How to Avoid Buying a Used Car Lemon

It was the summer of 2010.  I had just graduated college and had saved up a down payment for my dream car, a 2004 Acura TL.  I had researched the heck out of that car and it came out on top whenever I compared it to other vehicles.  I was on a mission to get my used car and no one was stopping me!

At first, I tried the used car dealerships.  A found a couple that I loved but my excitement about the cars overtook my common sense.  I narrowed it down to two cars and brought my Dad to help me look and check for warning signs.  At each of the cars we looked at, it took my Dad literally less than five seconds to tell me the car was a lemon.  I was in denial!  How could these cars be lemons!  As it turns out, my Dad spotted spray paint near the bottom of the doors.  Also, when we asked the dealers about maintenance records, they didn’t exist.  According to my Dad, these were signs that we were looking at a lemon.

It was evident that these cars were either trashed or crashed and fixed up to look like new again.  Looking back, I’m thankful I had my dad there and thankful for the warning signs my Dad has taught me about avoiding a lemon when you’re shopping for a car.  The next time you’re shopping for a used car, remember these tips and they will save you some heartache:

How to Avoid Buying a Used Car Lemon

1- Ask question after question

From my experience, this is the most important thing you need to do.  Don’t hesitate to ask a question.  You are about to spend a pretty penny on this car, so find out everything you can about it.  Ask the seller about how it drives, where it came from, what the last owner was like, any car repairs done, and for maintenance records.  Ask, ask ask.  Ask where maintenance was done and try to go to the repair shop ask ask the mechanic if there are known issues the seller isn’t telling you about.

2- Get the maintenance and service records

used car lemon

How do you avoid buying a used car lemon like this?

Any respectable dealership or seller will have all previous year’s inspection and maintenance records.  If these are missing, run away fast.  Typically, if these are missing it means it was in a crash or could possibly be stolen. Now, if you do find something strange on the maintenance records, don’t fret.  It could be something that is common for that year’s model.  Not every issue is a red flag.  The key here is to get all the records.

3-When you feel lied to, run for the hills

This is one that is more of a”gut feeling” than logic.  I have shopped for three cars in my life and this is something that my Dad has taught me.  If at any point, you feel uncomfortable or feel pressured, that is a big red flag that something is wrong.  A seller should never pressure you.  Buying a car should be a relaxing experience and relatively smooth.  You should be able to build up trust with the seller from the first hand shake.  If not, ditch the car and move on.

4- Inspect every square inch

Just like my personal story, if you get lazy and just skim over the exterior/interior, you might miss a serious issue that can cause problems down the road.  Many dealers try to cover up past damage by repairing paint or with plastic panels.  Look for anything that is out of the ordinary.  You should especially focus on anything engine and exhaust related.  Check out the exhaust pipes, interior carpets for leaks, and even if there are any recent oil leaks on the ground under the car.  Check the tires for uneven cupping or wear.  This could mean that there is a suspension issue.  The key here is to do your own research and check for problems areas.  As you can see, the list of things to check for goes on and on.

So, the next time you’re out in used car jungle, remember these tips and avoid purchasing a lemon for your next car.

What else can you think of to avoid buying a used car lemon?

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Published or updated December 4, 2012.


  1. I would have my mechanic check the car out. Personally, I would rather buy a certified used car with a warranty from a dealer. In the interest of full disclosure, I never bought a used car. I buy new and keep it forever. My current cars are 16 and 14 years old.

    • Glen Craig says:

      I agree about a certified used car and checking with a great mechanic, but I’ve also found in many cases it adds a significant amount to the cost (certified used that is), sometimes to where a new car isn’t that much more.

    • You absolutely must have any used car inspected by a certified mechanic. Mainly this is because you have NO reason to trust dealerships or anyone selling a used car. They can lie to you and say anything they want (I’m not being paranoid.). That’s why it doesn’t matter what the dealership-provided maintenance and service records say. They could be completely fabricated. Get a certified mechanic to inspect the car. It’s worth every penny.

  2. gharkness says:

    Seems to me like you weren’t looking necessarily at lemons…you were looking at cars that had likely been in an accident. That does NOT a lemon make! A lemon is a car that has repeated problems with some important system, and isn’t likely to be repaired to be reliable. A perfectly reliable car can have been in a small accident and never be considered a lemon (but as you said, if you feel uncomfortable about the purchase, you shouldn’t buy.)

    I don’t buy a car often, but when I do, I pay to have it checked over by a service that specializes in used-car inspections. My most recent purchase had definitely been in a accident, but the service I used (not related to the seller) showed me how and why they knew it had only been a fender-bender. Time will tell whether I made the right choice 🙂

  3. My first car was actually pretty good considering that it was really cheap. Lucky I guess.

    It’s the car I’ve got now that I hate – inlaw’s left it to us when they upgraded and I hate hate hate it. It refuses to start if it’s too hot, it’s ugly and it’s a Volvo. What more can I say! LOL


  4. I think you missed one of the most important parts – bringing a impartial observer! Pops!

  5. Jenna, Adaptu Community Manager says:

    I think you hit the key point right from the beginning. Do research and know what you want. That way you don’t get distracted by “deals and sales.”

  6. Sites like Edmunds or auto classifieds can be used to get a feel for what fair pricing should be, and then I agree with bringing a checklist of things to look at. Inspection and maintenance records are important unless you’re buying a total beater, and I would also get the car inspected by a third party if they don’t want to certify it.

    With cars it can be hit and miss which is why you need to be careful and do the research. Evan’s tip on impartial observer is a good point, too, in case you fall in love with a car!

  7. I agree that it’s a good idea to check a car out, and even better, get a local mechanic to do a full auto inspection for you. It may add anywhere from $100-300 to your cost, but if you’re spending thousands of dollars on this car it could definitely be worth the money.

    I think asking questions can be good, although I’d take what the salesman tells you with a grain of salt. Ask, but verify if you can. Also be sure to get the Carfax or Autocheck report – to see any accident history or flood damage/etc. I’m searching for a car right now, and it seems like every time i find a good deal and run the carfax report, it comes back with an accident in the history or something else. often the salespeople don’t know or are trying to cover up these things until they know you know.

  8. Used Chrysler says:

    When you are looking online at a particular car’s history, you will want to look for accidents listed, repair work that’s been done, etc. Look at the entire history of the car to see if it seems to be a car which is going to require a lot of extra work on your part. You will need to VIN number in order to check a vehicle’s complete history. Check online for lemon law cars to see if any cars are susceptible to problems.

  9. A few more tips are, never see a car in the dark. Check all panel gaps as they should be the same all around the car. If not, major accident and not put back together correctly. Always phone a Car history Check company who will tell you everything on that vehicle.

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