Consumer Reports Tips for Buying a Used Car and Red Flags to Look For

The process of trying to find a suitable used car, truck, or sport utility vehicle these days is not what most people would call fun. However, there are a few ways that you can protect yourself when buying a used car. Don’t be fooled by a good price and a fresh wash; there could be problems lurking.

Should you buy a used car with rust?

Consumer Reports knows a thing or two about buying a used car. One of the biggest things to look for is rust. Rust can hide in places you might not usually look while walking around a dealership lot. In the last few years, there have been a variety of natural disasters around the country that have left vehicles flooded. Hurricane Sandy was a big one, and now Hurricane Ian brought so much water into unsuspecting places entire dealerships were underwater at some point.

There is probably more hiding if you see any signs of rust on the car, truck, or SUV. Jon Linkov, CR’s deputy auto editor, said it spreads quickly and can be hard to eliminate. Even if you only see a small area, you will likely find more if you look.

“Water can ruin the electronics, lubricants, and mechanical systems of a car. It can also corrode vital electronics, such as airbag controllers.”

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Another red flag is a damp or moldy smell. If you smell mold or mildew, that usually means there is a leak or the car was in a flood. Check the carpet for watermarks, a slit in the trunk where someone might have released water, and weird electrical problems. Rusted screws on the dashboard or under the seats indicate that water sat in the vehicle for a while.

Check the body panels and brakes before buying a used car

Misaligned body parts or body parts with different paint have usually been compromised in one way or another. After a crash, these parts could have been repainted and fixed. Even if the pieces were technically fixed, unseen damage could lurk under those body panels.

Consumer Reports autos editor Mike Monticello says that spongy brakes can also be a big problem. If you try to brake and it feels “mushy” or spongy, that’s a sign something could be off. Buying a used car is stressful, but brake problems are not something you want to deal with right away.

Monticello says that sometimes this can be fixed by flushing the brake fluid, but it could be a sign of something more like a failing master cylinder. It could also mean the car, truck, or SUV needs new brakes. Not the worst scenario, but a costly one to be aware of.

A lack of a car title can also be a red flag

Tips for buying a used car from Consumer Reports
A car sits in floodwater after Hurricane Ian | Gerardo Mora/Getty Images

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You might want to reconsider if the seller doesn’t have the title. This could mean you can’t register the vehicle and might have trouble insuring it. Most of these documents would indicate a flood, accident, or anything else problematic. You can check the vehicle history report if the seller refuses to hand it over. These aren’t always foolproof, either, though.

Using Carfax or AutoCheck reports can be a good source of information, but it doesn’t always have the necessary information. Getting an inspection and going for a test drive before signing any paperwork is a good idea.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a helpful Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) tool. Use this to check, or any recalls that need to be addressed. It is a good idea to avoid buying a used car with open recalls because of the safety risks. Overall, these are some ways to save yourself the headache of purchasing a car, truck, or SUV in lousy shape.