Many thousands of vehicles were engulfed by floodwater when hurricanes hit Texas and Florida earlier this year. Some of these now-ruined cars and trucks—that can be shined up today but will without question rot, lose their electrical systems and fall apart over time—will be snuck onto the used-car market by disreputable sellers and go on to bedevil their owners.
In general, buying a used vehicle can save you big bucks—but only if you manage to dodge basket-case cars and trucks that will require endless or expensive repairs.
You might know the standard advice to pay a mechanic you trust $100 to $200 to examine a used vehicle before you buy…and purchase a vehicle history report from a company such as Carfax (Carfax.com, $39.99 for a single report). That can be money well-spent—but you don’t want to spend it more often than necessary.
You can be the first to spot trouble in a used vehicle offered by a dealer or an individual—even if you are in no way a car expert. Here are six savvy things anyone can do to weed out bad used vehicles before consulting a mechanic or buying a Carfax report, potentially saving hundreds of dollars in the process…
Look where there shouldn’t be paint. If the vehicle was in a significant accident, it probably was repainted by a body shop. If you know where to look, you might be able to find “overspray” from this second paint job—that is, paint where there is not supposed to be paint. This might include tiny spots of paint inside wheel wells…on the rubber trim around windows…or under the hood on stickers or on parts that would not have been present when the bare body panels were originally painted in the factory.
Next, step back from the vehicle and compare its body panels. If the paint on some panels seems subtly different from the paint on others, it might mean that certain panels were repainted following an accident. This will be much easier to spot on a bright, sunny day. (Make sure you’re comparing metal parts. It’s perfectly normal for the color of plastic body panels, such as bumpers, to not quite match the color of painted metal.)
Check the gaps between body panels. If a gap is visibly wider than the same gap on the other side of the vehicle…or the same gap is wider at one end than the other…it might mean that the car was in a serious accident that bent its frame. If any of the doors appears slightly out of line with the rest of the vehicle when shut, that, too, could point to a major accident.
Look for areas under the hood that appear much cleaner than the rest of the engine compartment. These areas might have been cleaned to hide the fact that the vehicle has been leaking fluids, or a particular component might be clean because it was only recently replaced. If you see an oddly clean area, ask the seller whether the vehicle has needed any work or experienced any problems lately. If he/she says that a part needed to be replaced, ask to see the paperwork from the mechanic and confirm that it was something straightforward, such as a new starter or alternator. If the seller denies that anything has gone wrong, ask why this one area looks so much cleaner than the rest of the engine compartment. Walk away if he cannot offer a reasonable-sounding explanation.
Check the wear on the accelerator pedal, the driver’s seat upholstery and driver’s seat springs. The pedal and upholstery typically should not show significant wear if there is less than 50,000 miles or so on the odometer, and the seat springs should not sound or feel old and squeaky. If any of these things are true, there might be more miles on the vehicle than its odometer suggests.
Also: If the brake pedal shows significant wear, the vehicle might have endured lots of tough stop-and-go driving.
Put your hand on the hood before starting the vehicle. Certainly, you should take the vehicle for a test-drive to make sure that there are no obvious issues with how it handles or sounds and to make sure there are no liquids dripping from it afterward. But before this test-drive, feel the hood. If it feels warmer than other body panels, the seller might have started and run the vehicle just before you arrived. This might have been perfectly innocent—maybe he backed the car out of the garage for you—or it might have been to hide the fact that this vehicle does not start reliably when its engine is cold. Let the engine cool for perhaps 20 to 30 minutes before starting it up again for the test-drive. Use this time to examine it inside and out.
Do not be lulled by the existence of a warranty. A warranty might guarantee that any problems with the car can be fixed without paying out of pocket—but not necessarily. Ask who is providing this warranty and who will do the repairs. If the protection is being offered by a dealership that sells this make of car and has its own service department, the warranty could well be reliable. If it is offered by an independent used-car lot, it could have little or no real value. Either way, ask for a printed copy of the terms of the warranty and read it before buying.
If you are assured that a used vehicle is covered by its original manufacturer warranty—the most reliable type of vehicle warranty—jot down the vehicle identification number (VIN) found on the driver’s doorjamb or visible through the windshield on the driver’s side above the dash. Contact the service department of a dealership that sells that make of car, give the VIN and ask about the vehicle’s warranty status. In some cases, the full manufacturer’s warranty does not carry over if the car is resold by the original owner. Example: Hyundai and Kia vehicles come new with a 10-year/100,000-mile power train warranty—but this is reduced to a five-year/60,000-mile warranty for subsequent owners.
If you are told by a car’s seller that the vehicle still is covered by an extended warranty purchased by an earlier owner, ask to see the warranty contract covering this specific vehicle and read this carefully to confirm that it will transfer to a subsequent owner. Also, look up reviews of the company providing this extended warranty to get a sense of whether it can be trusted.
Three additional things worth doing when buying a used car from an individual, not a dealership or lot…
Ask, “Has it been garaged?” If the answer is yes, ask to see its garage space and examine the floor. Stains where the car was parked could mean that the vehicle has had oil or other fluid leaks.
Ask to see the vehicle’s maintenance records. It’s a bad sign if the owner cannot produce a well-organized file showing that maintenance has been handled on schedule.
If the vehicle has a trailer hitch and/or you see a travel trailer or boat in the driveway, ask, “Oh, is it powerful enough to tow?” If the seller brags that it is, make polite conversation about what the owner has towed, where and how often. If you give the impression that you are impressed by the vehicle’s towing capacity, you’re likely to get honest answers. But in fact, towing is tough on many parts of a vehicle, including its engine, transmission and brakes. If the vehicle has done lots of towing, that could be a reason to walk away.
Spot a Flood-Damaged Car
Vehicles that have been in floods are prone to a wide range of problems, some of which might not appear until years later when corrosion has taken its toll. To avoid getting stuck with one of these…
See if a vehicle has a known history of flood damage. You can search this for free through Carfax. This database includes a vehicle only if its flood damage was reported to an insurance company, however. To be even safer, pay for the full Carfax Vehicle History Report ($39.99 for one report…$59.99 for three or $99.99 for six) and check where the vehicle previously was owned—if it was owned in Florida or in or near Houston, sites of recent hurricanes, stay away.
Examine the carpeting. Look for mud on and under the vehicle’s carpeting. Also be suspicious of any used car that has carpeting that looks brand-new and/or does not fit the floor of the car perfectly. This replacement carpeting might have been installed because original carpeting was ruined in a flood.
Look for mud under the hood. Pay particular attention to the tight spots where it would be hard to fit a hand. These spots are tricky to clean, so they might still show signs of mud.
Take a good whiff. Get inside the vehicle, shut its doors and windows and see whether your nose picks up a musty odor. The smell of mold and mildew can be harder to hide than the visual signs of flood damage.