Watch out for these 5 used car red flags

March 25, 2015 08:26 AM

You need to be financially and mentally ready to shop for a used car. Not only will you have to negotiate payments and fees, but you'll have to be ready to spot any faults in the available models. This can be tough, especially if you're not familiar with the ins and outs of the auto industry. However, failing to notice these issues could lead to expensive repairs or frustrating breakdowns down the line. 

Here are five red flags that could signal a problem with a used car. If you spot one of these signs in a potential investment, be sure to go the extra mile to guarantee there's no underlying issue. 

1. A dirty tailpipe 
At first glance, the state of the tailpipe may not seem like such a big deal. However, if it's black and greasy, it could be a bad sign. This residue is often left when the engine burns oil - an action that may lead to a smoking exhaust, poor fuel efficiency and lots of wasted money. Consumer Reports recommended swiping your finger around the inside of the tailpipe when the car is off to see what's building up there. If there is residue present, you may want to negotiate the right repair or move on to a different model. 

2. No clear vehicle history
All used cars should come with a complete vehicle history or, barring that, an identifiable VIN you can employ to look up its past yourself. You'll want to double-check the repairs or servicing to ensure the automobile has been cared for in the past. A clean report with lots of scheduled maintenance is a good sign of the longevity of the vehicle, while the lack of a history report could signal that the seller is trying to hide something. 

3. A failed magnet test
Testing the frame of a car with a magnet may seem unnecessary, but it could locate a problem early on. Consumer Reports suggested taking a magnet and placing it against all doors and fenders. It should be attracted to the frame without fail. If there is a dead spot where there's no attraction, it may be a sign of poor auto repair. Rather than replacing the problem area with the right materials, the space may be body filler or some other type of patch that won't hold up in the long run. 

4. Musty smells or suspicious stains 
Take the time to scope out the interior of a car and its trunk. Does the carpet look relatively clean? Are there any suspicious stains? What about strange odors? Any unaccounted for smells or marks could be a sign of water damage. This is often an invisible killer for cars, as the water damage could erode at the gears over time and lead to a sudden breakdown. 

5. Subpar spares
Spare tires and keys are things that are often only thought of when they're needed. Be sure to ask the seller about these for any used car and scope them out with your own eyes. Replacement keys can come with a price tag of a few hundred dollars each, which adds up quickly in a family with multiple drivers. At the same time, you'll want to make sure the spare tire is in good condition. Many recent models don't come with this feature. The Chicago Tribune noted that some vehicles offer inflators, patch kits or run-flat tires instead of the traditional spare. Check what the automobile should have and make sure you're comfortable using that solution. 

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