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10 Signs a Used Car Can Spell Trouble

Nov. 17, 2015
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10 Signs a Used Car Can Spell Trouble
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If you’re shopping for a used car, be careful about deals that appear to be amazing. A bargain-priced vehicle might have a troubled past that can lead to both safety and car insurance problems.

Checking a car’s background can uncover problems that could lead to breakdowns, compromised protection or a shorter life span for the car, and make it harder to resell. Such a background check should uncover whether the car was previously totaled, rebuilt or damaged in flooding, for example.

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Here are 10 signs the used car you are looking at could be trouble:

1. Salvage title

If a car is declared totaled, its title will be marked as salvage. Such cars can be repaired, inspected and declared road worthy again, but their history will remain on the title, and potential problems could remain undetected.

2. Flood damage

A car with flood damage will be marked on its title as “salvage” in some states or have a specific flood designation in others, according to vehicle history site Carfax. Either way, you want to avoid them.

“It’s not illegal to buy or sell them,” says Jeanne Salvatore, a spokeswoman for the industry group Insurance Information Institute. “It’s just illegal to not let somebody know that the car had been flooded.”

A paint job and upholstery replacement can make a flooded car look nice, but it could still have issues such as rust, mold, mildew and, more importantly, damage to critical systems.

3. Structural damage

Even if a car wasn’t totaled, structural damage could mean trouble down the road. A vehicle might have hidden issues that weren’t caught and fixed.

“Even minor car frame damage from a trivial collision can seriously undermine the structural integrity of a vehicle,” Carfax warns.

Signs of clamping or welding, replacement parts or ill-fitting or mismatched parts can indicate repairs after an accident with potential structural damage. Also see if a vehicle history report lists major accidents or repairs.

4. Air bags deployed or disabled

After air bags deploy in an accident, an authorized repair center must install new certified ones, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. If a report shows an air bag deployed, ensure it was replaced properly. There are several checks you can do, according to Carfax, including making sure that the air bag covers fit properly. You should also have the car inspected by an independent mechanic whom you trust.

Another possibility is a disabled air bag. Federal regulators allow this under certain circumstances if a car doesn’t have an air bag on-off switch. Generally this is in circumstances where a driver or passenger would be safer without an air bag. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a site to check car vehicle identification numbers (VINs) for disabled air bags.

5. Hard usage

Cars that were formerly police cruisers, taxicabs or even rentals could be beat up in ways that shorten life spans. Police cars and taxicabs in particular can be driven hard or spend a lot of time sitting with the engine running, which wouldn’t show up on odometers. Such uses should turn up on vehicle reports.

6. High mileage or odometer issues

Cars with lots of miles are more likely to break down. Mileage also affects price, which is why some unscrupulous sellers might tamper with the odometer.

Vehicle history checks will show actual mileage and cases where the odometer was rolled back or reset to zero miles. Carfax offers a free odometer check to verify mileage using the VIN. The company gets readings from state motor vehicle agencies and inspection stations, auto auctions and car dealerships. A mechanic should also be able to tell whether a car’s condition doesn’t match the odometer reading.

7. Manufacturer buyback

Manufacturers sometimes buy cars back from customers because of repair issues. (Read: lemons.) The manufacturer may fully fix such problems, but if a history report shows a buyback, try to find out what the issue was and have an independent mechanic evaluate the car.

8. Many owners

Multiple sales of a car could signal problems. Also, the more people who have owned the car, the greater the odds one of them mistreated it. A vehicle report will list the number of owners.

9. Failed inspections

Problems that turn up in safety inspections and emissions checks can be fixed. But if you see a failed inspection on the vehicle report, mention it to the mechanic who’s inspecting the car you’re considering.

10. Stolen car

If you buy a car that was stolen it could be seized by police, and you might not be able to get a refund, the FBI warns. Vehicle reports will show if a car has been reported stolen.

In some cases, thieves hide or replace the VIN tag. A VIN check might show a title in another state, or indicate fraudulent documents. Also, inspect VIN plates for tampering, and make sure VINs on the car and documents match.

How to check a vehicle’s history

Although state governments generally require vehicle problems like totaling and flood damage to be noted on the title, unscrupulous sellers can have a title “washed” by getting a new title.

To be sure the title lists any potential problems, buy a vehicle report with details from an authorized company listed by the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System.

Also, the National Insurance Crime Bureau offers a free service to check whether a participating insurance company has reported a car as stolen or salvage.

Before buying a used car, have a mechanic you trust evaluate it fully. Even if you can live with a vehicle’s past life, knowing about it can help you make an informed choice and negotiate the best price, Carfax notes.

Getting coverage

It might not be illegal to sell cars that have questionable backgrounds, but some insurers, such as Esurance and parent Allstate, often won’t cover them.

Other companies, like Farmers Insurance, make no distinction if a previously totaled car has been repaired and certified as road worthy.

State Farm, the nation’s largest auto insurer, will generally offer at least basic insurance on vehicles that run, are safe and meet federal standards. But more-serious issues could make it hard to find coverage.

Be sure to check the title carefully and get a vehicle history report from Carfax or a similar company.

No matter what insurance you buy, NerdWallet’s auto insurance comparison tool is a good place to shop around for the best rates.

Aubrey Cohen is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @aubreycohen.

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