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10 Steps on How to Avoid Buying a Lemon

What is a Lemon?

In order for a car to qualify as a lemon under most state laws, it must have a substantial defect covered by the warranty that occurred within a certain period of time or number of miles after you bought the car, and not be fixed after a reasonable number of repair attempts.

This is a conceptual photo related to a purchasing a car with a lot of problems otherwise know as a lemon.

This is a conceptual photo related to a purchasing a car with a lot of problems otherwise know as a lemon.

If you buy a lemon you will most likely end up paying more than the car is worth initially and pay for services and parts to fix any preexisting conditions on top of that. So how can you avoid a lemon when you buy a used car? Follow these 10 guidelines below to help you make a wise decision.

Step 1: Ask the Right Questions

This step can be done over the phone, through email or even text message nowadays, prior to seeing the vehicle in person, saving you time and unnecessary travel.

“How many miles does it have?”
If the mileage is higher than 20,000 per year or lower than 5,000, ask why. A high-mileage car used on a long highway commute is better than if it did a lot of short trips or stop-and-go driving. Low mileage is nice, but it is no guarantee of gentle care.

“How is it equipped?”
Always ask about key features: transmission type; A/C; antilock brakes; airbags; audio system; power windows, locks, seats, and mirrors; cruise control; and so forth. You want to make sure the car has what you are looking for as well as any modifications from its original design.

“What’s the car’s condition?”
Start broad and see where the seller takes it. He or she could bring up something you wouldn’t have thought to ask about. Be sure to cover the interior and body details of the vehicle.

“Has it been in an accident?” 
If yes, ask about the extent of the damage, the cost of repairs, and the shop that did the work. Don’t worry too much about minor scrapes, but think twice about a car that has been in a serious crash.

“Do you have service records?”
You want a car that has been well cared for that should have had maintenance performed at regular manufacturer-specified intervals. Be skeptical if the dealer or owner claims to have done the maintenance but can’t produce any receipts for any new muffler, brakes, tires, or other “wear” parts that have been replaced. Repair-shop receipts normally note the car’s odometer reading, helping you verify the car’s history.

Step 2: Private Seller Specific Questions

“Have you owned it since it was new?”
You want to be able to piece together the car’s service history and be wary about a car that has changed hands several times in a few years.

“Are you the person who drove it the most?”
Ideally, you want to meet the car’s principal driver or drivers to see if they strike you as responsible.

“Why are you selling the car?”
Look for a plausible explanation rather than an interesting story. If the answer sounds evasive, be wary.

Step 3: Inspect the Exterior

Once you have determined to see the vehicle be sure to inspect it thoroughly. Begin by doing a walk around of the car, looking for dents, chipped paint, mismatched body panels or parts, broken lamp housings, and chipped windows and noticeable gaps between body panels.

If you think a dent may have been patched, put a small magnet on it. The magnet won’t stick to an area with body filler. Minor cosmetic flaws and light scratches are no cause for concern, but rust is. Check the body for blistered paint or rust. Open and close each door, the hood, and the trunk, gently lift and let go of each door, particularly the driver’s door. If it seems loose on its hinges, the car has seen hard or long use. Inspect rubber seals for tearing or rot. A door, hood, or trunk that doesn’t close and seal properly is evidence of previous damage and/or sloppy repair work. Have a friend confirm that all lights are working. Make sure all light lenses and reflectors are intact and not cracked, fogged with moisture, or missing.

Step 4: Inspect the Interior

The interior of a car can tell you much about how the car was driven by previous owners. When you first open the car door, sniff the interior. A musty, moldy, or mildew smell could indicate water leaks. Remove the floor mats and check for wet spots on the carpet. An acrid smell may indicate that the car was used by a smoker.

A long look into the cabin can reveal many obvious problems. Check for a sagging headliner and see if water is leaking through ill-fitting doors or windows. If equipped with a sunroof, check to see if it opens and closes properly and seals well when shut. You can inspect the convertible top for tears by shining a flashlight up into it.

Pay attention to the little details like a worn steering wheel, cracked dashboard, and missing knobs, handles, and buttons. Try out all the seats even if you likely won’t sit in the rear. Upholstery shouldn’t be ripped or badly worn, particularly in a car with low mileage. Try all the seat adjustments to make sure they work properly and that you can find a good driving position. Frayed seat belts or ones with melted fibers (because of friction) may be evidence of a previous frontal impact above 15 mph–damaged safety belts should always be replaced.

Prematurely worn pedals is a sign that the vehicle has very high mileage. Turn the ignition switch, or without starting the engine. You should make sure that all of the warning lights—including the “Check engine” light—illuminate for a few seconds and go off when you start the engine. Note if the engine is hard to start when cold and if it idles smoothly. Then try out every switch, button, and lever. An air bag warning light that stays lit may indicate that a bag has deployed and been improperly replaced–or not replaced at all. Look for discolored carpeting, silt in the trunk, or intermittent electrical problems may be signs of flood damage.

Step 5: Look Under the Hood

Once you feel comfortable with the interior of the vehicle move on to what is under the hood. Squeeze the various rubber hoses running to the radiator, air conditioner, and other parts. The rubber should be firm and supple, not rock-hard, cracked, or mushy. Feel the drive belts to determine whether they are frayed.

Fluids are just as important in cars as they are for humans. Check that the engine oil is dark brown or black, but not gritty. If the oil is honey-colored, it was just changed. If the dipstick has water droplets on it or gray or foamy oil, it could indicate a cracked engine block or blown head gasket, two serious problems. Transmission fluid should be pinkish, not brown, and smell like oil, with no “burnt” odor. The dipstick shouldn’t leave visible metal particles on the rag, another sign of a serious problem. Look into the plastic reservoir that’s connected by a rubber hose to the radiator. Greenish stains appearing on the outside of the radiator are a sure sign of pinhole leaks.

Step 6: Look Under the Car

If you can find where a car is usually parked, look for marks from old puddles of gasoline, oil, coolant, or transmission fluid. Clear water that drips from under the car on a hot day is probably just water condensed from the air conditioner.

Feel the tailpipe for residue. If it’s black and greasy, it means burnt oil. Tailpipe smudge should be dry and dark gray.

On a front-wheel-drive car, examine the constant-velocity-joint boots inboard of the front wheels. They are round, black-rubber bellows at the ends of the axle shafts. If they are split and leaking grease, assume that the car has bad CV joints, another costly repair.

Structural components with kinks and large dents in the floor pan or fuel tank all indicate a past accident. Also inspect the wheel wells, the panels beneath the doors, and the door bottoms. Bring a flashlight to look inside the wheel wells for rust.

Step 7: Inspect the Tires

You can tell a lot from the tires. Be wary of a low-mileage car with new tires; the odometer may have been rolled back. Also check that all four tires are the same, different tires may show they have been replaced.

Tread wear should be even across the width of the tread and the same on the left and right side tires. If the tread pattern is not evenly worn this could be a sign of improper alignment, aggressive driving, over inflated tires or under inflated tires.

Tires must have at least 1/16 inch of tread to be legal. Check the tread depth with a penny by placing it head down into the treads groove. If the top of the head is exposed the tires need to be replaced. Examine the sidewalls for scuffing, cracks, or bulges, and look for dents or cracks on each wheel. Be sure to check that the spare is in good shape and the proper jack and lug wrench are present.

Step 8: View Vehicle History Report

A vehicle-history report can alert you to possible odometer fraud; reveal past fire, flood, and accident damage; or tell you if a rebuilt or salvage title has ever been issued for the vehicle. To access this information, provide the vehicle identification number, or “VIN,” which is on the top of the dashboard, near the driver’s side roof pillar.

Check to see if any recalls were issued and if recall service was performed. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration lists all official recalls. Ask the seller for documentation on recall service. If any recall work has not been performed on a car that you’re considering, it should be done as soon as possible. Automakers are required to perform recall service free of charge, regardless of the vehicle’s age or how long ago the recall was issued.
Step 9: Test Drive

When you take the car out for a test drive pay close attention to the steering, suspension, tailpipe and gas. When starting up the car watch what comes out of the tailpipe. A puff of white smoke upon start-up is probably the result of condensation and not a cause for alarm. Black smoke after the car has warmed up indicates an overly rich air-fuel mixture–usually due to a dirty air filter, a faulty oxygen sensor, or mass-air meter (which measures the amount of intake air). Blue smoke indicates oil burning–a bad sign, requiring expensive repairs. Billowing white smoke indicates water in the combustion chamber, usually because of a blown head gasket, damaged cylinder head, or even a cracked block–all expensive repairs.

 

While driving at normal speeds on smooth, flat pavement, the car shouldn’t wander or need constant steering corrections. A shaking steering wheel often indicates a need for a wheel balancing or front-end alignment, which are easily remedied. However, this may also be a clue that there’s a problem with the driveline, suspension, or frame, which could mean expensive repairs are in order. To check the suspension drive the car over a bumpy road at about 30 mph. If the car bounces and slams at moderate speeds over common pavement may have a worn or damaged suspension.

While driving, does the engine rev excessively before the car accelerates? This is a common sign of a misadjusted or worn-out clutch, or a damaged automatic transmission. A clutch adjustment is a relatively inexpensive service, but a damaged clutch or automatic-transmission repair can be extremely expensive. Listen for knocks and pings while accelerating. These indicate bad ignition timing or an engine beginning to overheat.

Step 10: See a Mechanic

Before you close the deal, have the car scrutinized by a repair shop that routinely does diagnostic work. A dealer should have no problem lending you the car to have it inspected as long as you leave identification. If a salesperson tells you that an independent inspection is not necessary because the dealership has already done it, insist on having your mechanic look at it. If a private seller is reluctant to let you drive the car to a shop, offer to follow the seller to the shop where the inspection will take place. Either way you do it, get the car evaluated prior to purchasing and ask the mechanic for a written report detailing the car’s condition, noting any problems found and the cost to repair them.

With these guidelines you are sure to get the information necessary to make a smart decision about whether or not to purchase the vehicle in question. If you have any doubts, trust your instincts and look for another car.

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