How to Pick a Used Car That’s in Good Shape

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Used cars can be great bargains or financial disasters. Some of them are in great shape for the cost. Others haven’t been taken in for their recalls. Or they’ve sat in water at some point, and there’s hidden damage underneath. An old accident can also come back to haunt you, even if the car seems fine now.

Used car lot at dusk

What to watch out for

Flood damage

Always be on the lookout for signs that a car has sat in water at some point. When a local flood results from hurricanes or terrible storms, unscrupulous dealers dry out the cars and move them to unaffected states.

You might think all a car with flood damage needs is to dry out. But water damages the electrical systems that operate the safety mechanisms. It’s not a question of whether the safety systems will break down, it’s when. Furthermore, if water has been standing in the bottom of the cab, there’s likely to be a mold problem. Dealers can get a car looking and smelling fine without getting rid of the mold. And breathing around mold can make you very sick. And then there’s the issue of hidden rust on the underside of the car, which will get worse and cause more problems.

There may also be individual sellers trying to sell cars that were not totaled, who don’t mention the disaster damage to you, in hopes you won’t find out some other way. Fortunately, there are other ways to find out.

Bad accidents

Was the car ever in a bad accident? If so, how do you know it was repaired thoroughly? You’ll need to check the car’s history for this. Which brings us to…


Because cars can be retitled in a new state, it’s easy for unscrupulous dealers to hide a car’s history from prospective buyers. Never take the dealer’s word for anything. CarFax is a godsend to used car buyers. It tracks a vehicle’s history by its VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and shows you precisely what’s happened to that car over time. Even when a new title has been forged, Carfax can often help you figure that out. So checking CarFax should always be your first line of defense.

It will list and describe (not always very thoroughly) incidents that triggered insurance claims or police reports. That’s how you can find out if a car has been through a flood or a bad accident.

Note that incidents of “minor damage” shouldn’t be a problem. But “major damage” might be. If you’re considering a car with a history of “major damage”, you really should take it to a mechanic for inspection. That’s the only way to see if it’s likely to need more repairs later. Possibly very costly ones. If you can’t do that, then you should probably consider a different car.

Inspecting a used car

In addition to checking Carfax, you should look for specific types of damage when buying a used car:

  • Rust. Look for signs of rust or flaking around wires. Lift up the floor carpeting and have a good look at the metal “floor” of the car for signs of rust or repainting. Ditto for the trunk. Also check the engine and underside of the hood for the same.
  • Discolored upholstery. Look for areas where upholstery color differs, or where upholstery has been replaced.
  • Smell. Pick up the floor mats. Did you catch a whiff of mold or mildew? Does it smell strongly of a fragrance, as if someone’s trying to hide a nasty odor?
  • Engine light check. When you turn it on, make sure all the dashboard safety lights (indicating anti-lock brakes, airbags and other safety features are ready to go) come on and stay on. And that the warning lights don’t stay on. Flickering lights could be a sign of damage.
  • Trusted mechanic. If the car you’re considering passes all these tests, take it to a mechanic you trust, if possible.
  • Seller resists letting a mechanic look at it. If the seller doesn’t want to let a mechanic of yours examine the car, you should probably walk away. No reputable dealer would do this. An individual seller might not understand the need for it, but should agree once you explain your concerns.

Used cars can be a great value for the money. It just takes a little more research and wariness to make sure you get a fair deal.