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Bottom Line Up Front

  • Used cars may come with mechanical problems that aren’t visible to the naked eye.
  • Things like strange sounds, odors and inconsistent paint jobs could indicate underlying issues in a used car.
  • Always get a professional mechanical inspection done and run a vehicle history report to ensure the car you’re buying is safe and well-maintained.

Time to Read

4 minutes

January 5, 2024

Buying a used car can be a great way to save money; however, it may be a risky choice if you don’t know some of the warning signs to look for. It’s a good idea to do your homework before purchasing any used car, including checking a vehicle’s history through reports such as CARFAX® Vehicle History ReportsTM.1 But even if these reports come back clear, there might be other hidden problems that could lead to costly repairs.

While shopping for a used car, be on the lookout for these 7 common used car red flags.

  1. Hidden History of Accidents

    Just because a car looks good on the outside doesn’t necessarily mean it’s in good condition. One red flag to be cautious of is a hidden history of accidents. Several signs might point to the fact that a car has been in a collision, including:

    • Inconsistent paint color or texture on different parts of the car
    • Misaligned panels or gaps between body panels
    • Repainted areas 

    It’s always a good idea to get a vehicle history report to check for reported accidents or salvage titles.

  2. Indicators of Underlying Mechanical Issues

    Another red flag to be cautious of is any sign of underlying mechanical issues. Listen for unusual noises while the engine is running, such as knocking or rattling. Pay attention to vibrations or unusual sensations while test-driving. Check for leaks under the car after it has been parked for a while. To be safe, you may benefit from having a pre-purchase inspection performed by a mechanic you trust to assess the mechanical condition of the car.

  3. High Mileage

    High mileage isn’t always a red flag, but it can indicate increased wear and tear on a used car. If you’re considering a used car with high mileage, check for other signs of excessive wear in the interior, such as worn seats, pedals and steering wheel. Note: A car with high mileage can still be in good condition if it has been well taken care of.

  4. Incomplete Maintenance Records

    Any time you shop for a used car, request the vehicle’s maintenance history. This should reveal if the previous owner took good care of the car or if there were any recurring issues while they owned it. Ideally, this record will reflect routine maintenance without any major gaps.

    Lack of proper maintenance can lead to unexpected issues down the road. It might sound insignificant, but skipping an oil change could lead to engine failure. Additionally, odometer fraud is a crime that’s prevalent in the used car industry. To protect yourself, verify that the mileage on the odometer matches the vehicle’s maintenance records or check the CARFAX Vehicle History Report™.

  5. Strange Odors

    Pay attention to any strange smells inside the car, such as mold, mildew or burning odors. Odors could indicate issues with the HVAC system, engine or other significant components—all problems that are expensive to fix. Mold and mildew, especially, could be caused by problems with the air conditioning system, water damage or leaks. Run the air conditioning at full blast for a few minutes to ensure that it’s working correctly and that there are no strange smells.

  6. Title Issues

    The title of a car establishes its identity. A title issue is one of the most significant red flags to be aware of when buying a used car. A vehicle history report should reflect any title problems, such as salvage titles. Be cautious if the seller can’t provide a clear title or if the title is from a different state.

  7. Unwillingness to Allow Inspection 

    A pre-purchase inspection is intended to uncover hidden issues and could potentially save you money in the long run. A trustworthy seller should have nothing to hide and should encourage an inspection before you purchase a used car. If the seller is reluctant to allow a pre-purchase inspection, this could be a major red flag and might signal that there is something wrong with the car that they don’t want you to know about. 


Make Your Used Car Purchasing Process Smoother

Buying a used car comes with its fair share of risks. If the car you buy is not in good condition, you may end up putting more money into maintenance and repairs than you expected. By being vigilant and spotting red flags, you have a better chance to avoid making a costly mistake.

Navy Federal’s car-buying resources can help you navigate the purchasing process more easily. Use our New vs. Used Car Calculator to help you determine if a used car really is a better deal and explore our auto loan options when it’s time to buy. With some patience and careful deliberation, you can make an informed purchase you’ll be happy about for years to come.

Next Steps Next Steps

  1. If you’re interested in buying a used car, research makes and models you’re interested in before exploring options available on the market. Navy Federal’s Car Buying Service powered by TrueCar®2 can help you search online for the car you want and see pricing up front.
  2. Once you have an idea of the used car you want, apply for auto loan preapproval. This process can provide better purchasing power at the dealership and ensure you’re eligible for a loan.
  3. Inspect the used car you've chosen by getting a professional mechanical inspection and a report on its history, such as a CARFAX Vehicle History Report.1



CARFAX Vehicle History products and services are based only on information supplied to CARFAX. CARFAX does not have the complete history of every vehicle. Use the CARFAX search as one important tool, along with a vehicle inspection and test drive, to make a better decision about your next used car.


TrueCar operates the Navy Federal Car Buying Service. Navy Federal is not responsible for any offer, purchase, lease, or service provided by or through the Navy Federal Car Buying Service.

This content is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial advisor for specific information on how certain laws apply to your situation and about your individual financial situation.