How to Avoid Buying a Lemon

How to Tell if a Used Car is a Lemon

There is a long list of potential pitfalls when it comes time for buying a car. From confusing and expensive finance terms to pushy sales people and seemingly unlimited choices the prospect can be quite daunting.  The term itself “lemon” generally refers to a pre-owned or out of warranty vehicle with multiple mechanical problems that would cost more to fix than the car is worth, but that are not obvious upon first inspection.   A new vehicle can be a lemon and many states have laws in place to protect consumers from having their investments go sour.  Check with your state’s website to find out the details of these ordinances so that you do not get squeezed.   No matter what you have in mind for your next vehicle and no matter what your budget, this guide can help to make certain you drive off in a peach…and not a lemon.

How to Research the Car’s History

We live in an age where we do not necessarily have to be personal friends with a mechanic to get a pretty good idea of whether a car is mechanically sound or if it has been ever been in a serious accident.   There are numerous websites that for a nominal fee can give you a detailed history of your prospect vehicle.    There are also publications from numerous consumer reporting agencies that are published yearly that can provide buyers with information on reliability, and numerous other quality ratings. Check multiple publications and websites to ensure that you have the best possible and most accurate information about prospect vehicles.  Because “lemon” can mean a lot of things you should also check with the National Highway Safety Administration and the Center for Auto Safety for recall information.  You should also ask the owner or seller any questions you have about the history of the vehicle.

Use all of these tools to ensure that the car is safe from a design standpoint and that is has a history that indicates long-term reliability.  There are exceptions to every rule, but you can stack the odds in your favor by betting on a consistent winner.

THE OUTSIDE OF THE CAR:  Inspect from Top to Bottom

When looking for a car it is easy to get caught up in smell of the leather, the sound of the engine, and in visualizing yourself driving down the road and looking great.  This is all part of the fun, but if you are not careful you can miss some obvious clues that the prospect car is not in tip-top condition.

  1. Inspect under the hood, in and around door frames and under wheel wells for rough spots or speckled or faded paint often referred to as “overspray” .
  2. Check out body panels for rust around seams and any areas where they may be an orange peel texture.
  3. Check the spacing around the hood, trunk, doors and lights.
  4. Check the tires for excessive or uneven wear.

Overspray is sometimes an indication of quick, poor quality repair work intended to make a car look good enough for a quick sale.    The same goes for an orange peel texture as this can sometimes be an indication of body-fillers being used to fix damage or rust being painted over.  If the spaces around the doors, trunk, hood and lights are uneven, too close, or widely gapped this may be an indication of an accident repair where shortcuts were used to get the prospect vehicle looking good at glance.  If the tires are excessively or unevenly worn this can be an indication of an alignment problem and can create an unsafe driving situation.  Depending upon the size and where and how the prospect vehicle will be driven, tire replacement is a potentially costly consideration.

THE INSIDE OF THE CAR:  If the seats could talk.

  1. Look for excessive driver sear wear.
  2. Examine seat adjustment components
  3. Examine mirrors and mirror adjustment components
  4. Look for “blind spots”

With the advent of digital odometers the chances of a “rollback” to indicate less mileage than the car actually has, is uncommon…but if the odometer indicates 30K miles and the driver’s seat is heavily worn,  full of holes, or if leather is exceedingly cracked you may want to get a second opinion.  Unless mistreated or used for many tens of thousands of miles vehicle upholstery should be in relatively good condition.  Not only can a worn interior be a sign of fraud, but can also be an indication of how well a vehicle has or has not been maintained.   Make sure mirrors are both present and functioning properly and that the physical characteristics (yours or the vehicle’s ) do not make for an unsafe driving situation by leaving too many “blind spots”.

Whether on the lot, or meeting a seller from a classified ad there a few things you should do before taking the vehicle for a test drive.

GETTING READY TO DRIVE: What to do before hitting the road.

  1. Turn the vehicle on and test all of the lights.  You may benefit from having someone you trust available for this part.  Make certain front and back signal lights work.  Check to ensure reverse and brake lights are functioning.
  2. In the case of an automatic transmission, with the engine running and your foot on the brake, engage the shifter and cycle through each gear.  Do this slowly so as not to cause damage, and make note if shifts are accompanied by excessive noise or heavy “jolting”.
  3. Check the level on the transmission dipstick and check the fluid itself to see if, what is normally a reddish colored fluid, is excessively dark or if it has a burned smell.   Listen for sounds of slipping, grinding, or excessive upshift or downshift.

With few exceptions a properly working and well-maintained automatic transmission should shift smoothly and with very little discernable physical indication.  Keep the transmission in mind when taking your first test drive.    In good working order none of these things make a vehicle more valuable, but certainly devalue it if they are not.   Leave the vehicle running while you test all of these things to warm up before taking it on the road.

While adhering to safe driving practices on your test drive there are several things you should be watching and listening for in addition to the transmission behaviors discussed in the last section.

TURNING:  Take several left and right turns and varied levels of speed and varying degrees of angle.

  1. Listen for any kind of popping, rubbing, or rattling sounds.
  2. Listen for a “whining” or “groaning” from under the hood during turns

If any of these things happen it may be that the prospect vehicle has a worn out or damaged suspension or that CV joints are in need of repair or replacement.  Groaning or whining during turns may indicate that a power steering pump is not functioning properly or that the tires are of an inappropriate size for the vehicle or are excessively worn.

BRAKING:  Test the brakes in several stopping situations.

Do this very carefully, on the least heavily trafficked road available.  ( You should also warn your passengers so that they do not end up with whiplash)

Low Speed Stops:  When braking for stop lights or intersections

  1. Listen for any metallic or rubbing sounds when pressing the brakes.
  2. Take notice if pressing them causes the steering wheel to pull to one side.
  3. Be aware of the response of the pedal itself to determine if it feels soft or unresponsive.

High Speed Stops:  When an unexpected obstacle, or another vehicle causes you to stop suddenly.

  1. Notice if the brakes cause the wheels to lock or if the anti-lock brake system functions properly
  2. Had this been an emergency would the vehicle have stopped in time?
  3. Did you notice any of the behaviors mentioned in the Low Speed Stop section?

If you notice any of these behaviors it may that brakes are not functioning properly or that brake pads are in need of replacement.  Brake pads, if not replaced in a timely manner can cause damage to rotors and can create an unsafe driving situation.  A quick look at an exposed wheel for cuts or grooves in the rotor can help you determine if this has occurred.   A soft or unresponsive brake pedal may indicate the hydraulic system that controls the brakes is failing, leaking fluid, or in need of repair.  Brake problems can be both costly to fix and dangerous if left unnoticed.  Pay close attention when inspecting and be exceedingly cautious when test driving to determine the condition of the prospect vehicle braking components.

THE ENGINE:  Test the Engine in several everyday driving situations.

You are considering investing money in and counting on your prospect vehicle to get you reliably from point A to point B.  The engine must be in reasonable working order to do so.  Keeping in mind that the vehicle is used and may not have the same performance it had when it was new, but it should start and stay running when you need it to.

Getting it Started:  This one should be simple

  1. The vehicle should start without hesitation, and without any “trick” to it.
  2. The vehicle should crank easily and reach a smooth, normal idle speed in just a few seconds.
  3. There should not be any “blue” smoke either from under the hood or visible in your rearview mirror.
  4. Ask for service records if they are available

With some “classic” or heavily modified cars as the exception, if a vehicle is difficult to get started it has likely been neglected.  If the prospect vehicle has been left sitting for extended periods of time or if scheduled maintenance has not been performed, things like oil and gas begin to break down into varnish or can create sticky deposits that can seriously damage a vehicle’s engine.   This can be manifest in an engine that does not start easily, runs at a rough, uneven idle, or can cause deposits to burn off producing unusual “blue” smoke. (this can also be caused by an oil leak or oil spilled on the engine.)

There are many plastic and rubber components under the hood of a vehicle that if left unchecked can fail, causing damage to the engine.  Before starting the vehicle or after letting it cool, check all vacuum hoses and cooling system lines for damage or signs of excessive wear.  You should take notice of the inside of the hood over the fluid reservoirs as the insulating material will often be damaged or discolored if a car has overheated and caused fluid to spray from hoses or the radiator.

Taking it Down the Road: Let’s Drive.

  1. Listen for “chatter” in the engine while driving
  2. Notice if the vehicle hesitates or lurches when moving from a stop
  3. Take note if gauges work and if they indicate normal operating levels for temperature, oil pressure, and engine speed.
  4. Test the vehicle in traffic.
  5. Test the vehicle at highway speeds.

Chatter in an engine could indicate a lot of things and some would be more serious than others.  If any unusual sounds are encountered along with some of the other problem indicators already mentioned than your prospect vehicle’s chances of being the best possible investment are getting worse.  A vehicle hesitating or lurching can indicate sticking valves or problems with the fuel system.   Make sure you drive the vehicle long enough to determine if performance changes after the initial warm up and make sure that it responds favorably at low-speed and highway speed applications.   If there are warning lights on the display, or if gauges are not functioning properly you should enlist the aid of an expert or a certified mechanic.

Using this guide you have thoroughly inspected the outside of the vehicle for obvious and not-so-obvious defects or signs of hidden damage.   You have examined the interior of the vehicle to ensure that what you have been told is evidenced in its condition.  You have checked the brakes and the tires for safety.  You have driven the vehicle at speed and for duration enough to determine if there are any immediate problems.  Lastly you have checked with trustworthy institutions both private and public to determine if the prospect vehicle has a reasonably good track record of safety and reliability.   These methods (and there are likely countless others) are meant to ensure that you have the best chance of avoiding a problem vehicle.  Keep in mind that any vehicle that would not be protected under new car “lemon laws”  is a potential risk.  Follow these steps to mitigate as much of that risk as is possible.

Because the value of a vehicle is often subject to personal preference, and other subjective factors, the rest is up to you.   With few exceptions there is no shortage of most every day vehicles.  If you are uncertain or uncomfortable, or if all the necessary information has not been made available to you, you will do well to consult other sources before making a decision regarding your prospect vehicle.  Happy hunting.

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