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16 Red Flags to Look Out for When Buying a Used Car

Buyers: Beware! Used cars can be a great buy or a disaster in the making. Here's what to pay special attention to in a vehicle history report.

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Mechanic diagnoses car, writing costings, annual vehicle inspection, close upMotortion Films/Shutterstock

Why Do You Need a Vehicle History Report?

Almost like a lifetime report card or a scrapbook of events big and small, a vehicle history report details a used car’s past. Why is it so important? If consumers know about a car’s accidents, repairs, title history and more, they can make a more informed buying decision. Of course it’s important to be smart when buying a car, since it’s such a big purchase.

The key to a vehicle history report is a car’s vehicle identification number (VIN). “The 17-digit VIN is like the car’s Social Security number,” according to Edmunds, an online car resource. “It’s used to note nearly every major event in a vehicle’s lifetime.” The two major companies that provide vehicle history reports are Carfax and Autocheck. The cost for each ranges from $25 to $100, although Edmunds says most major used-car dealers and some sites will provide a free report.

No matter how you come by your vehicle history report, you need to pay attention to it. Don’t be swayed by a seller’s enthusiasm or a low price tag. Instead, look for the following red flags to make sure the car is as great as it seems to be. Here’s how to outsmart a car salesman.

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Business man driving his carKateryna Yakovlieva/Shutterstock

Too Many Owners

Put simply, a great car wouldn’t be passed around like a bowl of spinach dip at a Super Bowl party. So if a vehicle history report shows a plethora of owners, it could be a signal that something’s not right with the vehicle. As AutoBlog explains, “The more garages a car’s been in, the less likely it’s been lovingly cared for all its life.” Plus, not every car makes a great used car. Here are 10 used cars you should buy — and 5 to avoid.

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Auto accident involving two cars on a city streetRobert Crum/Shutterstock

A Specific Type of Accident History

One of the best features of a vehicle history report is the chance to review a car’s accident history. Of course, not all accidents are the same. Some require easy repairs, while others call for major reconstruction that can impact the vehicle’s performance and its future resale value. Here’s how you can tell what’s up: Look for past structural damage and prior airbag deployments. If you see this kind of accident history, U.S. News & World Report urges you to proceed with caution. Since not all repair shops are reputable, have a mechanic you trust inspect the quality of the repair work before writing that check.

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Car headlightChris Ulmann/Shutterstock

It Was Once Stolen

This can be a headache for a couple of reasons. First, thieves likely stripped the vehicle of its best bits, and those components could have been replaced with substandard parts. That’s not what you think you’re getting, of course. Plus, during the theft, the car may have had its electronic components or engines tampered with.

And, of course, if the car was stolen and not returned to its rightful owner, you could have another huge problem on your hands. According to autoDNA, “Buying a stolen car can cost you a lot; not only would it be taken away from you, but you would not get the money back, either.” Here’s what happens to cars that don’t sell.

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Close up front of new silver car parking on the asphalt roadPiyawat Nandeenopparit/Shutterstock

A Well-Traveled Past

The issue here isn’t road trips and extra miles on the car. Instead, you need to be wise to “title washing,” something that could affect nearly 800,000 motor vehicles in America. So what is it and how can you spot it?

If you see a car’s title history spans several states in just a few years, it could mean that “sellers may be altering vehicle titles to hide their salvage status and sell the cars as regular used vehicles,” according to “To do this, sellers often send those cars through states with looser title laws.” Title washing is a dubious practice that is more prevalent in certain states. Check this U.S. map to see if your state’s title laws make it more likely you could be purchasing a “washed” used car. Here are more secret car-buying tips you should know.

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Close up of a male hand opening a car door at the dealershipDean Drobot/Shutterstock

A Salvage Title

There’s something else to keep an eye out for when reviewing title history: a salvage title. This means an insurance company determined the vehicle was not economically viable to repair and declared it a total loss. According to U.S. News & World Report, what happened next is that “someone came along and performed repairs sufficient to return the vehicle to the road.” But this doesn’t mean the car is safe, sturdy or sensible to purchase.

When that care is re-titled, it is branded with “salvage” on the title document. Even if the car doesn’t have a salvage title, you might want to avoid certain brands. For example, these cars are plummeting in value.

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car odometerTero Vesalainen/Shutterstock

An Odd Odometer Reading

One of the biggest and brightest red flags on a vehicle history report is found on the odometer. The numbers you see should not be lower than what you see on the report. Because the odometer reading is recorded at every important point in a car’s life —major service, registration, inspection, etc.— the figure on the dashboard should never be lower than what it is at any of these points.

“If the mileage on the report doesn’t match the number on the vehicle’s odometer, it’s a sure sign that the odometer was rolled back, which is an illegal practice,” says Matt Smith, senior editor at Here are 13 signs your car is about to die.

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vehicle recallPeter Titmuss/Shutterstock


Before purchasing a used car, dig through the vehicle history report to see if there have been any recalls on the vehicle’s make, model or year. Then check to see if those recalls were serviced properly. If a car has been on a dealer lot for a long time, it could be subject to recalls. It’s like buying a previous generation smartphone or video-game console that immediately needs to run updates. A used car’s vehicle history report will also inform you of recall checks that have been performed.

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Pre Owned Cars Market. Automotive Sales Industry Theme.welcomia/Shutterstock

Liens doesn’t mince words when it comes to a lien, the safeguard given to the person or institution lending the money to purchase the car. A lien gives the creditor the authority to repossess the vehicle if the lender defaults on his loan. HotCars urges used-car shoppers to walk away from the sale immediately if a report says that the car’s title still has a lien because this “indicates that [a private seller] does not have the right to sell the car and is likely a scam.” You don’t need to go to the car repair shop for these 100 super-simple repairs.

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Portrait of a mechanic at work in his garageMinerva Studio/Shutterstock

A Spotty Service Record

While not every single car-service appointment will appear on a vehicle’s history report (that would be an awful lot of oil changes to scroll through!), major services and regularly scheduled maintenance appointments should be listed. DePaula Chevrolet notes, “Things like brake, timing belt, and wheel bearing replacements, as well as other major repairs, should be noted [in a vehicle history report] in order to give you an idea of when the repair should have happened versus when it actually happened.” That information will give you a better picture of how the car has been cared for.

If the service record is spotty, with huge gaps in the report, this is a red flag you should heed. When you do finally choose the right used car for you, make sure you know these are the car maintenance tasks everyone should know.

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Car, Insurance, Auto Accidents.Billion Photos/Shutterstock

Missing Registrations

Gaps in annual auto registrations are serious red flags because they may signal the car was off the road for an extended period. Why would a car be off the road, you may ask? A accident requiring major structural repair, to name one problematic possibility. As long as that’s not the case, here are 12 of the best used cars to buy.

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combustion fumes coming out of car exhaust pipeINSAGO/Shutterstock

Emissions-Test Failure

Emissions testing is done on every car, new and used, to determine the level of air pollutants being emitted from the exhaust. A failed emissions test would only be an issue if it was the most recent test. So if the vehicle history report shows that your prospective used car failed an emissions test once but has since passed with flying colors, don’t worry. Whatever was causing the emissions issue has been resolved.

But beware: A lot of trade-ins don’t pass the test. While it’s illegal for a dealer to sell a car that doesn’t have a current emissions record, that’s not necessarily true for private owners.

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Raindrop fall on roof carMumemories/Shutterstock

Water, Fire, and Hail Damage

Hail damage may be visible to the naked eye and mostly superficial, but the effects of water and fire on a car engine are hidden and potentially dangerous. Scrutinize a used car’s vehicle history report for signs the engine may have needed repairs due to water or fire damage, and then proceed with extreme caution. After this kind of damage, according to, “no amount of repairs can ever make the car truly safe.”

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Tire in winter on snow road. Winter tires with car detail.Krasula/Shutterstock

A Lot of Time in Snow or Saltwater Air

Weather alert! If the used car you like has spent a significant portion of its life in snowy parts of the world, driving on salt-crusted roads and/or in coastal towns, it may be a big problem. The corrosive effect of the salt and the saltwater air could cause undercarriage and rust damage. Carfax will also sometimes make a note on certain used cars if they come from hurricane- and flood-ravaged areas.

This is the one thing you should keep in your car this winter.

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International Airport Terminal and ParkingTonyLockhart/Shutterstock

A Past Life as a Rental Car

It is unfortunate but true: People drive their rental cars more aggressively and with less care than they do their own vehicles. So if the vehicle history report notes that a rental agency once owned your dream car, you might want to reconsider that purchase. This is the best day of the week to buy a car.

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mechanic repairman inspecting car closeuptakoburito/Shutterstock

Request Multiple Vehicle-History Reports

One report and you’re done, right? Maybe. It’s actually a good idea to order multiple vehicle history reports from different companies. Yes, it will cost you a little extra, but it can save you loads of money in the long run. Plus, if you’re shopping at a dealership, you should get at least one report for free.

Here’s the issue: Some repair shops may report auto-body work and vehicle maintenance to one vehicle history report company and not to the others. Unfortunately, there isn’t one central repository for vehicle information. If you’re going to be driving a lot, these are the cars guaranteed to last you over 250,000 miles.

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Car Mechanic Challenge. Caucasian Auto Service Worker Preparing For Challenging Work To Fix Broken Vehicle.welcomia/Shutterstock

Get the Car Checked Out By a Professional

While a vehicle report is helpful (and essential), there’s still more work to be done. “Vehicle history reports are only as accurate as the data collected,” says Smith. “If a heavily damaged car was privately repaired, that damage likely won’t show up on the vehicle history report.” That’s why he urges used-car shoppers to “invest in a pre-purchase inspection from an independent mechanic, even if the vehicle has a clean history.” If you end up going with a new car instead, check out these top 5 brands you should consider.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published on Reader's Digest

Jeff Bogle
Jeff Bogle is a dad of daughters, herder of house cats, award-winning photographer, avid traveler, and English football fanatic who has had the privilege of writing stories for Esquire, PBS, Good Housekeeping, Time Out New York, and Trip Advisor's Family Vacation Critic, among other fine publications.