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16 Red Flags You’re About to Fall for a Terrible Car Deal

Learn the warning signs that should make you slam on the brakes before you make that big purchase.

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Young car african female salesman giving a key from the new car to the beautiful young african couple owners

The seller is rushing you

“Car salesmen use pressure tactics like making you think you’re going to lose out on the car because of another buyer or they start throwing a lot of last-minute information at you to encourage you to act fast. These high-pressure tactics are usually salesman specific. Your best option is to just walk out of the dealer and go somewhere else. Never get pushed to make up your mind under time pressure.”—Lou Haverty, Financial Analyst Insider.  While shopping, look out for these red flags in your vehicle history report. 

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Chinese female manager working in car. Successful Asian businesswoman using laptop computer and looking at paperwork.
Diego Cervo/Shutterstock

They won’t give you a Carfax report

“A viable dealership or private seller has nothing to hide, and will often provide a Carfax history report when they know a buyer is serious about a purchase. If they don’t provide a report, I strongly suggest the buyer walk away. No one wants a lemon or previously totaled vehicle.” —Alex Lauderdale, EducatedDriver.org. Learn these 34 car-buying secrets dealers know but you don’t.

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Mechanic working on a diesel filter, close up

There are CAPA stickers on it

“The most common way to grossly overpay at a used car dealership is to pay good money for a vehicle that’s in bad shape. Look out for a CAPA sticker applied to any part of the vehicle. CAPA stands for Certified Automotive Parts Association, and it means that the labeled part was replaced as a result of collision repair. Vehicles involved in collisions are more likely to develop any number of automotive issues even years after the collision took place.” —Jim Milan, Communications & Organic Search Manager, Auto Accessories Garage

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Close-up Of Person's Hand Inserting Key To Start Car
Bondarenco Vladimir/Shutterstock

Your test drive feels stiff

“When you test drive a used car, pay close attention to how it feels when the vehicle changes gears and how the power steering feels. While you can attribute a wide range of differences between makes and models, if the shifting or steering feels stubborn or unreliable, the car you’re driving likely has serious issues that will only get worse.” —Jim Milan, Communications & Organic Search Manager, Auto Accessories Garage

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Sales Manager shows the woman new cars in the showroom
Yulai Studio/Shutterstock

They keep changing the offer

“After you decide on a car, some dealers will throw a bunch of new features and options at you without giving you the proper time to consider whether you need them. The easiest way to avoid this is to use a service like AAA. AAA’s car buying service allows you to pick out your car and features in advance and receive a firm price. If you print out the form, the dealer is obligated to honor the quoted price. I used this service to purchase my last car and it was very easy and hassle-free. The AAA rate is usually lower than the dealer’s starting rate, too.” —Lou Haverty, Financial Analyst Insider. Check out the best car deals for under $18,000.

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Check engine light. Car dashboard in closeup
Daniel Krason/Shutterstock

They tell you to ignore the check engine light

“One of the most bald-faced lies a used car salesman will tell customers is that the check engine light is malfunctioning and it isn’t a big deal. The check engine light is a valuable tool that tells drivers when something is wrong under the hood. When a car really starts to fall apart, it will be difficult to keep the check engine light off. It is rare for a check engine light to routinely malfunction, and even if it does malfunction, it really needs to be fixed. If a salesman ever tells you the check engine light is malfunctioning and not to worry—run!” —Jim Milan, Communications & Organic Search Manager, Auto Accessories Garage.

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Rust on the bonnet of a silver car with black radiator grille

You see signs of rust and gunk

“Always check underneath the car for signs of rust—this can be a big indicator that the car has been overused and could bring trouble in the future. Also check for gunk around the oil filler and the transmission oil—gunk can be an indicator that something is wrong or something will be wrong soon.” —Adriana Raigosa, owner of Raigosa Auto Sales in Greenville, South Carolina.

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Luxury car inside. Interior of prestige modern car. Comfortable leather seats. Black perforarated leather cockpit.

They’re pushing extended warranties

“Dealerships will often try to push bolt-on items at the end of what you thought to be a great deal on your new or used car purchase. These add-on products come in the form of extended warranties, car service agreements, undercoats, fabric protectant, gap insurance, etc. Listen, we live in a time where one can easily get 200,000 miles out of a car if it is properly maintained. The cost vs. use of these extra items is often one-sided in the dealer’s favor.” —Alex Lauderdale, EducatedDriver.org. Use these simple tricks to outsmart car salespeople.

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Month on a calendar viewd at an oblique angle with selective focus to the dates and numbers

They’re negotiating your monthly payment, not the sale price

“It should be a red flag if the salesman is more concerned about the monthly payment instead of the price of the car. The price of the car can be too much but the customer doesn’t realize it because the customer is focused on an affordable payment.” —Adriana Raigosa, owner of Raigosa Auto Sales in Greenville, South Carolina.

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16 Red Flags You're About to Fall for a Terrible Car Deal
Oleg Znamenskiy/Shutterstock

The price is out of whack with the market

“One sign that you’re getting a bad deal is if the price is significantly different from the car’s Fair Market Value as indicated by Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book. If you’re having any doubts about the reputation of the dealer, contact the local Better Business Bureau.” —Roslyn Lash, RoslynLash.com, financial consultant. Keep these items in your car to be insanely more productive.

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work in office

They want you to use a specific online escrow company

“This is a scam online shoppers need to be aware of: The scammer will target an unsuspecting online shopper who is looking for a car at a bargain price. They’ll use a popular site like Cars.com or Craigslist. The car ad will include several photos and a link to the car’s history report showing that the car is in good condition and includes a clean title. The fake car ads are using information that they’ve cloned from legitimate listings. The scammer includes an email address for inquiries, but no telephone number.

The victim emails asking for more details on the vehicle. The scammer replies and says that they are, for example, a pilot preparing to relocate and that they’re forced to sell the car, which is why you’re getting such an amazing deal. They explain that the car purchase is a simple process which includes you wiring the money to an escrow company which will then retain the money until you’re in receipt of the vehicle. They send the victim a link to the website of the escrow company. Again, the escrow sites have been cloned [they’re fake]. They even include a vehicle purchase protection program that states that once the buyer receives the car, should they decide it wasn’t what they wanted, they can receive a full refund.” —Justin Lavelle, Chief Communications Officer, BeenVerified

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Keys from the car on money. used for background or material design.

The deal is too good to be true

“There are several warning signs you should watch for when entering into a deal for a car. If the seller is too pushy, then they may be trying to take advantage of you. You should be able to see the car and inspect under the hood, inside the vehicle, etc. If the seller rushes you or says you can’t look at part of the car, then you should be wary of the deal. You should also be careful when a deal sounds too good to be true. If the seller is only talking about the positives of the vehicle and make an outrageously low offer, then something is wrong. The purchase price should be similar to what other similar cars are selling for in your area. If anything sounds or feels off about a car deal, you should probably avoid it. Don’t risk your safety or that of those you love. ” —Jared Staver, Staver Accident Injury Lawyers, P.C. Be aware of these ways that you’re wasting money on your car.

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mechanic repairman inspecting car

The title record is not clean

“When you request vehicle records, review the title. Insurance claims on flood-damaged vehicles result in a transfer of the title record to salvage or junk. This change occurs anytime a vehicle is considered totaled by the insurance company for any reason. Totaled vehicles can still be fully operational and appear to have little if any damage from the outside. The term ‘totaled’ occurs when the cost to repair the car exceeds the value of the vehicle.” —Justin Lavelle is the Chief Communications Officer for BeenVerified. Buying a car online? Here’s what you need to know.

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door and tyre and petrol cap cover of a white car

There is no title

“Always make sure that you are shopping cars with published vehicle identification numbers. Each car has its own unique VIN, which allows you to check ownership, accidents, and conditions of the car. And if buying from a private seller, ask to see the title in order to verify ownership. If there is no title to show, this may not be a legitimate sale.” Valerie Coleman, 5miles, a buying and selling app.

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Sales manager describing car to customer in showroom
LightField Studios/Shutterstock

The seller doesn’t want you to “waste your money”

“If the seller discourages you from having an independent garage check out the car, or speaks negatively about companies that provide vehicle history reports, be very wary.”—Roslyn Lash, RoslynLash.com.

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Mechanic in blue uniform lying down and working under car at auto service garage

There’s stuff you can’t see

“Cars can look great and still have major mechanical issues. Arrange to have a mechanic who you trust look at the car to give you insight into the overall condition of it. (Note: Underlying issues may not be found by a novice during a simple test drive.) If the seller refuses this request, walk away from the car.” Valerie Coleman, a longtime car expert at 5miles. Now, check out some ways you’re completely wasting money on your car.

Joe McKinley
Joe McKinley is a regular contributor to Reader's Digest, covering cars, careers, tech and more.