Whether it’s a new-to-you daily driver or the Euro classic you’ve always dreamed of, surfing the second-hand market is the only way to find what you’re after. That’s a good thing in many ways; you won’t be hit as hard with depreciation, major repairs may have already been taken care of, and the model might already be scratched to where you don’t have to worry about it. However, if you aren’t careful, buying used can be just as expensive and frustrating as buying new. Sellers aren’t always transparent, and that good deal you just picked up might be a disaster waiting to happen. Instead of relying on the seller, check out this handy guide and bring some tricks to your next purchase to ensure you see all the red flags.
Mismatched/Poor Condition Tires
General maintenance on a vehicle is the ultimate sign of responsible ownership. Sure, a lapse in maintenance won’t always be the worst, but the quality of parts also strongly indicates how well it was treated. The tires are the easiest of the regular maintenance items to look out for. Big and directly on the outside of the vehicle, there are a couple of ways you can check them out to ensure they’re up to spec and what you need.
Firstly, examine the brand of the tire. There are many quality manufacturers out there for reasonable prices, and even lower-end products like BF Goodrich and Cooper make respectable products. What you don’t want to see are the companies like Tiger Paw, Goodride, Westlake, and Linglong. Chinese tire companies don’t have the best reputation, and it’s for good reason. Tires are directly responsible for how your car brakes, rides, and handles, and that’s all down to the rubber’s chemical makeup. Tests have shown that the Chinese brands all stop and handle significantly worse than comparable American, European, and Japanese brands. That means a greater chance of risk under all driving situations because the previous owner was trying to save a couple of bucks.
You’ll also want to ensure that each tire is of the same brand and type. While a mismatch isn’t the end of the world, it does show a lack of care when it comes to replacements. The differing brand and/or type of tire will also affect how the vehicle drives. Mismatched treadwear patterns and compounds can cause the steering to feel nervous or numb as they give differing characteristics to each wheel. It can also screw up traction control and speedometer readings, as the tires may be different sizes, causing the wheels to rotate at different speeds while straight.
Beyond that, there are still plenty of things to look for as far as tires go, but none that could be a concerning red flag about the condition of the rest of the car. Many folks need to realize that tires also have a lifespan determined by age, so many are left on for too long. While more of a general maintenance concern, you can read all about the signs of tires needing replacement on our DIY Blog!
A lack of care won’t just show up in the parts installed but the entire overall condition of the vehicle. Paint gets dirty easily, especially when the pollen count is high, so for vehicles that are always outside, that can be forgiven. However, the interior is where you get a better sense of the owner. If they’re willing to drive around in a sticky and smelly mess that resembles Oscar the Grouch’s place of residence, then raise questions about maintenance and service. It also won’t give you a chance to accurately look over the interior, which can be used to drive the price down in negotiation.
Moving back to the exterior, too much dust and dirt can cover up imperfections in the paint. Worn clear coat, scuffs, and scratches can all look less severe when covered slightly. Once you’ve looked over the paint, examine each wheel. Brake dust is corrosive to wheel paint and will embed into it if left for extended periods. That won’t come out with a simple wash and will likely require a complete repaint.
The bottom line is that there’s a greater chance that the maintenance was taken care of on time with the right parts when the car is kept nicely. Poor vehicular hygiene isn’t a deal breaker, but it should raise a flag on the mechanical condition.
Just because a car appears to be straight doesn’t mean it is. A clean title is a great way of ensuring the vehicle hasn’t had major damage, but minor damage is fair game. Bumper, hood, and door replacements are all possible, especially on an older vehicle or one with lots of mileage. Look for differences in the paint quality, like orange peeling and fish-eyes, and for blend lines or other slight changes in color. On surface changes, like steel panels to plastic bumpers, paint won’t always look the same or age the same way.
That should only be a red flag if the seller didn’t disclose any previous damage history or paintwork. Changes in texture, color, and finish can all indicate non-original paintwork. For something becoming a race car, that’s not an enormous deal, but the mismatched paintwork could be hiding some nasty repairs for something that may be resold.
Today’s car culture has many niches, but the “stance” crowd is growing in popularity. Wide wheels, minimal ground clearance, and as much negative camber as physically possible on any car you could imagine are becoming a regular occurrence. Regardless of your opinion on the looks, what that treatment does to nearly every example is force some modification. Professionally installed fender flares shouldn’t scare you, but rippled fenders and quarter panels certainly should.
Rolling fender lips and stretching quarter panels is a cheap way of fitting wider wheels and an easy way to ruin the sheet metal above the wheels if done poorly or cheaply. The damage—which must be repaired professionally—is characterized by rippling that may or may not emulate bacon. Repairing the fenders and quarters is one thing, but the lack of ground clearance the car ran very likely damaged several components underneath the car. Extra damage to cross members, oil pans, differentials, and control arms is easy to hide as few people ever look under the car during any viewing, so be sure that you give the underside a check if repairing damaged fenders isn’t an issue for you.
Respect all builds? Not when it’s time to buy. Installing mods is somewhat of a right of passage as an enthusiast, but personal choices often fly in the face of what we believe makes sense. We all know those “performance” aftermarket companies with poor reputations and parts that don’t really fit or work but price tags that get enthusiasts to bite anyway. They are often poorly engineered or copied from someone else, so they do more harm than good.
An example of this is arguably most common with “coilover” suspension. Stance has become wildly popular, and every other owner is seemingly looking to eliminate as much suspension travel as possible. Airbag strut conversions and custom coilovers can be very pricey, but the $250 Maxpeedingrods are inexpensive enough for just about any enthusiast with a few bucks. However, the lack of science behind the product means the ride will be awful, putting extra strain on things like suspension bushings and tires. eBay turbochargers and cold air intakes can cause similar issues. Filter elements can clog quickly or coat intake components in oils, while turbochargers can send oil and metallic debris into the engine once their suspect seals and bearings wear down.
But it’s not just the actual parts that can be a red flag, but what they represent. A commitment to modification at the expense of the vehicle doesn’t present a great picture of the owner. Choosing not to care about long-term modification effects would and should make any prospective buyer question whether the car was actually properly cared for.
Car and motorsports-obsessed writer/editor for FCP Euro's DIY Blog. constantly dreaming of competing behind the wheel or searching for another project. Owner of a flat-six-swapped Subaru Impreza and a ratty Porsche 914.