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What To Look Out for When Buying a Used Car

Runs Good

The three most common scams that are perpetrated by used car sellers (dealers and private sellers alike) are:

  1. Clean one owner
  2. Runs great
  3. Low miles

The easiest way to tell if it's a scam is to understand that if it's too good to be true, it probably is.

These three common scams are not always easy to spot, but are usually done all at once rather than one at a time. Many dealers, especially, will claims a car has never been in an accident, runs great, and has low mileage not as a way to make more money on the car (outright), but as a way to sell it faster - another way of making more money.

What to Look For Specifically: Engine

What you look for will depend on your time, how many things you think might be wrong, and how interested you are in the car as a good value. Some shoppers are not as interested in others in all of these things.

The first think that you should care about is the mechanical condition of the vehicle. Just test driving it won't tell you everything (or even a lot) about the car, but it's a good start. Bring a paper towel or old rag with you so you can make some other checks.

You should check:

  • The oil - make sure it's clean, there is enough of it in the car, and that it's thick enough. Milky or black oil is a bad sign. Test the oil before and after you've test driven the car - it's easy to change the oil while the car is sitting and have it look good on the dipstick.
  • Check the transmission fluid - on an automatic transmission, there is usually a separate (and lower) dipstick you can pull to check its fluid for cleanliness and level. It will be bright red if it's in good shape.
  • Ask for records - maintenance records on a used car are a big deal and if they aren't available, the car has a lower value by default.

What to Look For Specifically: Odometer

The odometer may or may not have been rolled back. If the car is older and has too few miles on it, be suspicious. If the car has just under the amount of miles that would push it up in value on Kelly Blue Book, be suspicious (for example, a 50,000 mile car versus a 72,000 mile car - 72K is getting close to a maintenance interval for most cars).

  • Look closely under the hood. When air conditioning, timing belts, and other major components are serviced, mechanics and shops often put stickers on them to indicate mileage and service done. Look for these on the A/C lines, near the hood latch for the timing belt, etc. If the mileage is close to or above the odometer reading and the service was some time ago, the mileage has probably been rolled back.
  • If the vehicle has under 50,000 miles, check the tires. At that mileage, it should still have the factory-installed tires on it. If they're new, be suspicious. If the car is a 2009 with low mileage, the tires should have a factory stamp showing a date of that year. Look for the DOT mark, a series of letters and numbers. The last four are the date of manufacturer (2 for week of the year, 2 for year - so 3709 means they were made in August of 2009). If the dates don't match the car or are newer than the car (especially newer than this year), be very suspicious.
  • Look at the odometer for signs of tampering. Light tool scratches around the screws, fingerprints on the edges where it's gripped for removal, or marks underneath the glass are sure signs someone has removed the cluster. Electronic odometers can be changed through the vehicle's computer, however, so no tampering with the cluster display would be necessary. Also watch the odometer as you test drive to make sure it "rolls" with the miles.


The body work is not as easy to spot, but ripples, paint mismatches, and similar signs are clear indications of body work that has been done to the car - likely after a wreck.

Buying a used car doesn't have to be a nightmare, but it is a buyer beware process. Lemon laws exist, but are not often easily enforced in your favor. Ultimately, you are responsible for a car that you buy.

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