How To Spot Used-Car Warning Signs

October 28, 2010

If you're looking at buying a used car, the simplest clues can tell you if you're in luck or in for a bad ride.

As a former service writer, I've seen those clues up close and personal--and here to point out what you should see first when you look over a used vehicle:

The license plate. Probably the first thing you should look at before buying a car from a private owner is the license plate. Specifically, it is the state inspection expiration date that might be the most telling bit of information you can get prior to buying a car. If it has less than six months left before it expires, you should be concerned. In a perfect world there would be no bad players, all dealings would be upfront and honest and all vehicle flaws would be disclosed. This unfortunately is not the case, in a lot of car purchase transactions. That’s why the date when the vehicle’s inspection expires is important.

When there is an expensive repair needed to get the car’s tags renewed the owner is motivated to pass the problem on through a sale to an unsuspecting buyer. This buyer would then be faced with spending the money for the expensive repair or losing his initial investment in the car. It is not always obvious that a car is in need of an expensive repair without which it will never pass state inspection. The closer the car is to its expiration date the more likely it is that there are hidden issues.

The check engine light (or, not). One of these expensive repairs is the replacement of a catalytic converter. The cost of replacing this part is commonly $600 to $1500. The symptoms of a bad converter can run the gamut from a lack of power if it is plugged up, to no sign at all if it is simply underperforming. You will not know that this problem exists if a diagnostic code is not causing the check engine light to illuminate. An extensive test drive by an experienced technician may be the only way to eliminate the possibility of a bad “cat.”

Any illuminated check engine light should be a signal to proceed with caution. “That’s been on for years,” should not be considered as a reasonable explanation nor should any diagnosis by the seller be accepted. Never buy a car with its check engine light on. Offer to take the car to your technician to have the problem diagnosed and then if you are still interested negotiate an offer based on your shop’s repairing the car.

A broken odometer. Many states will not pass a vehicle that has an odometer that is not working. This is a concern if the unit is electronic, since they are very expensive to replace. If you are considering such a car you should price the replacement and deduct the amount from your offer.

Some cars can nickel-and-dime you to death, others are a problem from the start. Sometimes being cautious during the purchase process is the only way to avoid what can be a very expensive trap.        
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