Skip to main content

As a licensed car salesperson and ASE-certified service consultant, I’ve been on both sides of countless used car transactions. If you’re looking for a nice used car for sale, here are three red flags you should never ignore.

The asking price is much lower than market comparisons

Spotting a used car for sale that seems much cheaper than its peer listings while car shopping sure feels like something you should jump on. However, it can be a strong red flag. The price might be low because the vehicle may have a large mechanical flaw and is being offloaded by the current owner.

Read the listing carefully. Honest folks will describe anything glaring that would need to be addressed. After all, at best, not disclosing its true condition will only waste everyone’s time, and the car won’t sell.

At worst, the seller will hand a huge repair bill to the unlucky person who didn’t think the knock or clunk meant anything serious. Mant states consider private used car sales “as is,” and the buyer is responsible for any mechanical repairs after purchase. Dealerships are another matter, but a dealer might not be used to the make or model if the car was a trade-in.

A "for sale" sign shown in a blue used car windshield in close angle view
webclipmaker via iStock

If you test drive the car and notice engine or transmission misbehaviors or any dash warning lights are on, ask direct questions. If the car isn’t behaving correctly, walk away or get it inspected by a trusted mechanic before proceeding.

Some expensive issues might not display any misbehavior but will throw a warning light. A good example is a faulty catalytic converter. This is a very expensive repair that, in the early stages, doesn’t create a noticeable drivability problem. It will, however, turn the “check engine” light on.

Of course, not all lower-than-market listings should be ignored. Perhaps the seller is moving, is in a financial pickle, or is dealing with some other situation that requires a quick and haggle-free sale.

The used car for sale has a dirty interior

In my experience, the condition of the interior of a used car is directly related to the attention the owner has paid to maintenance and repairs. Clean oil today doesn’t mean the car has had regular oil changes prior to listing it.

If the interior is spotless, that’s a good sign. You can sometimes tell if the car has only been cleaned once – like, in order to be listed now. 

The smell inside will be “off.” You might notice stains on all the seats. There could be trash or other debris between and under the seats where a vacuum might not have reached. The center console might have some signs of hard-to-clean layers of grime. Yum!

The seller doesn’t have any proof of recent maintenance

At a minimum, a recent inspection performed with the last oil change should be provided. At best, the owner will have records and be happy to show them to you.

If you’re at a dealership, the sales department might not be able to provide the actual repair invoices from a previous owner. However, they should provide the Carfax and whatever records they do have.

Otherwise, you could take the VIN and request a Carfax or other service. This way, it’s possible to access some records without the current owner supplying them directly.

If the current owner is clueless or hesitant to talk about maintenance and repair history, proceed with caution. Get the car inspected even if it drives nicely.

Used car buying can be a long and tricky process. It’s always best to do your research ahead of checking out used cars. Know what years, makes, and models you’re targeting and get any you’re seriously considering inspected before moving forward with a purchase.