These tips will prevent frustration down the road and save you money

By Jon Linkov

It’s important to thoroughly check out any vehicle you intend to buy. Even one with a good reliability record can be a problem if it hasn’t been properly maintained.

Perhaps even worse is buying a used car with hidden damage from an accident, flood, or other incident that might affect safety and performance. You don’t want to pay thousands of dollars for someone else’s problems.

Used-car prices have softened since the heights reached in 2022 and 2023. The average used-vehicle listing price in early February 2024 was $25,328, according to Cox Automotive. But no matter the price you pay for a used car, buying a problematic one remains an expensive problem.

Consumer Reports’ auto and finance experts have come up with savvy tips to ensure that you’re getting a good used car. Remember that when buying a new or used car from a dealership, you should carefully double-check the agreement and all the numbers.

1. Don't Skip the Test Drive

Why you shouldn’t: This is a good opportunity to determine if the vehicle is worth the asking price.

What you should do: Note unusual squeaks and rattles, and any items that need to be repaired. A car that pulls to one side might be showing signs of previous damage. Paint overspray on the back of body panels and doorjambs can signal bodywork from an accident. The smell of mildew or mold could indicate water damage, which you definitely want to avoid. CR’s chief mechanic, John Ibbotson, says to avoid vehicles with signs of deep water exposure. “Even if a vehicle looks acceptable and may be working when you inspect it,” he says, “water damage could lead to many electrical problems down the road.”

2. Check the Car's Title

Why you should: This will help you avoid surprises that could pop up when you go to register the car.

What you should do: First, make sure the seller has the actual title for the vehicle on hand. Examine the document for signs that the vehicle has been wrecked, repurchased under a state lemon-law program, suffered flood damage, or had another problem. Many state title documents will have that information on them. Some don’t have that information, so in those states, you should check the vehicle history report (see below). Verify that the odometer statement on the title matches the number in the car and that the vehicle doesn’t have any outstanding liens. If the dealer doesn’t have the title or won’t show it to you, consider a different car or a different dealer.

3. Expect to Get a Free Vehicle History Report

Why you should: Savvy dealers and private sellers will pay for these reports—from Carfax or AutoCheck—as a way to make their cars stand out to shoppers. These reports often detail whether a vehicle has been in a crash, its maintenance records, and how many owners the vehicle has had.

What you should do: Even though the seller may give you the report, you should still verify the information with the reporting service. Along with total-loss information, the reports might provide warnings about odometer tampering, collisions that weren’t a total loss, and any outstanding recalls.

If the seller won’t spring for one, you should get your own. You’ll pay $45 for a single Carfax report and $25 (plus tax) for an AutoCheck report. As an extra precaution, you can go to to get a free VinCheck report from the National Insurance Crime Bureau and to get a free report from the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS).

4. But Don't Rely Solely on That Report

Why you shouldn’t: Though helpful, vehicle history reports aren’t perfect. There are many reasons they can miss accidents, flood damage, vehicle theft, and other events that can seriously affect a used car’s value as well as your decision about whether to buy it. 

What you should do: Remain vigilant. These reports might be missing information because the services rely on data from insurance companies and police departments. But the owner might not have reported an accident or other incident to an insurer or the police if the vehicle didn’t have collision coverage or if the owner decided to pay for repairs himself. In addition, damage to rental cars may never be reported because rental car companies often self-insure. Last, after an incident occurs it can take months for it to show up on a history report. By that time, the vehicle may have been repaired and resold. So make sure you get your own inspection.

5. Check for Recalls

Why you should: There may be safety recalls for the vehicle you’re considering.

What you should do: First, go to to research any open recalls. You’ll need the vehicle’s 17-digit vehicle identification number. Recall-related repairs are made free of charge, but the work must be done by a new-car dealer that sells that brand of vehicle. If you find any recalls for the VIN, ask the seller to provide receipts showing that the fixes have been done. You can also go to a dealer for that brand with the vehicle’s VIN to ask someone to check whether the car has had the recall work done.

Consumer Reports recommends that you not buy any vehicle with an open recall. With any vehicle you buy, make sure all of the recall repairs have been completed before you take possession.

6. Contact the Previous Owner

Why you should: Because you never know what you might find out.

What you should do: If you’re buying from a dealer, ask whether you can get the name and contact information of the previous owner. Unless it’s a former rental or leased vehicle, you can often find the former owner’s name on the title, or you might get lucky and find it on a document in the glove box or somewhere else in the car. Don’t believe a dealer who tells you federal law prohibits the dealership from revealing former owner information. In fact, some states—including Kentucky, Maine, and Massachusetts—require dealers to turn over former owner information if it’s reasonably available.

7. Get a Mechanic's Inspection

Why you should: Even if the car looks super-clean and the seller promises it was driven gently, you should get an expert opinion on its roadworthiness.

What you should do: Given today’s incredibly hot used-car market, it can be a challenge to have a vehicle inspected by a reliable mechanic. With so many people looking for cars, sellers don’t need to accommodate requests like this. Still, it’s worth asking whether you can do so.

“If you can, have a mechanic experienced in auto bodywork and accident repair give the vehicle a detailed inspection,” Ibbotson says. The results of this inspection will give you ammunition to negotiate a final price. Either you can get a lower price because you’re going to fix the problems or you could offer to pay their price if they fix the problems. Of course, you could ask that the problems be fixed and continue to haggle over the price.

If the seller won’t let you take the car for an inspection, you’ll have to decide whether you’re okay with making an offer. If the owner lacks sufficient maintenance history documentation, you may want to skip the offer and find another car.

Consumer Reports is an independent, nonprofit organization that works side by side with consumers to create a fairer, safer, and healthier world. CR does not endorse products or services, and does not accept advertising. Copyright © 2024, Consumer Reports, Inc.

2023-03-17T17:42:43Z dg43tfdfdgfd