Buying a used car can be a little trickier than purchasing a new one. When it comes to used cars there are numerous pitfalls to watch out for—persistent mechanical issues, weird smells, questionable choices on the radio’s presets—but where you buy the car shouldn’t be one of them. If you are looking for a pre-owned car from a dealership look for these red flags before you even walk through the door.
The key word there is “suspiciously” cheap. There is a difference between an aggressively-priced car compared to the rest of the market for something similar and a car that your gut tells you should probably be listed for a few thousand more. If an asking price that seems too good to be true, it is.
Often dealers will price their cars to sell quickly and try to undercut the other shops in the area that area, but a dealer isn’t going to give up profit if they don’t have to. So if you see a car that is dramatically cheaper than the rest of the field it is likely priced that way for a reason, usually as a hook to get people into the store.
Recently, I was helping someone in the NYC metro area get a pre-owned luxury sedan for around $15,000. There was a ton of inventory available, and most of the low mile examples were in the $19,000 - $21,000 range.
Naturally, this person focused in on the one at $15,888. Now, why would a dealer price their car at “7,400 below market value” (as they claim) when a well-sorted example could easily sell for thousands more? It is certainly not because they like to lose money, but more likely there is either something wrong with the car or the internet price is just a hook for them to add in a bunch of back-end fees.
Most legit car dealers will have a vehicle history report, whether it be CarFax, Autocheck, or something else, easily accessible on their ad listing or their website. Dealers that keep these reports behind a paywall, should raise some flags.
However, just because you can’t click on the report doesn’t necessarily mean the car is garbage. If you see something you are interested in and there isn’t a CarFax or something that you can view, contact the dealer and request a copy. It is how they respond to this request that will give you a clear indication as to whether or not you want to do business with them.
When I was hunting for one of those cheap Mercedes I came across a listing that looked pretty good and was priced appropriately, but no history report was available. I reached out to the store and requested a copy sent to me via email. I was surprised to receive this response, “We don’t have access to digital copies of the CarFax.” This, of course, was bullshit. Every dealer that I have ever worked with, that has a subscription with CarFax or Autocheck has been able to send me a link, a screenshot, or an attachment.
When I told them, “If you are serious about selling this car you will send me a copy of the history report.” They came back with, “I’m sorry that is not a service we provide, if you want to see the report you have to come into the dealership.”
Any store that stonewalls you into sending you something as simple as a history report does not deserve your business.
I’ve said it numerous times on this website, always get your pre-owned car inspected. These inspections will add time to the process and cost you a little bit of money. But they could potentially save you from buying a junk car that could cost you thousands of dollars down the road.
Any dealership that is confident in the condition of their pre-owned inventory will allow their car to get inspected. The better ones will even take the car to a nearby shop of your choosing. Dealers that have something to hide will either flat out refuse an inspection or put unnecessary restrictions on them
In the case of the Mercedes dealer who refused to send a CarFax, I knew the deal was dead with them, but to satisfy my own curiosity. My next step was to ask for an inspection. They said, “Our cars cannot leave the premises for an extended period of time unless they are purchased.”
I also had a similar situation when I was looking at trucks in Florida where a dealer said that he would allow an inspection, but only if the buyer picks it up and drops it back off, and the car must be returned in an hour. The closest mechanic was fifteen minutes away, and a quality inspection takes well over an hour to complete. This guy didn’t want to flat out refuse an inspection because he knows that looks bad, but instead made it almost impossible for one to be completed.
Dealers that have suspiciously cheap cars, who won’t send history reports, and refuse inspections aren’t interested in selling a car to an informed buyer like yourself. They are looking for easy targets who see something nice for a cheap price. Stores like these can easily be filtered out with a quick phone call or a few emails so you don’t even have to waste your time dealing with these jokers in person.