A Huge Part of Used Car Shopping Is Knowing When To Walk Away

Whenever possible, don't ignore red flags just because you're eager to get into some wheels.

I’m antsy. I sold my Tiburon, my Fiat 500L, and my Chevy Sonic over the last few weeks and I feel naked with such an empty driveway. I’m aching for another spare car to tote around for a while then resell for profit. But the used car market is entirely out of order right now. At first, it was limited to more expensive, so-called “real car” purchases you’d find at Carmax or a reputable used car lot. At the very bottom of the market, where most of my flips would be bought and sold, was largely unaffected. That’s no longer the case.

Around March of this year, I started noticing a gradual price creep of budget rides. At first, it was just a little, but now, it seems like the entire market’s completely out of whack. Cars that were worth $4,000 in February are now $5,200 in June. I almost regret selling the 500L and Tiburon when I did, because I surely would have made more money selling them now. My other flip car friends are making record profits. I need a cheap broken car, stat!

As I’ve alluded to in the past, I don’t really like dealing with car auctions for my flips, preferring to get stuff from Craigslist and Facebook marketplace. Usually that treats me well, but today’s bizarre used car market has pricing off-kilter; even the shittiest shitboxes are priced much higher than they should be. I still think you can probably find something, it just takes work.

After combing through the online classifieds with the vigor and vim of a school nurse hunting lice eggs in a second grader’s hair, I found a couple of potential flips.

The first car was a truck, actually – a Honda Ridgeline. Ridgelines are very desirable used cars, with beat-up, higher mile examples regularly fetching more than $6,000.

This example had done around 210,000 miles and needed some mechanical work. The owner said the vehicle cranked but did not start.

The body looked mostly OK in the photos, with a small rust hole in the rocker panel. The interior would need deep cleaning, and maybe a new headliner, but those are both simple jobs. The seller was responsive, and after a quick exchange via Facebook Messenger, I drove out to see the truck.

A Huge Part of Used Car Shopping Is Knowing When To Walk Away
Yeesh. Image: Kevin Williams

When I arrived, I saw a truck that had a paint respray at one point in its life, and it hadn’t been done very well. The rust hole that appeared small in photos was actually a chasm that spanned from the lower rocker panel and had made its way to rotting out the unibody’s bed. The pinch weld holding the side of the truck to the floor of the truck looked rough, dented, and rusting.

The owner explained that he was driving one day, then the truck ran hot, and then shut off. The Honda J35 V6 engine that powers these is an interference design, with a timing belt-driven water pump. I’d reckon that the water pump likely failed, and the car was driven hot, warping the head. Now, the motor has poor compression, and will not turn over.

Fixing severe rust, and cleaning the interior, and replacing an engine, I’d be in the Ridgeline well over $6,000. Too hard. I passed.

The second vehicle I looked at seemed like an even better idea: a 2009 Toyota Prius, with a very low (for the year) 88,000 miles. The seller explained that it “needed a new “battery” and a crankshaft position sensor.

A Huge Part of Used Car Shopping Is Knowing When To Walk Away
The body is in good shape, deceptively. Image: Kevin Williams

Yet again, a low-mile Prius is well worth my time, with lower-mile examples touching more than $7,000. The Prius’s big battery (or Traction Battery, as it’s called) at one point in time was kind of a big mystery box, unable to be serviced or tampered with by anyone who wasn’t a Toyota technician. Now, rebuild kits and how-tos exist all over the internet. I was confident, that if it did need a hybrid battery, it was well within my expertise to rebuild and replace at home.

In person, the car was about as good as it photographed. All of the paint matched, at least. No corrosion or rust, aside from a few rust particles from a not-so-good respray of a front fender, but that’s easily correctable or ignorable. The car also didn’t have any inner fender liners, suggesting an accident at some point, but that’s correctable, too.

Shockingly, the Prius started. It ran, albeit badly, with nearly every light on the dash, including what’s known as the “red triangle of death” which, you guessed it, is not a good sign. The car wasn’t firing on all four cylinders, and there was a nasty noise coming from the bottom end. The seller insisted it only needed a crankshaft sensor – I was certain it would need a new gas engine.

A Huge Part of Used Car Shopping Is Knowing When To Walk Away
88,000 miles? Really? Image: Kevin Williams

Still, despite all the cosmetic imperfections, the car only had 88,000 miles. At an asking price of $1,800, the math looked like it would check out, even if I had to replace the motor and rebuild the battery myself. I agreed to the asking price and made plans with the seller to come back with the cash, and a tow truck the next morning.

While driving home, my psyche troubled me. I thought “did that car really have 88,000 miles? If so, it’s lived a hard 88,000 miles. I’ve never seen a Prius eat a battery and an engine under 100,000 miles.”

On a hunch, I ran the VIN, and my gut was validated – the car was last reported as having 172,000 miles back in February 2020, a nearly 100,000-mile odometer discrepancy. 

I informed the sellers, who demanded to see my Carfax report. After a twenty-minute phone call and text back and forth, I learned that they were under the impression that it was an 80,000-mile car, that lived its life in North Carolina, never driven in the snow.

A Huge Part of Used Car Shopping Is Knowing When To Walk Away
That’s more like it. – Image: Kevin Williams

No. It was a 172,000 + mile car, that spent most in Ohio. Very much in the snow.

For a few hours, I wondered if I wanted the Prius anyway. Do Priuses keep a backup of their true mileage in the main ECU? Research tells me that no, they don’t. I would be buying a car with completely unknown mileage, tanking the value from $7,000, to maybe $2,500 max. The seller offered me the car for $1,000, but even with that low price, the math just wasn’t mathin’.

Flipping is a numbers game. Sometimes the best move is to just not play, and know when to walk away. But really, some shrewdness is just as important if you’re buying a car to keep yourself. Yes, used car inventory is low and demand is high right now, but don’t take that as an excuse to blow your budget or leap into something without doing your due diligence. Take as much time as you can to find something decent, and don’t ignore red flags just because you’re eager to get into some wheels.

Kevin Williams

Kevin WilliamsKevin's been into cars his entire life, anything from the tiny kei cars in Japan, to the maybe not-so-good American barges of the 1980s. He's flipped more than 25 cars, only lost money twice, and has known how to make his dollar stretch as far as it can. If he ain't talking about cars, he's probably snacking on something sweet and cakey. Contact the author here.