, there may be a leak. And if it’s dirty or filled with metal debris, you definitely want to decline. That usually means it has overheated, and that’s territory you should avoid.

Beginner Modifications

A vector image of car modifications

Modifying vehicles is a favorite pastime for many, and it can be really fun to customize a car so that it’s truly yours. However, not everyone who attempts slick car mods is as savvy as they’d like to think.

The last thing you want is to end up with a vehicle that’s been personally tailored by Joe Shmoe. If the person doing the modifications wasn’t experienced or used cheap materials, the next owner will probably end up paying for it down the road.

If you’re specifically looking for a modified vehicle, like an off-roader, then you should request detailed information. Find out what mods have been done and who did the work. Also take the time to inspect things yourself or have a mechanic go over the vehicle with you.

Getting the details up front will save you some headaches. And if you’re not looking for a modified car, it’s best to just set your sights on something else.

Check Engine Light

Now, we can probably all agree that the mysterious check engine light is not a terribly useful device. It tells you that something somewhere is going awry, but other than that, it really doesn’t provide a whole lot of info.

However, it can still be useful when you’re checking out a used car. If it does more than its usual blinking at startup, you should inquire about it.

If you’re buying from a dealership, they should already have looked into it. But if you’re buying from a private seller, they may not even really know why the light is on. Don’t proceed unless you can get an accurate answer about what the problem is.

If the light doesn’t come on at all when you turn the ignition, then it’s probably been completely disabled for a reason. That’s your cue to run for the hills my friend. If they couldn’t fix it, you certainly don’t want to.

Suspicious Fixes

It’s really nice when a seller gets their used car in tip top shape before putting it up for sale, but you also want to make sure that no quick patch jobs have taken place.

That shiny new metal piece under the hood could mean that a larger issue is being covered by a temporary remedy. Don’t wait until it’s too late to find out. If you notice that something seems out of place, ask about it directly.

If there’s a good explanation then it might be okay to move forward, but if there’s lots of hemming and hawing, it’s a good time to walk.

Salvage Title

Many used cars ready for salvaging at a salvage yard

A vehicle is given a salvage title when an insurance company determines that fixing it would cost more than its value. This most commonly happens when the car has been in a bad accident.

If an insurance company labels a car a “total loss,” it can’t be driven or sold on the regular market as is. It typically gets scrapped for parts or a repair place rebuilds it.

After the car has been rebuilt, it usually has to pass a very basic inspection before being approved for sale, but it depends on state laws. If the vehicle is given the okay for the road, it can then be listed.

Cars with salvage titles can be very tempting because they are often priced extremely low. But buying one is a big risk. You don’t know what condition the vehicle was in after the original damage, and you don’t know what problems it may have in the future.

Though the price may be hard to pass up, you should think twice about gambling on a salvaged vehicle. In addition to cars that have been in wrecks, salvage certificates are also given to cars that were damaged in floods, hail storms, thefts, and other bad circumstances.

Since it’s nearly impossible to know what you’re getting into, it’s best to scratch any car with a salvage title off your list.

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