Consumer Reports Tips on How to Spot Hidden Damage When Buying a Used Car

Drivers are getting worse, more severe storms are happening every season, and car theft is rising sharply. For example, 358,000 cars suffered water damage from Hurricane Ian alone. All of these things mean the chance of buying a damaged or stolen vehicle is at an all-time high. Let’s go over some tips on how to spot hidden damage or signs of theft when buying a used car. 

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

How can you tell if a used car has water damage? 

A car’s title should note damage like water, fire, or collision. However, this isn’t always the case. According to Consumer Reports, cars sold with a “lost” title or only a bill of sale should be considered with a very shrewd eye. 

When in doubt, always follow your nose. If a car smells like mold or mildew, it’s probably because it has mold or mildew. These smells come from cars with trapped water somewhere beneath the floor or even in the dash. Another easy tell is rusty interior screws. Check the screws underneath the dash and inside of compartments for rust or corrosion. 

Lastly, keep an eye out for interior parts like lights, fasteners, or panels that are newer than the rest of the car. Asking why these parts were replaced might uncover a more truthful history of a used car. 

Water damage is one of the sneakiest types of damage to hide. It is also one of the most tempting to buy, even if you know of previous flood damage. 

The danger with flooded cars isn’t mildewy carpet, although that can be rough. No, the real killer is damage to the electrical system and corroded wires, connectors, and other electrical components. These problems can be very tricky to fix and often lead to years of hunting issues that seemingly never go away. 

How can you tell if a used car was crashed? 

Deadly car crashes 2021
A car crash in Manhattan on Mar. 5, 2021 | Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

Buying a previously wrecked car isn’t always a deal breaker, but you should always try to find out if a car has been wrecked and exactly what happened to it. This matters because, depending on the damage and the quality of the repair, bigger problems can emerge, along with the potential that a car wasn’t properly repaired and, as a result, is unsafe. 

Issues like frame damage or electrical issues left poorly fixed can become major problems or even life-threatening. One way to look for unreported damage and repairs is to look for newer body panels or mismatched paint. Also, look out for faulty electronic controls like windshield wipers or door and window switches not working properly. 

Should you buy a car that was previously damaged? 


How Do You Replace a Lost Car Title?

Ideally, you’d like to avoid cars with water or fire damage. Previously wrecked cars can be ok, but understanding the details of the accident and repairs is critical. If possible, have a trusted mechanic inspect any previously wrecked new car before buying.