couple buying a used car

Red Flags to Watch For When Buying a Used Car

The used car industry is currently worth over $150 billion per year,  with many preowned vehicles being purchased for various reasons such as a graduation gift, the first car for a new licensee, or even as a treat for yourself. While the standard walk around allows you to check for many things such as body condition, glass defects, and the classic tire kick, there are some more serious issues to watch out for when buying a used car that should raise red flags.

When buying from a reputable dealer you will probably (but not always) be safe when purchasing a pre-owned vehicle but a private transaction can be a little riskier since you don’t know the seller, aren’t covered financially, and might be meeting in a less than savory place. Because of this, there are some things you should watch out for.

These include:

  • Too good a price
  • No documents
  • Mismatched VIN

As the old adage states, “if it is too good to be true then it probably is” while you should walk away immediately if the correct documents cannot be produced, and should the VIN not match any produced documents, the vehicle could be stolen or a dangerous ringer from a chop shop.

If It’s Too Good to be True

Just as when buying anything, you will be looking to get the best value for money, but when it comes to cars, too good a price is a huge red flag. While it’s true that vehicles are one of the most depreciative items in the world in terms of monetary value at around a 60% loss within 5 years, a 1-year-old Mercedes Benz AMG for $20,000 less than market value should be cause for concern.

Unless the vehicle has recently had a trip to the local collision repair center and is still suffering some injury, a more than generous price is a dead giveaway that something is amiss. The car could be stolen and the seller is looking for a quick sale so make sure you ask plenty of questions. This should also coincide with the history and mileage of the vehicle which should always be readily available as well as enquiring about why they are selling at such a low price.

Historical Insights

Documentation that shows the history of the car, including previous owners, mileage, a current registration, and service history should always be requested. Should these documents not be immediately available upon request then get the heck out of there. This is a giant red flag where you can assume that the vehicle is almost definitely stolen. 

However, if documents are available then make sure you scrutinize them thoroughly and check them against all of the necessary points of the vehicle. Should the service history show 100,000 miles but the clock shows 80,000 then something is dreadfully wrong. Or if the service history states that the tires were changed 1 year ago yet they are as bald as Bruce Willis, then someone is lying.

Vigilant About VINs

One of the most important things you should check straight away, which is an indicator of fraud is whether the Vehicle Identification Number in the car’s documents matches that of the vehicle itself. The location of a car’s VIN varies but the most common places are the driver’s side dashboard when looking through the windshield, under the driver’s side carpet, or in the driver’s side door well. Some are also located under the hood.

A mismatched VIN, or worse, a filed or obscured VIN could indicate that the car is stolen or even a ringer. Ringers are extremely dangerous since they are hastily put together from various pieces of wrecked cars of the same model; just welded together to fool a customer into thinking that they are getting a safe vehicle or having parts used in chop shop shipments to unsuspecting buyers.


When it comes to buying a used car then perform a walk around and a quick examination of the engine by all means, but don’t test drive the vehicle unless you have done your due diligence by asking about the pricing if it seems low, checking the service history or identifying the car’s VIN. Not doing the extra work could be dangerous since you might not be able to identify where a vehicle has come from and what its real condition actually is.