How to Spot a Lemon: A Used Car Checklist

It’s virtually impossible to recognize a lemon of a car if the car is new. Unless you’re a mechanic who knows better, getting a lemon right off of the assembly line is simply awful luck. Used cars, on the other hand, have some telltale signs that will tip off even the layman. If you pay attention to the car in question and the dealer selling it to you, and do a little research before you even enter the lot, you should be prepared to spot a clunker that would end up costing you more than buying used.

Used Car Lots

Used car salesmen know how to hide defects and problems. A dishonest car salesman may remedy an issue with a fix that’ll last just long enough to get the “sold as is” vehicle off the lot. It’s crucial to research normal price ranges and defects on used car websites, and with your mechanic before you decide to buy. Remember: If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is. Comparing your “great” price with prices for similar vehicles, which can give you real insight into whether you’re getting ripped off or not.

5 Tips When Buying Used Cars

1.) Receipts, Receipts, Receipts

Ask the owner for receipts of maintenance and repairs. In particular, you want the receipts for the oil and fluid changes. If the seller can provide them, the person was responsible about general maintenance, which is a massive plus.

2.) Car Reports

Attain used car reports and vehicle reviews. Used car websites like provide information about the specific car you’re interested in buying. Other websites like can provide general information about the make and model.

3.) Test, Check, Take Note

Before you test drive a used car, do a safety check and write down everything you see. Test the fluids (oil, steering, brake fluid, and washer fluid) before starting the car. This gets you under the hood to make a quick inspection of the engine.

Check the tires for uneven wear. If the tread is worn more heavily on the inside or outside of the tires, the car has poor alignment or balance. Uneven wear may be the sign of a bigger problem — a bent frame, for example.

Check the head and brake lights, the blinkers, test the parking brake, the dash and interior lights. If one or more of the lights doesn’t work, it could be a symptom of an electrical defect.

Start the vehicle and turn the wheel in one direction to the turning radius limit. There shouldn’t be any jerking or jumping from the steering wheel or screeching from the engine compartment.

Set the emergency brake and attempt to pull the vehicle forward. Do the same with your foot on the brake pedal. If the vehicle moves, you’ll need to have the braking system checked.

4.) Drive with Authority

Drive the vehicle on an interstate. The best way to check for rattles and gaps between the doors and door frames (indications that the vehicle may have been in an accident or has been abused) is to drive the vehicle fast. Wheels that shimmy are another clear indication of a defect. It may not be critical, but it’s worth noting.

5.) Take the Vehicle to a Mechanic

Sometimes a car looks exactly like what you want and so you purchase your car based on emotional bias rather than professional assessment. We can all fall prey to this mistake. That’s why it’s critical that you get a professional opinion from a mechanic you trust.

Photo by Flickr user tikitonite

Written by Randall Holt:

Randall shares tips on how to maintain your vehicle and get the best deals when you buy or lease a car.

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