Look Out for These 3 Foul Used-Car Odors

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We use several of our senses when considering any used car for purchase, including sight, touch and hearing. While we don’t recommend using taste when making your evaluation, your sense of smell may offer a clue that a specific vehicle is simply not right for you. Indeed, certain foul odors are so pervasive that you can even taste them. These disagreeable scents tell tales about used cars, providing cautionary clues we’ll examine here.

Is Something Burning?

Some foul odors aren’t detectable until the ignition is on and the vehicle is being driven. A burning smell typically indicates two surfaces are rubbing together. Once you detect the smell, stop driving and start investigating.

A burning smell with a papery tinge could indicate clutch problems. The face of the clutch could be worn, and the clutch could be slipping. If this is the case, replacing the clutch solves the problem. Brakes can also emit a burning smell, especially if a caliper piston is fixed in position. A frozen emergency or parking brake can cause a similar smell.

A burning smell may also be triggered by issues involving the heater, electrical system or the engine. With the heater, debris may have lodged in the vent, or antifreeze may be leaking onto the heater itself. If the smell is caused by a problem with the electrical system, it most likely involves a short, and this means that if it isn’t corrected, it’ll cause a more serious problem later. Odor problems caused by the engine may be triggered by a oil leak. As leaking oil drips on the engine, it may create conditions that cause a burning smell. This odor will be especially noticeable if you’re standing  outside the car.

In each case, you’ll notice a burning odor only after driving the car.

Could That Musty Smell be Mildew?

One ongoing problem analysts have been tracking – including the experts at CARFAX – concerns the large numbers of flood-damaged cars that routinely head to the market after being declared salvage vehicles. Typically, these vehicles appear months or even weeks after a major disaster such as a hurricane. We witnessed this phenomenon following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 and more recently after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma in 2017.

Flood-damaged cars may have been thoroughly cleaned and prepared for resale. This may mask the problems that have been caused by water entering the vehicle, but it won’t necessarily cure them. In many states, affected vehicles must carry a salvage stamp on the title, but this is easily avoided if the vehicle crosses state lines and the second state doesn’t make that notation.

Your first hint that water invaded a car may be a musty smell emanating from anywhere in the cabin, under the hood, in the trunk or in some other storage area. The odor should cause you to ask the owner, “Was this car damaged in a flood?” If it was, you need to know the extent of the damage, and this is something that a CARFAX report may note.

Water damage might be light — a broken window, defective window gasket or a leak in the trunk are among the areas where water may have entered the vehicle. However, if it was submerged in flood waters, there’s a very good chance damage to the vehicle was extensive. For instance, water entering the engine bay may destroy the engine, unless the contaminated oil was removed before starting the car. And if the car sat in salt water, corrosion can set in and cause extensive damage.

Signs of water damage may be evident by lifting the carpet and looking for stains, checking seat tracks for rust and inspecting low-lying areas for signs of previous water accumulation. It’s likely that a musty odor will linger, and this is something that’s nearly impossible to remove without tearing apart and rebuilding the car.

Purchasing a flood-damaged vehicle is always fraught with risk. Major components may fail early, the electronics system may not work and the lingering effects of mildew could make you ill.

Does the Car Smell Like Death?

There is a certain stench that unmistakably points to death. The smell is usually so pervasive that it permeates porous materials, including carpets, seats and the foam filler found in cars.

In many cases, a deceased critter — such as a mouse, rat or a squirrel — is to blame for the foul odor. Here, the owner should explain where the remains were found and the method used for disposal. Importantly, you need to know why certain odor neutralizers weren’t used, such as baking soda, unused coffee grounds or activated charcoal. If the scent of death is the only problem detected, are you prepared to fix the situation yourself?

How to Respond to Other Smells

The odors discussed are some of the most common ones you’ll face when shopping for a used car, but this list isn’t exhaustive. Any unpleasant smell that you encounter when inspecting a used vehicle should give you pause. If the owner isn’t forthcoming or simply doesn’t know what caused the smell, a CARFAX report may offer a clue. Otherwise, closer scrutiny on your part – or assistance from a mechanic – can help you get to the truth of the matter.

By | 2018-06-19T15:49:36+00:00 October 18th, 2017|Inspecting a Vehicle|3 Comments


  1. DavidP October 25, 2017 at 6:19 pm - Reply

    I’ve been warned by a collision repair place to have a used vehicle’s interior checked for illicit drug use (crack smoking, in particular). This was confirmed to be an issue by my insurance company.

  2. DavidP October 25, 2017 at 6:21 pm - Reply

    Followup……in particular on theft recovery vehicles.

    • Matt Keegan October 30, 2017 at 9:36 am - Reply

      Good point! The last thing you want is car with contraband included. That’s a recipe for a major law enforcement misunderstanding.

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