It’s the moment every used car buyer fears the most: finding out that the car they brought home is a lemon.
Sometimes we have a feeling before we buy — the test drive went well, but maybe there were some strange sounds coming from the air conditioner — and sometimes it’s a total shock. Either way, there’s nothing worse than being stuck in a four- to six-year loan on a car that won’t even run (or that runs but constantly gives you problems).
Here’s the question: Is finding out your used car is a lemon a simple fact of used-car-buying life? Are you tempting fate by even thinking about going for something that isn’t new? Or can a lemon in disguise be spotted before you sign on the dotted line?
Let’s find out.
How to Know If a Car Is a Lemon
The truth is, any time we buy anything there’s a risk that the product isn’t all it was cracked up to be. But the stakes get a lot higher when the prices do, and they’re compounded by even more pressure when the product is one you need to use on a daily basis.
Therein lies the stress of buying a car. And while you could say you’ll go new so there won’t be any problems, you’ll pay more for a car for which the value will drop the second you pull it off the lot. And even new cars can come with issues, such as recalls.
What’s more, the markup on a new car can be a deal breaker for the car buyer with bad credit or the car buyer on a serious budget. In many cases, a used car is the only realistic option. For those cases, here are some checkpoints to help make sure you don’t buy a lemon:
- Avoid buying “as is” because that means there’s no guarantee on the quality of the car — and no legal recourse if it does turn out to be a lemon.
- Obtain a vehicle history report for the car to find out how many owners it has had and if the car has been in any accidents. Keep in mind that car dealerships can sometimes pull these reports in such a way that leaves pertinent information out. Get your own report to play it safe.
- Do your own research on the make and model of the car or cars you’re most interested in. Look for customer complaints and praise, as well as the recall history on the car. While you’re at it, review the Kelley Blue Book value to make sure the seller is offering a fair price.
- Test drive the car on over to your favorite mechanic and get it checked out — don’t only rely on a car dealership’s inspection or a private seller’s words about the work that’s been done on the car — doing so could lead to your own car buying horror story.
- Don’t even think about skipping the test drive. What’s more, try to test drive it on regular roads and highways to see how the car handles multiple terrains and speeds.
- If you’re at a dealership, read the sticker on the car’s window — dealerships are required by law to put information there about what a warranty will cover on future repairs. This is also where you can find the vehicle identification number (VIN) to run your own vehicle history report.
- If you live in an area that experiences frequent hurricanes or flooding, follow the steps outlined here by the National Automotive Parts Association to see if the car you’re looking at might have been in a flood.
- Closely examine the interior of the car and the exterior of the car, and take a look under the hood. Signs of previous damage can be as simple as a car door that doesn’t close properly, which could indicate that exterior work has been done (which would likely have followed an accident).
- If you don’t know what you’re looking for when you examine the car, take a look at tips three through nine in this article by Consumer Reports. There you’ll find super-specific checks you can run to help verify the condition of the car.
Above All, Trust Your Gut
Trust your gut.
Think a deal sounds too good to be true? It probably is. Feel like you’re being pressured or potentially even lied to? You probably are. The dealer or seller making you feel unheard or disrespected? Then you probably can’t trust them to tell you everything you need to know.
Follow the steps above but then let a gut check be your final reference. Like fish in the sea, there are plenty of other cars out there if the one you’re looking at doesn’t work out. Better to extend your search than end up in a lemon.