How to Spot Problems in a Used Vehicle

How to Check for Issues When Buying a Used Car

Buying a used vehicle has its advantages. They cost less, depreciate slower, and insurance rates are much lower. However, with millions of car collisions every year and more frequent storms, consumers are more likely to buy a car that has been damaged.

Although it is supposed to be noted on the title, damage from an accident, flood, or fire isn’t always communicated to shoppers. This is why you must be careful when considering buying a used vehicle with only a bill of sale or without a title. Reports from the National Insurance Crime Bureau’s (NICB) free VINCheck service, Carfax, or the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, may show the vehicle’s history but are not foolproof.

How to Inspect a Used Vehicle

Finding a problem-free used car has everything to do with good investigative skills and research. Knowing how to detect potential issues and determining how reliable the vehicle is can save you from costly automotive headaches. A careful inspection will help you see if there are hidden problems with the car. The following tips can help you find a good value and avoid a lemon.

Spotting Damage from an Accident

According to the Insurance Information Institute (III), drivers across the country file millions of dollars in collision claims yearly.

The issue: Crash damage can affect a vehicle’s structural unity. Without proper repairs, damages from a car accident can degrade steering and braking performance. The damages can also reduce the car’s ability to appropriately protect occupants in future collisions.

How to spot it: If the vehicle’s color or texture is slightly different or the body and interior panels look too new, they may have been replaced after a collision. Electrical problems like window switches and faulty wipers can also signal collision damage.

Spotting Damage from a Flood

Hundreds of thousands of vehicles are damaged by floods yearly, and many end up on used-car lots.

The issue: Water can ruin a car’s electrical system. The damage can tarnish wires and terminals and lead to circuit mal­functions. It can also corrode mechanical parts and dilute engine oil. Sometimes the damage won’t show up for months or years.

How to spot it: If the vehicle smells like mildew or mold, water may have been trapped inside the dash or underneath the carpet. Look for rusted screws and evidence of a water line on door panels or lights.

Spotting Damage from a Fire

According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), about 200,000 vehicles are damaged by fires yearly.

The Issue: While damage from a small fire can sometimes be repaired, the heat can weaken a vehicle’s electrical, mechanical and structural parts, making it dangerous to drive.

How to spot it: Look for body or hood panels of a different color, mismatched interior or dash parts, and new paint in the engine compart­ment. Check the glass for cracks and melted rubber. Look for warped aluminum, plastic parts, and new wiring under the hood.

How to Tell if a Car Was Stolen 

According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB), car thefts increased by 17 percent between 2019 and 2021.

The issue: When a car has been stolen, it could have been vandalized, driven off the road, or raced on the street. The structural, suspension, electrical, or mechanical components could have been damaged during that time.

How to spot it: Look for mismatched paint, gaps between doors, body contours that are not uniform, and discolored upholstery. Test drive it to feel for wobbles or vibrations that could indicate the car has been mistreated.

Inspect It Carefully

Whether buying a used vehicle from a private seller or a dealership, always look over it carefully and take it to a trusted mechanic for a thorough inspection. Check the car in daylight on a clear day because floodlights can hide body defects. The vehicle should be parked on a level surface for easier inspection.

Watch YouTube Video: How to Check a Used Car Before Buying. The video below explains how you can inspect a used car to avoid getting stuck with a lemon.

Sacramento Car Accident Attorneys

I’m Ed Smith, an auto accident attorney in Sacramento. Working with the right legal team can make all the difference when you’ve been seriously injured in a crash. For free, friendly case advice, call our law office at (916) 921-6400 or (800) 404-5400 to speak to one of our knowledgeable injury attorneys.

Our California personal injury law firm has helped our clients obtain fair compensation for accident and wrongful death cases since 1982.

View our past case results on our Verdicts and Settlements page.

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