You don't need to be a mechanic to spot a piece of junk. The challenge is to not buy the car before you uncover the damage.

Finding Hidden Damage on a Vehicle Before You Buy It
Image: NCCC
June 16, 2017

With the increasing reliability of vehicles today, the used car market is becoming a viable alternative for consumers who want good, quality cars for less-than-new price. But what does the consumer look for to avoid buying someone else's problem car?

You really don't need to be a professional mechanic to spot a piece of junk. The challenge is to not buy the car before you uncover the damage.

Like other industries, the used car industry has received a bad reputation due to shady dealers who want to take advantage of unsuspecting consumers. Since there is no surefire way to weed out these bad apples, the old adage of 'buyer beware' is what every consumer should live by.

So what should you be looking for when looking for a used car? While the list is extensive, there are a few red flags that should tell you to steer far away from certain cars.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Damages

Most consumers know to look at the inside and outside of the car, giving the tires a useless kick for good measure. But most people don't look much further. When is the last time you stuck your head under the car or under the dash? Chances are: never. But you should consider it, and here are some of the reasons why:

  • Pulling back the carpet and lifting the trunk mat can reveal hidden dirt, mud or signs of moisture, which can be the first indication of a flood-damaged car.
  • Looking carefully at the edges of doors can reveal watermarks of additional staining.
  • Taking a quick look under the dash can reveal hidden rust on the ends of bolts and screws or on other exposed metal components. With very few exceptions, there shouldn't be any rust on the inside of a car, which is an indication a vehicle had been significantly flooded at one point.

Half of a series of vehicles we examined recently showed significant rusting on the mechanical workings under the dash and on seat frames and supports. Flooded vehicles often saturate the market shortly after recovery from a natural disaster, such as a hurricane, begins. We always recommend that consumers avoid flooded vehicles, which often exhibit significant electronic problems.

Other Points to Check

One crucial step is to check the paint.

Look at the door jambs, where paint is likely to be original and undamaged, and at the outside of the doors. Does the paint match? Is there a color variation between the different panels on the car? Is one part of the car more shiny than others?

Paint over spray, which are fine rough particles of paint on the surface, is a definite sign of prior damage and may indicate other hidden damage. Often when paint work is done near the engine compartment, overspray may be present on insulation, the underside of headlights or any other non-painted portion of the vehicle.

Feel the paint. Is it rough or smooth? Rough paint usually indicates paint overspray, although the paint in the engine compartment is not always polished smooth from the factory. Even if the paint on the vehicle is older and fading, it should be consistent in quality, texture and appearance across the entire car.

If a part is not painted all over, such as the underside of bumpers or the edges of doors, or if there is paint where there should not be any paint, be wary. Mechanics can check the underside of the vehicle for evidence of frame welding or straightening.

While you are looking at the body, check all parts of the vehicle for the following:

  • Do the parts line up with each other?
  • Are the gaps between the hood and doors equal?
  • How about the gaps around the rear lift or trunk? At the taillights and headlights?

Suspect prior damage and repairs when you find inconsistencies. Of course, just because a vehicle has been previously repaired doesn't mean the repair wasn't completed satisfactorily. If you do uncover damage, a mechanic can give you more insight into the extent.

Most newer vehicles have VIN stickers placed on most body parts of the vehicle, such as the fenders, hood, bumpers, doors, and quarter panels. These stickers are usually in inconspicuous places, but should be readily visible. If your vehicle is missing one, chances are the part has been replaced at some point. They cannot be removed and then reattached; only a dealership can replace the sticker on a new part, and it is always marked with the letter R to indicate replacement. VIN stickers are strictly controlled from the manufacturer and cannot be purchased.

In addition, always check the vehicle's title. Accidents are not always listed on the title, but sometimes they are. You can use a title search service online to order a report, which may include places of previous vehicle registration as well as when and where emissions inspections were performed. If the vehicle is from some distance away, such as another state, it is more likely to be damaged in some way: it is easier to sell a damaged vehicle by taking it across state lines, especially into North Carolina, where reporting requirements may be different.

You should also be wary of rental, lease, and fleet vehicles. These vehicles are often, but not always, severely-driven or abused and may have hidden mechanical problems.

And don't forget to check the odometer! Don't be afraid to put your head up to the thing to get a closer look. Check for the following:

  • Are all the numbers aligned?
  • Are there any asterisks of codes by the numbers, such as *** or E?
  • Does it read 999999?
  • Does the mileage match the vehicle condition?

Sometimes a major engine problem can be covered up with a bottle or two of engine additives. The oil can be thickened to make a noisy engine temporarily whisper quiet or to temporarily seal leaks. They don't solve any problems, and can sometimes create new problems and make existing problems worse.

You can always check the dipstick for unusually thick oil and the underside of the oil filler cap for thick or milky colored oil. While checking the dipstick, wipe it clean; it should not be stained, as a stained dipstick is often a sign of infrequent oil changes. Sparkling engines can sometimes be a sign of trouble.

Also, beware of salvaged vehicles. Many southeastern states don't require dealers to disclose this information. Use a title check service to investigate the vehicle history. A salvaged vehicle isn't necessarily unsafe; it merely means that the cost to repair the vehicle following a wreck was close to or greater than the value of the vehicle at the time of the wreck.

Finally, avoid extended warranties in general. They cost too much and are often too limited. Usually, the cost to repair an item outweighs the cost of the extended warranty, especially if the warranty is financed. Of course, only you can make the determination if the warranty is worth it to you. Besides, a warranty won't help a vehicle that has damage as warranties expressly exclude it. Some warranties can even be voided if the servicing shop finds evidence of certain damage, such as flooding.