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:
- Hit the Gas: Rev the engine slightly while the car is in park. This should give you a good sense of whether or not the engine has power. While driving, pay attention to how the car responds when you apply the gas. It should speed up without hard clunks or shifts.
- Consider the Steering: The steering wheel should have little to no “play,” meaning it starts to turn the vehicle after turning the wheel about an inch or two.
- Listen for Noises: Any loud clunking, buzzing, or vibrating should serve as a warning that something might be wrong with the car.
- Check Dashboard Lights: Be on the lookout for dashboard lights that come on while you’re driving that could indicate problems.
- Test the Amenities: Turn on the amenities to see if they work, including:
- Air Conditioning
- Turn signals
- Interior lights
- Bluetooth systems
- Power seats
- Mimic Driving Scenarios: You can get a good idea of how a car will drive by mimicking your daily driving habits. Speed up to cruising speed and apply the brakes, as you might on a busy highway. Go through several stoplights to test how the car responds to stopping and starting again. Find a quiet parking lot to test turning and braking.
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.