Buying a second hand car can be an exciting experience. The thought of buying something that was worth millions years ago now within reach is a deal too good to pass up for some. However, there will always be inherent risks in buying second hand, so much so that your segunda mano may eventually turn into a daily pain. Believe me, I know.

Buying a second hand car is a bit like treading a minefield; yes, there are a lot of good used cars available, but there are also plenty of lemons and cars that were not taken care of.

To help you out, here are 10 tell-tale signs that will show you that you're looking at someone else's headache and not your soon-to-be pride and joy.

Dents and dings are normal but run through the exterior with a fine tooth comb

1. Exterior and interior

The car's bodywork is perhaps the first thing we check out when looking at a pre-owned car. Scratches are normal when looking at such vehicles, but it pays to have a closer look. Check signs of accident damage. If you see anything off, be it misaligned panels or slighly mismatched paint, it is likely that the car you are looking at may have been involved in a collision.

The interior's condition should match the car's mileage

Step inside and check out the condition of the seats and trim. Look out for tears on the seats, dirty headliners, missing or melted buttons and the general misaligned panels. If the car advertised has low miles but shows signs of excessive wear, the mileage may have been tampered.

Ideally, there should be no water marks in the lights

2. Flood damage

It is important to stress that one should always check for signs of flood damage. It is easy to hide all evidence from the outside but, as a detective would say, everything leaves a trace. Take a look at parts of the interior where your eyes don't usually go. If you see what appears to be mud, the car you're looking at may have gone for a swim at one point.

Zipties and duct tape are okay temporary repairs, not long term

3. Improvised repairs

There is a saying that duct tape (and zipties) can repair pretty much everything. While they can indeed hold things in place, these are far from permanent solutions. It's also a sign that repairs have been done on a shoestring and can be potentially catastrophic when it comes to electrical components. It also begs the question, “what else in this car has been fixed this way?”

Look around the gaskets and see if there are leaks

4. Leaks

As cars age, parts degrade and that includes the rubber seals that prevent your car from scattering fluids on your driveway. More importantly, fluids serve as the lifeblood of you car to keep it running healthy for more years to come. A leak is a warning sign of more costs if left unattended. If you see leaks, it can be as simple as a gasket change, but it may also be a sign of neglect.

5. Noise, vibration and harshness

Upon startup, pop the hood and a listen to the engine. An engine is not supposed to have any squeaks or clonking noises as these are indicative of worn bearings and belts. Take notice if the engine is moving too much as this is a sign of perished engine supports.

Test drives are always important. No test drive? Walk away.

6. On the road

After a look around, it's time to take it for a test drive. Give the accelerator a good press and take note of its acceleration. If it feels sluggish, it may need either a tune-up or one of the engine control units are on its last legs. In extreme cases, decreased engine performance can point to internal damage, leading to monumental costs in the long run. Blunted engine performance should be enough of a red flag for you to walk away.

Be it gas or diesel, there should never be smoke coming out of the exhaust pipes

7. Smoke signals

While stepping on the accelerator, take a look at your mirrors to see if you're leaving behind a trail of smoke. Regardless if the vehicle is gas or diesel, it should not be emitting anything from the tailpipe. White smoke means the engine is running lean and you risk engine detonation if you proceed with the purchase. Black smoke, meanwhile, tells you that the engine is running rich. An engine that runs rich not only affects emissions but also its fuel economy since it is burning too much fuel. As for diesels, black smoke means it's time to get the whole system cleaned up, adding costs for you.

Don't turn on the radio during the test drive. Listen for sounds coming from underneath

8. Of thuds and clunks

On the test drive, it's better to leave the radio off for you to hear any odd sounds from the suspension. Run over a relatively rough patch of road or drive over a speed bump to give the suspension a workout. The only noise you should be hearing is a solid thump and not rattles. Relatively muffled noises point to bushings that are about to wear out. If you're starting to hear loud clunks, it's better not to buy the car at all.

Check all accessories, be it from the factory or an add on by the current owner

9. Systems check

With the test drive over, it's now time to go through the car's electrical systems. Be sure that everything works, from its lights, radio and other accessories. Remember, electrical systems can be tricky to fix and if the car you're looking at has them, avoid it.

Odors in the cars are bad but masking it too much may hide something

10. “Did you smell that?”

Granted, second hand cars will no longer have that new car smell, but it pays to have a whiff around the cabin. Foul smells such as stale cigarettes or even spoiled food is a reflection of how the previous owner looked after the car. The smell of canal water in the cabin is a big red flag: the car you're looking at has been dunked in the flood. Having a lot of air fresheners in the cabin may be there to hide odors as well. 

So there you have it; a quick checklist if the second car you are looking at is a good one. When looking at second hand cars, it is better to take your time rather than buying the first car you see at a low price. If the car you are looking at is a rather common model, don't rush it as you have a wide crop of cars to choose from. You may spend a little more for a good one but it's better to pay more now that drain your account in the long run. On that note, happy shopping and may you find a bargain ride that sees duty for many more years and miles to come.

Special thanks to Lance and Lawrence Dy.