How to spot red flags in used car ads

Buying a car off the Internet can be a great experience,  but it can also be a little nerve-wracking for those who feel more comfortable buying a car from a dealership. I’ve bought five cars from private sellers through Internet classifieds and I’ve test driven and inspected many more. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in purchasing used cars, but hopefully you can learn from them. These are a few of the red flags that I’ve learned to identify in used car ads.

The long list of recently replaced parts

Haven’t we all seen ads that have a laundry list of recently replaced items? They go to great lengths to tell you that everything from the water pump to the tires to the alternator have been replaced. But, you might be wondering, why are new parts a bad thing?

They aren’t. The problem is that it’s often worrying that someone would spend several hundred dollars on a car they are just going to sell. Sometimes sellers really are trying to fix it for the next owner, but most of the time, they found something they couldn’t fix and decided to offload the car before the car becomes un-drivable. Always ask why they are selling a car that they just put so much work into.

“Just needs ____ to be fixed. It’s a $40 part”

No it doesn’t. If the seller says something like that, offer him his asking price plus $40 for the car fixed and see how quickly the excuses fly. I’ve frequently seen shady sellers do this for head-gaskets. The part might be $40, but the labour to install it could be an easy $700 depending on the car. And if it really was just $40 away from being fixed, the owner would have just fixed it already.

Rusting Lincoln Continentals

“It’s just surface rust”

It hardly ever is “just surface rust.” The only true surface rust happens when good, bare metal is exposed when paint is removed by a scrape or rock chip. This festers on the outside and for short periods of time, it doesn’t affect the structure of the metal. But 95% percent of the time, rust is the more insidious “rust from the inside out” type. This is the type that eats fenders and floorboards.

“Air conditioning needs a charge”

That’s a lot like pointing to a punctured, flat tire and saying “it just needs some air.” The refrigerant had to go somewhere and chances are, there’s a leak somewhere in the system. A recharge might keep the system working for a little bit, but to really fix the issue, you’ll need to find and address the leak. Find a more in-depth explanation of how to troubleshoot your A/C system here.

Paint on the bumpers doesn’t match the paint on the rest of the car

This is the easiest way to tell if a car has been repaired and repainted because of an accident. Some bumpers naturally discolour over time, but if the paint is shinier and a slightly different colour, that’s a red flag. Pay close attention to this when looking at enthusiast cars like Preludes and GTIs. The shut lines and panel gaps are also good ways to tell if the car has been hit but it’s hard to tell from just a picture.

A sale sign sits on a used car for sale.

A sale sign sits on a used car for sale.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images, Getty

When the ad has been up for too long

The best deals are always gone within 48 hours. That’s just the way of the Internet. The healthy shelf life of a fairly priced car seems to be about 10 to 15 days before the car is sold. Ads that have more than 2,000 views or have been up for more than a month are red flags. If the price doesn’t seem crazy and it hasn’t sold, there’s usually a reason why it’s scaring off all the other interested parties. This rule does not apply for oddball classics that might sit for months waiting for the right enthusiast to come along.

About Clayton Seams