Serious or superficial? Common used car problems

When you’re looking at used cars, you might notice some signs of wear. Which ones are just cosmetic, and which ones could be signs of more serious problems? Here’s our guide to common used car problems, and whether they’re only superficial or warrant further inspection.

Paint

One of the most common things you’ll notice about older cars is that the paint may be dull, or hazy, even when the car is clean. This is oxidation, and it happens over time as the car is exposed to sunlight and oxygen (in other words, normal conditions that all cars exist in!) Oxidation is strictly cosmetic, but it does indicate that the car was not washed/waxed frequently. That could mean that some other elements of car care were neglected, too. (And some of those, like oil changes, could be serious.)

Oxidized paint that can likely be restored

When it comes to paint, if it’s not actually broken, chipped away, or worn through anywhere, there’s a good possibility it can be at least partially restored. A good auto detailer will be able to do this with a light to heavy polishing or rubbing compound, depending on the severity of the damage. If you’re considering a car with severe oxidation, it’s worth having a professional detailer look at it. They can give you an idea of the degree to which it can be restored, and how much that would cost.

Hazy headlights

You might notice that a lot of cars, especially when they’re about 8 or more years old, have headlights that look dull and hazy. It’s actually the lens that makes them look that way, because exposure to the sun’s UV rays causes the lens material to degrade.

Hazy headlight before and after restoration

As long as the headlights themselves work, this is easy to repair. You just need to buy a headlight restoration kit. It costs about $30, and is a simple DIY project you can complete in about 30 minutes. It’ll fix the damage and make your headlight lenses look bright and shiny, like new.

Sticky, non-working switches or buttons

Controls like switches and buttons can sometimes not work at all, or be sticky in older cars. Sometimes it’s a fuse, or a broken switch, both of which are usually minor to replace, in terms of both expense and hassle.

When a button is sticky, it’s often because someone spilled something sticky on it, and gunked up its mechanism. If you suspect that, you can try a shot of electrical contact cleaner spray. It can often dissolve the gunk, without harming the electrical components.

If you don’t have the opportunity to try any of the simple fixes above, it’s important to ask yourself how important the button is. The button that locks/unlocks the doors, or controls the temperature in the car, is important enough that you’ll want to make sure it can be fixed before you buy the car. If it’s less mission-critical, like a backseat window button, consider whether you can live without it. In case it’s not a simple fix.

Key fob not working

A common problem to discover with used cars is a remote key fob that doesn’t work. The fob isn’t essential, so if it doesn’t matter to you, it’s easy to just ignore this and just use the keyr.

Functioning key fobs are nice to have, and fortunately usually easy to fix when they’re not working

But it’s nice to have a functioning fob—it’s definitely convenient to be able to unlock the doors as you walk up. It’s even a safety advantage to do that instead of fumbling with getting a key into the lock especially at night when it can be hard to see.

The good news is, this is probably a simple fix. The most likely culprit, of course, is a dead battery. It’s easy to open the fob, find out what kind of battery it takes, and pop a new one in. There is, of course, a possibility that there’s something systemic going on. That might not be so simple a fix. So the safest thing to do is ask the seller to replace the battery. Or get their permission to do it yourself, so you can be sure.

Alignment

If you’re test driving a car and you notice that it pulls to the left or right, it’s a sure sign that it needs an alignment. This is not complicated to fix, and it’s usually a matter of $50-$100 for the front two wheels. If all four need to be aligned, you’re looking at about $150-200.

So the alignment issue falls under our ‘superficial’ category. In and of itself it isn’t a major expense, but it likely contributes to another problem that’s also an easy fix, but more costly: tires. When a car is driven for any significant number of miles while out of alignment, the tires wear unevenly. This affects the handling, safety, and stability of the car, so it’s important to replace the tires.

Depending on what type of tires the car takes, four new ones can cost anywhere from $400 to over $2000. For some tips on assessing tire wear and knowing what to look for when tire shopping, check out our tire guide.

Protect yourself—avoid surprises

With any older, out-of-warranty car purchase, it’s a good idea to get a third party pre-purchase inspection. They generally cost about $100 to $200, and can help you identify any major problems before you buy the car. You can also check out our tips on how to buy a used car for more information on protecting yourself from getting stuck with a money pit.

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