Our expert tips will help you steer clear of a car with hidden problems
13 Tricks to Try
1. Check the Reliability Record
A good way to reduce the risk of purchasing a trouble-prone vehicle is to select models with a good reliability record before you begin shopping. Consumer Reports’ annual subscriber survey provides exclusive real-world reliability information that can help you narrow your selections. See best and worst used cars for a quick-reference list of the best and worst used cars from our most recent survey. Also read the reliability-history charts that accompany most of Consumer Reports’ vehicle profiles to get a more detailed view at how specific models have held up in 17 trouble areas as well as overall.
2. Read the Window Sticker
The Federal Trade Commission requires dealers to post a Buyer’s Guide in every used vehicle offered for sale. Usually attached to a window, it must contain certain information, including whether the vehicle is being sold “as is” or with a warranty, and what percentage of repair costs (if any) the dealer is obligated to pay. The Buyer’s Guide information overrides any contrary provisions in your sales contract. In other words, if the Buyer’s Guide says that the vehicle is covered by a warranty, the dealer must honor that warranty. If any changes in coverage are negotiated, the Buyer’s Guide must be altered to reflect them before the sale.
If a sale is designated “as is,” it means that the dealer makes no guarantees as to the condition of the vehicle, so any problems that arise after you have made the purchase will be your responsibility. Many states do not allow as-is sales on vehicles selling for more than a certain price.
3. Check the Exterior
Begin by doing a walk around of the car, looking for dents, chipped paint, mismatched body panels or parts, broken lamp housings, and chipped windows. Gaps between body panels should be of a consistent width and line up.
A closer inspection can reveal paint overspray on chrome or rubber trim or in the vehicle’s wheel wells. This is a telltale sign of body-panel repair.
Test for the presence of body filler with a small magnet. If the magnet doesn’t stick to the panel, the car may have filler under the paint (some vehicles with plastic or fiberglass panels, however, won’t attract a magnet at all). A door, hood, or trunk that doesn’t close and seal properly is evidence of previous damage and/or sloppy repair work. A CAPA (Certified Automotive Parts Association) sticker on a body panel means the part has been replaced. Inconsistent welds around the hood, doors, or trunk also indicate repair.
4. Check the Interior
A long look into the cabin can reveal many obvious problems, such as a sagging headliner, cracked dashboard, and missing knobs, handles, and buttons. Frayed seat belts or ones with melted fibers (because of friction) may be evidence of a previous frontal impact above 15 mph–damaged safety belts should always be replaced.
Prematurely worn pedals or a sagging driver’s seat are signs that the vehicle has very high mileage. An air bag warning light that stays lit may indicate that a bag has deployed and been improperly replaced–or not replaced at all. A mildew smell, caused by a water leak, can be very hard to get rid of. Discolored carpeting, silt in the trunk, or intermittent electrical problems may be signs of flood damage.