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Buying a Used Car: How Do You Check for Rust?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro June 2014

An important part of buying a used car is checking for rust, but sometimes rust isn't easily found -- even if it's causing widespread problems underneath a car's surface. So how do you check to make sure your prospective car isn't saddled with rust problems? We have some answers.

What's Rust?

Rust is a major problem in many cars, both new and old. Although rust forms through a complicated chemical reaction, its results are easy to understand: Rust is a sign of corroded metal or steel, which means a car's structure can be substantially weakened if rust is present. And it's not just the structure; rust can corrode various parts, rendering them useless unless completely replaced.

Which Cars Suffer from Rust Issues?

Unfortunately, rust issues aren't confined to cars from one certain manufacturer or age group. While older cars -- made before rust-proofing materials became especially widespread -- are particularly susceptible to rusting, many modern vehicles also have rust issues.

One major determinant of a car's likelihood for rusting is its geographical location. Rust problems are more common in humid climates and in areas where road crews use salt to keep ice off the streets during the winter. Areas such as the Upper Midwest and parts of the Northeast are especially known for rusting vehicles, largely because they suffer from both humidity and heavy road-salt use.

But just because you're located in an area that isn't known for humidity or salt use doesn't mean you're safe from rust. After all, vehicles often move from one location to another, so a rusted vehicle can appear just about anywhere. How can you make sure you don't buy a rusty car?

Checking for Rust

One important thing to understand about rust is that it tends to affect the bottom of a car first. Unfortunately, this can be a huge problem, since the underside of a vehicle contains a lot of important pieces.

For this reason, we suggest checking the bottom of a car first. If you have concerns about rust, allow the seller to let you take the car to a mechanic, who can put it up on a lift. Once the car is on a lift, you can poke around underneath it to see if you can find any rust. Common rust spots include the frame rails, which run underneath a car's doors on each side, the wheel wells, the exhaust, the suspension and virtually any other underside components made of steel or metal.

Once you have the car back on the ground, pull up the trunk carpeting and check for any signs of rust. Also, check the doors, both inside and out, along with areas around the windshield and rear glass. And another rust tip: If you see any sort of exterior paint bubbling, it's likely an early sign of rust. This should be a key indicator to check under the car before you sign the papers.

Removing Rust

If you end up buying a used car with rust problems -- or if your own car has issues -- don't get too worried right away. Small rust issues can usually be addressed, provided that you've caught them before they've spread. While we generally suggest consulting a professional about these issues, you can usually remove rust spots by sanding them away so they don't become worse and create further problems with your car.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Used Car: How Do You Check for Rust? - Autotrader