Used cars can be inexpensive when compared to buying a brand new vehicle. However, buying a used car is sometimes a gamble. If you plan to buy used, you should be savvy enough to ensure you don’t get ripped off.  Whether it’s an unscrupulous seller who is trying to unload a car with a lot of problems, or an honest mistake that is now your problem, the potential pitfalls exist.

Knowing what to expect and what to look for when buying a used car is important. It can protect your wallet and help get you into a safe, reliable vehicle. Because when it comes to buying a used car, it really is “buyer beware.” Here are 11 things everyone should know when buying a second-hand car.

There’s No Warranty

Let’s get the most obvious point out of the way first. When you buy a used car, there is no warranty on it. That obviously means you’ll be paying out of pocket for any problems that arise after you take ownership. If the engine breaks down on your way home from the used car lot, it’s probably going to be your problem.

If you’re lucky, you’ll find a used car dealer that offers a 30 day guarantee on their cars. Or maybe one who will agree to split the cost of any repairs that pop up in the first 90 days. However, even these offers are rare and hard to find. In most cases, once you buy a used car, you assume all the problems that come with it — no matter how expensive they are.

There Will Be Things You Cannot See

When it comes to the five senses and used cars, the sense of hearing might be your best friend. More than anything else, you’ll be able to listen for any problems under the hood of a user car. Somewhat ironically, the sense of sight is often the least helpful if you’re buying a second-hand car. That’s because it can be extremely difficult to physically see problems in the engine or underneath the car.

Sure, you can spot rust on the body and see liquids pooling underneath the car. However, chances are you won’t be able to see if the engine block is cracked or the catalytic converter is about to shut down. To help with that issue, bring a flashlight with you to peek in the dark spots. You should also bring a friend or relative who has experience dealing with cars. They will know where trouble spots are and what to listen for. Even still, seeing everything on a used car is almost impossible.

Test Drive the Car… Several Times

Taking a used car on a road test is critically important. And you shouldn’t only do it once. Take the car on several different test drives at different times. This is the best way to determine how it drives and if it’s reliable. Be sure to take the car both on the highway and through city streets.

On the highway, push the car to the speed limit (and beyond) to see how it drives at high speeds. Also, be sure to test the car in reverse in a store parking lot or while parallel parking. Putting the car through the paces as much as possible before buying is the best way to ensure that you’re not buying a jalopy. Just hope that you’re dealing with a patient and understanding seller.

Be Aware of Smells — Good and Bad

Back to our trusty senses, and the sense of smell. Every car has a smell to it. It’s usually pretty strong. So what can you smell in the used car you’re considering? Do you smell gasoline or oil? If yes, this could be a sign of some problems with the engine.

Does the car smell nice? Like it’s been sprayed with a scent or air freshener? Maybe it smells a little too nice. This too can be a sign that something is amiss. The seller might be trying to cover up a problem with a massive dose of Febreeze. Always be attuned to the way a car smells. It should always smell fairly neutral. Any strong odors — good or bad — should be taken as a sign that something isn’t right.

Get the Paperwork

It’s not always possible, but you should try to get any and all paperwork associated with a used vehicle. This should include a history of repairs and regular maintenance — right down to every oil change. You should also request the original purchase agreement for the car from where it was initially bought.

Again, although it’s not always possible, this is still one of the best way to know the history of the car. It will tell you any problems it has had over the years, and when/how they were fixed. From new tires and wiper blades, to a new battery or radiator, having the paper work in hand is always preferable. Buying a used car from someone who kept all the paperwork is also a good sign that the person you’re dealing with has taken good care of the vehicle.

Avoid Buying a Car Online

Online shopping is the way of the world nowadays. However, buying a vehicle online is never advisable. When it comes to a big ticket item like a car, it’s always best to buy it in person. Shopping online might be convenient, but it’s also where the most scams take place.

Meeting the seller in person (from either a private sale or a used car dealer) is always the way to go about buying a second-hand car. Not only will this allow you to see the car up close, but it will also enable you to meet the person selling it. You can get a sense of whether they are on the up-and-up. It should go without saying that you should never buy a car online without seeing it in person or taking it on a test drive first. Sure, you can browse prices online. However, when you find a potential car, make an appointment to see it with your own eyes. Buying a used car online without seeing or driving it first is a great way to lose a bunch of money.

Resist Pressure Tactics

Don’t be pressured into doing anything you’re not comfortable with, especially when it comes to buying a used car. Beware of any seller who is overly aggressive. Never turn over any money or a credit card until you’ve decided for sure that the car is right for you. Take your time and get to know the car a little before you agree to purchase it.

Take it for multiple test drives. Don’t be afraid to come back multiple times. It may annoy the seller, but you’re the one spending the money here — not them. Never agree to buy a used car because you’re being pressured to do so. Those claims that “it might not be here when you get back” or “three other people are interested” are probably outright lies. In fact, take these pressure tactics as a sign that something isn’t right and just walk away. Chances are, the car will still be available if you decide to circle back to it.

Pay Attention to the Body of the Car

You obviously want to be on the lookout for rust, dents, and scratches on the body of a car. However, you should also pay attention to the panels and bumpers on a car. Do they line up? If not, it might be a sign that the car has been in a collision and been repaired. Other signs that a car has been extensively repaired include different colors on the body, trim pieces that look newer than the rest of the vehicle, paint overspray, and ripples in the body.

If you see any of these signs, chances are the car was in an accident at some point and underwent major repairs. Ask the seller about any collisions. If it seems like they’re lying to you, turn and bolt. You’re dealing with an untrustworthy individual. You can also check services like CarFax to get a detailed history based on the VIN number.

Beware of Fresh Undercoating

Freshly sprayed undercoating beneath a car can be a problematic sign. It might indicate that multiple problems are being covered up. Fresh undercoating can sometimes hide problems by making it very difficult for you to see if there is any rust or other issues with the vehicle.

Never mind what the seller tells you. If you see fresh undercoating on a car, then it should cause your radar to go off. You will want to start asking a lot of important questions, like when and why it was done, and about the vehicle’s maintenance history. If nothing else, these questions will show the seller that you’re a savvy car buyer. Hopefully they won’t try to pull the wool over your eyes.

Avoid Unlicensed Dealers

Most U.S. states and Canadian provinces require that car dealers be licensed and registered with a local motor vehicle council or association. If the dealer you’re negotiating with won’t show you proof of their license and/or registration, take this as a red flag and move on. Of course, it’s different if you’re buying a car from an private individual. However, if you’re buying from a used car dealer, make sure they are licensed and registered.

Unregistered dealers masquerading as private sellers are called “curb siders.” You should simply avoid them completely. In some (but certainly not all) jurisdictions, licensed used car dealers contribute to a compensation fund that you may be able to tap into if your purchase turns out to be a lemon. This is likely the best (and only) type of warranty you will get when buying a used car.

Get the Car Inspected

It will cost you a little extra money, but it’s always advisable to have a used car inspected by a licensed and professional mechanic before you buy it. This is the very best way to identify any and all problems it might have. The inspection will let you know if you are buying a decent car or a lousy lemon.

Mechanics will see things that you aren’t trained to spot. They have the knowledge and experience to identify problems — both current and potential. While you might be reluctant to spend the money for a quality inspection, it’s money well spent in the long run. If you have a friend or family member who is knowledgeable about cars, even better. If you have a trusted mechanic you’ve been going to for a long time, then take advantage of their expertise. Ask them how much they charge for a quality inspection and use their service. This will help protect you from future frustrations and thousands of lost dollars.


This article was worked on by a variety of people from the Autoversed team, including freelancers, editors, and/or other full-time employees.