What to Avoid when Buying a Used Car

Note: The tips on this article were recently featured on AOL Autos

Over 40 million used cars were sold in the US in 2012, more than double the number of new cars. Used car buyers realize a substantial savings, and avoid the rapid depreciation associated with new cars. Most late model used cars have years of dependable life remaining, but there are some red flags to avoid to save considerable headache and expense.

1. Electrical Problems
Today’s cars have very complex electrical systems made up of thick wiring harnesses, touchy sensors, and dozens of control modules. When an electrical problem arises, the task of diagnosing it can require specialized computer equipment and hours of work. Once the problem is diagnosed, the replacement components are often expensive to purchase, and even more expensive to install and program. If you find a great deal on a car with a stubborn warning light or some malfunctioning electrical parts, beware that those problems can costs thousands to repair.

2. Poor Quality Body Repair
In general, body repair is not a big deal if it’s done correctly. A dented door, scratched bumper or broken tail light is by no means a deal breaker if the damage is fixed properly. Unfortunately, there are many body shops that cut corners or simply don’t have the competence to repair damage correctly. Some obvious signed of poor repair include misaligned body panels (inconsistent gaps), mismatched paint, and mismatched headlights (one foggy, one clear). If a body shop can’t even get the color to match, imagine the mess that might be concealed under the paint.

3. High Mileage
Used cars with high mileage (over 100k) are often priced significantly lower than comparable vehicles with lower miles. Higher mileage cars look exactly the same as comparable lower mileage cars, and can therefore appear to be a good value. Appearances can be deceptive, however. Over time, important mechanical parts wear out and require expensive repairs. Cars with high mileage will require these repairs sooner, and will cost you more to keep on the road. Even if a high mileage car has mostly “freeway miles,” be prepared for increased ownership costs.

4. Rust
If you live in a state where it snows, the roads are likely salted in the winter. When a car drives over salty road slush, the salt gets sprayed on the underside of the car and into the wheel wells. Some cars sold in snow states are equipped with special underbody coatings, but these are not a guarantee against corrosion. When you are looking at a used car that may have been driven in a snow state, be careful to check the edges of the front fenders, the rear wheel wells, and door jambs. These are places where rust often starts. Rust can slowly eat away at a car’s metal structure, and can be prohibitively expensive to repair.

5. Flood Damage

Each time there is a large-scale hurricane in the US, thousands of cars are submersed in water, and then recovered. Many of the recovered vehicles received branded titles and get dismantled for parts, but sometimes the flood damage is never reported and the cars are sold to unsuspecting buyers. These cars are prone to expensive electrical and mechanical problems, and hidden corrosion within the chassis. To determine if a car has been in a flood, first perform a vehicle history check to see if it has been branded by an insurance company or if it was recently registered in a state that had a hurricane or flood. If the history report comes up clean, check for electrical warning lights on the instrument cluster and for corrosion under the hood. A musty odor can also indicate that a vehicle has been submerged in water.
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