10 Deal Breakers When Buying a Used Car

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Contributing Writer

Bethany Hickey is a graduate from the University of Michigan-Flint, with a bachelor’s in English-Writing. She is a content writer for Auto Credit Express, CarsDirect, and many other automotive blogs, as well as the Poetry Editor for UM-Flint’s writing magazine.


, Contributing Writer - September 24, 2020

There are many things to be on the lookout for when you’re inspecting your potential next vehicle. If you run into any of these deal breakers while you’re doing an inspection or test drive of a used car, proceed with caution!

1. The Title Isn’t Clean

Request the used vehicle’s title before you do anything. While every state has varying classifications for car titles, if the title is branded, stay clear of that vehicle! Examples of branded titles include: salvage, rebuilt, junk, flood, fleet, and lemon.

Aside from the issues that a branded title can possibly give you down the line, many lenders don’t finance cars with branded titles. If you have your heart set on a vehicle with a branded title, you may need to pay cash for it. Financing cars with a branded title is high risk, and isn’t likely to be approved by a lender.

2. Rust Everywhere

Rust is more prevalent in northern states due to the salty roads in the winter, but be on the lookout for it no matter which state you live in.

Look under the vehicle, as well as around the tires and along the bottom of the body, for signs of rust, including any cosmetic damage that may be causing some surface rust. Frame rust specifically can affect the integrity of the car, and possibly cause parts to fall off – a real rust bucket may not protect you much in the event of an accident.

You may find some surface rust on a used vehicle, such as on corner panels or doors, which shouldn't concern you too much. However, if you see serious structural rust on the underbelly of the car, walk away.

3. Mildew Smell

Used vehicles can definitely have the lingering smells of their previous owner, but steer clear of ones that smell of mildew. This can be a sign of water damage, and can lead to serious electronic issues down the line.

Sometimes, a used car that smells like mildew could simply be the result of moisture build-up or an accumulation of rotting leaves if the vehicle sat for a long time. A little stale is fine, but stronger smells can mean trouble. If you smell mildew and you can’t locate the cause of it, move on. It could mean this car took a dive – literally.

4. Water Damage

As we mentioned, water damage can really harm the electrical components of a vehicle, but it can do so much more damage, too. Look carefully for signs of water damage under the seats, in the glovebox, and in the infotainment system. Even if the title says the car is clean, it doesn’t always mean a used vehicle has never gotten its tires wet.

Insurance companies typically total a car once it's been flooded. However, some people take used vehicles that were flooded to another state to avoid the branded title. This is called title washing, and it's illegal. Some owners may purchase a car that was flooded but the title may not show its true history.

A useful tool you can use to review the history of a used vehicle is the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System, and ask for a vehicle history report. Titles may not contain the full history of a car, but you can lower your risk of getting into a clunker by doing an inspection of the used vehicle before you sign that dotted line.

5. Knocking Sound When You Accelerate

If you get as far as test driving a used car and hear a rapid, tapping sound when you accelerate, the vehicle is likely suffering from engine knock. Fixing an engine knock can be expensive, since any number of parts – pistons, camshaft bearings, timing chains, or even the crankshaft – may need to be replaced.

Depending on where you go, the cost could be around $2,500 or more. If the damage is too much, you may need to replace the engine, which could cost more than the car is worth, depending on the make/model of the vehicle.

If you hear a-knocking, don’t go a-buying. There are plenty of used cars out there.

6. Oil Is Gooey or Dark

Sludge oil is when the vehicle’s oil congeals and becomes gooey. What can gooey oil do? Well, it can destroy your engine, or just decrease its efficiency.

Over time, the engine gets worn down, and as a result, it breaks down and deposits start to enter the oil. When things like moisture and debris start to mix with the oil, it can congeal if the oil is old. The debris and unwelcomed deposits settle into your engine and things around it, and this increases the risk of clogging.

The best way to prevent gooey, dark oil is with regular oil changes. Sometimes, a flush can fix this issue, but some mechanics don’t recommend this solution. The oil sludge may need to be physically removed by a mechanic.

If you see sludge oil, walk away from that used car. It’s also a sign that the vehicle may not have had regular oil changes or service.

7. Evidence of Accident Damage That Was Poorly Repaired

This deal breaker can be harder to spot than some, but a car that was poorly repaired can mean putting yourself at higher risk in the event of an accident.

Some telltale signs of a previous accident can include: problems with the paint, inconsistent spaces between body panels, fresh paint on the inner bodywork, uneven tires, and inconsistent wear and tear on the vehicle.

If some parts of the car look brand new, while others are worn down, ask some questions. If you feel like you’re not getting a straight answer or the title doesn't reflect an accident that needed repairs, consider walking away.

8. Transmission Jerking

If you test drive the used vehicle and you notice that the car is struggling to shift into the next gear, then break the deal. It could be part of a larger problem.

If you notice the transmission jerking, check the transmission fluid. If it’s low, it could be the cause and could be a simple solution. However, the transmission fluid could also be leaking if a seal is broken.

If the transmission fluid level is good and the transmission is still jerking, then you're better off moving onto the next candidate. The best transmission fluid in the world won’t fix a jerking transmission – the whole thing might need to be replaced which can be a costly undertaking.

9. Black Smoke Coming From Exhaust Pipe

You may need a friend to come with you to test for this issue, but it’s important. Have someone follow you as you test drive the vehicle, and have your follower watch the exhaust pipe.

If black smoke is coming out of the pipe when the used car accelerates, it could indicate that the vehicle is burning fuel excessively, which can be caused by a number of issues.

It may not be a 100% deal breaker, but it’s most certainly alarming and cause for concern. If you don’t see the cause of the problem right away, there could be a deeper (expensive) issue.

10. Car Feels Tired or Sluggish

This deal breaker is somewhat subjective, but you’re likely to know if a car is tired when you feel it. If you test drive the used vehicle and you notice that it struggles to get going, sputters, or maybe even stalls, then it could be on its last legs. A myriad of things could be causing the car to become sluggish, such as a defective fuel pump, a faulty oxygen sensor, or a failed catalytic converter.

Most borrowers want to get into a used vehicle that’s reliable and ready to go – not one that’s on its way out.

Financing a Used Car

Choosing a used car is a balance. You need to find one that’s reliable, but also for a fair price. Many borrowers opt for used vehicles since their sticker price is generally much lower. Bad credit borrowers in particular typically have higher chances of getting approved for less expensive used cars than brand-new ones.

However, the stress of finding a fair priced, reliable used vehicle can be enough to drive anyone bananas. If you’re concerned about the reliability of your next car, but you’re unsure if you can check for all the possible issues that it may have, then consider getting any used vehicle you’re looking to buy thoroughly inspected – a trained pair of eyes could spot problems a mile away that you couldn’t see. If the seller doesn’t want (or allow) you to get the used car inspected, then consider it a deal breaker!

If you’re ready to take the next step in financing and vehicle shopping without the hassle of doing the looking, then look no further than CarsDirect. We have used car listings right here on our site, and we also work to match bad credit borrowers to the dealerships with bad credit lending resources. To get connected to a dealer, fill out our no-obligation, free auto loan request form.

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, Contributing Writer

Bethany Hickey is a graduate from the University of Michigan-Flint, with a bachelor’s in English-Writing. She is a content writer for Auto Credit Express, CarsDirect, and many other automotive blogs, as well as the Poetry Editor for UM-Flint’s writing magazine.


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