Dealing with a lemon car — a vehicle that has problems right after you buy or lease it — can leave a sour taste in your mouth and make you bitter from the buying process. Depending on the state in which you live, its laws may or may not provide much protection, so it’s best to avoid buying a lemon vehicle in the first place. Here’s how.
Request a vehicle history report and other key info
While you don’t have to follow all of these steps to avoid buying a lemon car, they’re good to know.
Read online reviews. If you don’t already have a certain car — or cars — in mind, reading as much as you can about the pros and cons of different types of vehicles may help you narrow down a wide field of new and used cars. Ask yourself these five questions. Then, pick out a few to research, checking on any sales, deals or incentives in your area.
Search by the exact year, make and model — 2015 Toyota Camry, for example — and the word “reviews” for posts from current or former owners. You could also look up the car on sites such as Kelley Blue Book and Edmunds, which have in-depth expert reviews and consumer reviews, as well as overall government safety scores.
Does the car have any recalls? You can check a car’s recall status and history for free.
A recall is when an automaker or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determines there is something wrong with a car and owners may have the problem fixed free of charge (the automaker pays for it). Several recalls on a young vehicle may be a warning sign that the car will continue to have problems.
Ask for a vehicle history report. If a car is used, it should have a vehicle history report. Many dealers and online car-buying sites such as Carvana provide one for free. You could obtain your own vehicle history report through such sites as Carfax for a fee. Here is what you should look for in a vehicle history report:
- Regular servicing. A car with standard oil should have an oil change about every 5,000 miles. A car with synthetic oil should have an oil change every 7,000 miles.
- Minor or no accidents. Any accident reported to the police should be on the vehicle history report. If any accident is listed as major or as causing frame damage to the car, that’s a red flag.
- Few owners. If the car had several owners in a short amount of time, such as three owners in two years, that may be a sign the vehicle has problems that are so expensive to fix, the owners sell it rather than fix it.
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Look for warning signs in the exterior and interior
Here are ways you can check to see if the car has any leaks, been in an unreported accident and that its equipment works. You may not need to do all of this if you are looking at a new car, but these steps may be especially helpful if you’re buying a used car from a private party.
The exterior. Run your hands along the car to search for any signs of an accident that may not have been reported: dents, bumps, different colors of paint, and irregularly-spaced gaps. Things that may be hard to see may be easier to feel, so don’t be afraid to touch the car.
- Engine frame. Pop the hood and look at the beams between the engine and the painted body of the car. There should be no kinks or wrinkles in them. If there are, the car may have been in a front-end crash.
- Spare tire well. If the vehicle has a spare tire compartment in the trunk or cargo area, take a peek to see that there are also no asymmetries or other signs of damage in the frame of the compartment. If there are, the car may have been in a rear-end crash.
- Gaps and seams. Run a finger along the gaps where the doors, hood and trunk top, if there is one, meet the body of the car. If the gaps change in size noticeably from one end to the other, the door may have been re-hung, meaning it may have been in an accident.
- The tires. A big giveaway that the suspension is bad is when the tires have uneven wear. Look at the flat part of the tire where the tread is. If one part is almost bald compared with the other parts, the suspension may be off. The tread should be an even depth across the tire — you could check it by inserting a penny in the tread at different points.
The interior. When you’re sitting in the car, you can pick up a lot of clues about the vehicle’s health by paying attention and doing the following:
- Take a deep breath. If you smell rust, mold or mildew, don’t buy it.
- Wiggle in the seat. Does the seat sag or complain? That can be a sign of wear and tear.
- Look for missing pieces. Are there any knobs or switches missing?
- Lightly stomp on the floorboard. Is it firm or does it feel shaky?
- Check the seat belts. Are they frayed or have friction burns?
- Turn everything on. Does the AC work? The heat? Check the windshield wipers, the lights, the radio, the locks, the heated seats – if they’re a feature – and everything else.
Invest in a vehicle code reader. A vehicle code reader plugs into a car’s computer system, unlocking information about possible problems. You could buy a code reader yourself (they are available for under $20 online), or ask a mechanic or auto supply store to run a diagnostic scan for you. Car part stores often do it as a free service.
If the code reader turns up problem spots, that may be a reason to pass on the car or negotiate a lower price with the seller.
Perhaps the most important part of the car is the part that makes it go. If you are looking at a used car, this section may be especially important for you.
- Oil. The engine oil should be dark black and feel smooth when you rub it between your fingers. It should reach the “fill line” on the dipstick. It should not be a light color or feel gritty.
- Transmission fluid. The transmission fluid should be bright red, not reddish brown or a darker color. It should not smell burnt or have anything floating in it.
- Belts. The engine belts should be flexible, not stiff or frayed.
- Exhaust. The exhaust coming out of the back of the car should be clear and not smell of anything. Blue, white, gray or black smoke means trouble. Some water condensation is normal.
For a more in-depth guide, check out our used car buying checklist.
See an independent mechanic
If the car passes the tests that you perform, consider getting an independent mechanic to check it out even further. They should be able to tell you whether the car will last another 100,000 miles or if it’s about to have an expensive problem.
Take it for a test drive
This is time to drive it like you stole it. Well, not really, but do put the car through its paces on the test drive.
1. Listen when you test drive the car. Squeaks or squeals when you go over a speed bump or pothole point to bad suspension. Pinging or knocking noises point to a bad engine. Grinding and whining noises point to a bad transmission. A lot of wind noise when you go faster may mean the car cabin isn’t water-tight.
2. Observe how smooth the ride is. Do you bounce up and down in the car at the slightest bump? Do you feel every turn sharply even when it’s a smooth curve?
3. Drive it hard. The purpose of a test drive isn’t to take a leisurely cruise, but to test the car. Accelerate hard, brake hard, turn left and right sharply.
What to do if you think you bought a lemon car
The first two things to do if you think you bought a lemon is to talk to the seller and to look up your state’s lemon car laws — the Better Business Bureau tracks them here. An agreement with the seller is probably preferable to going to court and it may be that the seller covers all or part of the repair cost or accepts the car as a return. At the same time, it is important to know what your rights are in your state. You should be aware that some state lemon laws only cover new cars while others don’t cover leased vehicles.