How Much Damage

Determining the Extent of Damage

You've done your homework on a car you're interested in buying, and you've discovered a few blemishes on its vehicle history report. How do you determine if it's still worthwhile to make the purchase?

It's always a sound idea to have a trusted mechanic inspect a used vehicle before you lay your money down. This goes for all such vehicles, even those with a spotless AutoCheck history. Your mechanic should be able to help you assess just how troublesome a flaw might be, in terms of potential repair and safety issues. Also, the mechanic might be able to spot problems that did not surface during your research.

Additionally, the mechanic might alert you to an upcoming, major manufacturer's scheduled maintenance point for the vehicle. If the maintenance action will be expensive, you could use the cost as leverage to negotiate a lower purchase price with the seller.

If the seller refuses to allow such an inspection, consider that a warning to reconsider the purchase.

If you are not buying a vehicle from a local seller and are thus unable to have a nearby mechanic inspect the vehicle, you might want to consider using one of the national certified vehicle appraisal companies. At least, it would be able to visually inspect the vehicle for you, and send you the findings.

Other Matters to Consider

There are a host of red flags to consider when determining if a vehicle is worth the cost and risk. We've highlighted some of the more common ones. All of these conditions will show up in a Vehicle History Report.

Multiple Owners

If a vehicle has had many owners, there could be reason for concern. The more owners a vehicle had, the greater the likelihood that somewhere along the line, the vehicle didn't receive the care it deserves. Be especially leery if it was ever used as a rental car or a taxi. If so, it likely has led a rough life.


Geography can play an important role in dealing with potential problems. Vehicles that have spent time in the colder areas of the country have been exposed to road salt, as well as frigid temperatures. Be on the lookout for corrosion and rust problems. Vehicles that have been exposed to a coastal climate have had to deal with flooding and saltwater air, with its possible corrosive effects. Vehicles that have endured hot climates may have an accelerated repair schedule.

Odometer Rollbacks

Be wary if there is any indication that someone rolled back the odometer. Hidden mileage means hidden surprises, and they'll all likely be unpleasant ones, such as a need for premature repair work, or a reduced vehicle lifespan.

Gray Market Vehicles

Avoid buying these foreign-made vehicles imported by someone other than the manufacturer's authorized U.S. distributor. Chances are they do not comply with federal safety and emission regulations, and it is illegal to drive them within the United States. Also, a gray market vehicle is not covered by the manufacturer's express written warranty.

Accident History

If a vehicle has been in a major accident or two, or even in a string of minor ones, it could lead to premature repair or safety issues, or a shortened lifespan.

Salvage and Flood Titles

You'll need to be especially wary of buying vehicles that have salvage or flood titles. While the prices on these vehicles may be enticing, the problems you might encounter after purchasing such a vehicle are not.

Let's back up a bit. A salvage title is usually given to a vehicle after it has received extensive damage due to a collision, vandalism, or a weather-related condition, and would cost more to repair than its market value.

A flood title is given, as the name implies, to a vehicle that has been severely damaged by a flood, or some other water-related situation.

Sometimes, a rebuilt salvage title is issued to a vehicle that has been reconstructed or repaired enough that is it drivable. Be aware, though, that states have varying requirements for this type of title. Just because a vehicle has a rebuilt title does not mean that it's completely safe to drive or that it won't fall apart a block from where you bought it.

There are countless potential problems waiting in the wings for a salvage or rebuilt-salvage-titled vehicle. The problems are connected with whatever caused the salvage title to be issued. If you're willing to take the risk of buying a cheaper vehicle, knowing that expensive repair or safety issues may be lurking, or if you're skilled at vehicle repairs, it might be worthwhile. If not, you'll probably be better served buying another vehicle.

Flood-damaged vehicles present their own unique set of problems, including possible electrical, computer, and wiring-system damage. This could also have an effect on airbag deployment and antilock brake performance. And, there are always the headaches of rust or mold.

Other Buying Tips

Be sure to give the vehicle a complete visual inspection, too. Look for possible trouble spots on the exterior surfaces, under the hood, in the trunk, and on the inside. Make sure to peek under the seats and floor mats.

Insist on at least one test drive. Try to go on roads that present driving situations that you normally encounter, such as high and low speeds, curves, and turns. If something doesn't feel right, don't be afraid to ask for another test drive, or to simply walk away from the sale.

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