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How to Avoid a Lemon: 9 Used Car Buying Tips

5 min read

You should feel excited after buying a used car. That excitement can be crushed, however, if it turns out your new-to-you car is a lemon. In vehicles, a lemon is a car that’s sold with undisclosed defects, issues, or damage.

If you end up buying a lemon, you might be on the hook for expensive repair bills to make the car safe to drive. Even worse, you might find out the car has damage that can’t be fixed, making it undrivable. Protect yourself — and your wallet — from buying a lemon with these nine tips.

1. Get a Vehicle History Report

The first thing you should do when you come across a used car you might want to buy is to request a vehicle history report. Several third-party services provide extensive reports on a vehicle’s history. You’ll need access to the VIN (vehicle identification number) for the service to find information on the vehicle.

Most vehicle history report companies provide a free version with any major information, but you’ll need to pay for the full report. As you shop for used cars, take a look at the free history report to check for major damage. If the report looks good, consider purchasing the full report before committing to buying the car.

2. Read the Fine Print

You should read the fine print any time you make a purchase, but especially when you’re making a big purchase like a car. It’s an easy way to help protect yourself from buying a lemon. When you’re at the dealership, be sure to ask for written documentation about the car.

The dealer should be able to provide any warranty information, such as existing manufacturer warranty coverage, as well as disclose any issues with the car. Carefully read the documentation and look to see if the dealer is selling the car with a warranty, if any repairs are needed and if the dealership will help cover repair costs.

3. Inspect the Interior

Open the door and get inside the car to check out the interior. Do a visual inspection of the upholstery, dashboard, ceiling, and floorboards. Take a deep breath when you open the door to help detect any odors. Look for stains, cracks in the plastic, or rips in the seats.

Get inside the driver’s seat and test the seatbelt. It should be in good condition, with no fraying or melting. Damaged seatbelts could be a sign the car was in an accident. They’re also not safe and need to be replaced. Be sure to check all of the seatbelts in the car for damage.

4. Inspect the Exterior

You’ll also want to inspect the exterior of the vehicle. Carefully look over the body for dents, dings and scratches. Check for rust spots — even a small spot of rust could be a sign of damage to come. Open and close each door to make sure the handles and hinges work properly. Doors that won’t open or are difficult to open could indicate the car was in an accident. Walk to the back and check that the exhaust pipe is attached securely and doesn’t show signs of damage.

Remember to step back and take an overall look at the vehicle as well. It should sit fairly level from front to back and side-to-side. Vehicles that sit unevenly might have damage to the suspension.

Finally, look at the tires. You can always replace worn-out tires, but they might have a story to tell about the status of the car. Check for uneven tire tread wear. This could be a sign that the vehicle’s out of alignment.

5. Pop the Hood

Even if you’re not a mechanic, popping the hood on a used vehicle can help you spot damage before you buy. While some dust and dirt are to be expected, the engine should be overall clean and free of debris. Check for leaking hoses, loose bolts and corrosion on the battery.

Check the oil while you’re under the hood. In addition to making sure the car has adequate oil, you should consider the consistency of the oil. Run some of it between your fingers. It should be smooth and not have grit, dirt, or metal flakes in it.

6. Visit an Independent Mechanic

If you’re seriously thinking about buying a car, consider investing in a trip to a trusted mechanic. You can take the vehicle to the mechanic on a test drive and have their shop look at it. An independent, reputable mechanic can perform an inspection.

The auto shop will look for problems throughout the car — including the engine, exhaust system, and brakes. The mechanic shop should be able to spot issues and diagnose problems that you might not be able to on your own.

7. Go for a Test Drive

The best way to avoid a lemon is to simply start driving the vehicle. Many vehicle issues are hard to hide when you’re driving the car. The car should start up right away when you turn the ignition. Once the car is started, follow this checklist:

8. Research Recalls

Does the car you’re looking to buy have any open recalls from the manufacturer? If there are any open recalls, you should research if there is a repair for the issue available. If a repair is available, you should be able to get the repair completed at a dealership free of charge.

9. Look at Dealership Reviews

The dealership where you shop for a used car can help you feel more confident in your purchase. When you find a car you’re interested in, research the dealership. Read reviews to see how other customers felt about buying a used car from the dealer. You can also research the dealership through the BBB (Better Business Bureau) for any complaints.

You don’t want to buy a car only to find out it needs significant repair work. Following these tips should help you reduce your chances of buying a lemon.

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The above content is for informational purposes only and is not a direct representation of coverages offered by Wawanesa or its policies. The information does not refer to any specific contract of insurance and does not modify any definitions, provisions, exclusions or limitations expressly stated in any contracts of insurance. All references within the above content are illustrative and may not apply to your situation. The terms and conditions of the actual insurance policy or policies involved in a claim are determinative as to whether an accident or other loss is covered. To understand the coverage under your current policy, please log into the account management platform to review your policy or contact an agent directly.

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