How to Check If a Used Car Is a Lemon

To check if a used car is a lemon by ordering a CARFAX report, looking under the hood of the car, or taking the car to a mechanic.
Written by Bonnie Stinson
Reviewed by Kathleen Flear
To check that a used car isn’t a lemon, look under the hood and examine the body of the car for signs of repairs. Still not sure? Order a CARFAX report and get a mechanic to do a once-over.
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So, Jerry has compiled this guide to help you avoid buying a lemon. Here’s how to figure out whether you’re in Harry Wormwood’s car lot or a legitimate dealership.
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What does it mean to buy a lemon?

A lemon is a used car that looks like it functions but runs poorly. It’s a defective vehicle that may pass initial tests but isn’t high quality.
This is usually due to a dealer’s desire to make a quick buck by scrimping on repairs and then misleading you about the vehicle’s condition.
It’s easy to buy a lemon because the vehicle will run well at first glance. However, the ruse will quickly fall apart after a few miles when something breaks, like a bumper falling off due to shoddy welding.
That being said, don’t fall victim to the misconception that all used car lots are trying to sell lemons. Many used car lots are respectable businesses and buying a used car is a great strategy for saving money and keeping your car insurance rate low.

Avoid buying a lemon by reading the sticker

You can avoid buying a lemon by reading the sticker that comes with your car purchase. When you buy from a dealership, the seller must provide you with a sticker or booklet that lists all the systems included in the sale.
Read the guide carefully because it will tell you whether the vehicle is sold "as is" and if it comes with any type of warranty.
Make sure to check for information about the vehicle’s electrical and mechanical systems, too.
If you decide to purchase the car, keep the sticker so you can refer to it if necessary.
Private sellers
are under no obligation to provide you with a sticker, so proceed carefully.

Do your own inspection

As a potential car buyer, you are allowed to conduct a basic assessment of a used car.

Check the exterior of the vehicle.

Mismatched body panels or overspray paint are obvious signs of a lemon. Why? It indicates that the car has been fixed up irregularly in order to make a quick sale. You can also run a magnet over the exterior to check if body filler has been used to cover up dents or rust.

Lift the hood

See any blackened areas? These are signs of trouble, as they could signify a previous engine fire or problems with overheating. Look for dampness — this could indicate leaking fluid. Finally, examine all the belts and hoses that you can find. Corrosion or worn-out tubing is a no-go.

Ensure that everything functions properly

Test the locks, doors, hood, trunk, and windows to make sure nothing glitches or malfunctions. Sit in the backseat and the driver’s seat and look around carefully. You can also smell for mildew and make sure the seals around the doors are tight.

Measure the distance between each wheel and the body of the car

A discrepancy might indicate a major collision in the past that couldn’t be completely fixed. Tires should have even wear patterns—uneven wear is another indicator of an alignment problem due to a past collision.
Key Takeaway Buying a used car is a financially savvy decision, but you need to check the vehicle carefully to avoid buying a lemon.

Bring it to a trusted mechanic

The safest strategy to prevent buying a lemon is to bring the used car to a mechanic for a quick inspection.
If the dealer is reluctant to let you get the vehicle assessed, walk away! Private sellers may wish to accompany you to the garage, which is normal.
A mechanic will conduct a more thorough examination than you can perform on a lot. They will lift the car to check for any anomalies. Plus, their expertise means they can quickly spot any key parts that have been swapped for inferior substitutes.
Many mechanics offer an automatic diagnostic for about $100.
If they find something off, it’s not the end of the world. You can always use this information to negotiate a lower price for the vehicle, if the problem is one you’re willing to fix, that is.

Order a vehicle report

Unfortunately, you can’t tell everything about a used car simply by looking. To get even more information on a car you are interested in buying, order a CARFAX report or go to
to research your specific vehicle’s history.
To do this, you will need the VIN, a code that is unique to your vehicle. The VIN is often located on a placard on the driver’s side, although the seller may have it on file for you.
Once you get the vehicle report, look for any
changes in title
and accident claims. Long periods without any reported increase in mileage are suspicious too, as they could indicate a serious accident that sent the vehicle to the shop for extensive repairs.
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Frequently asked questions

How do you make sure you don’t buy a lemon?

Avoid buying a lemon by conducting a thorough examination on the lot.
Test all the features and inspect under the hood. Don’t allow yourself to be rushed. If you can, order a vehicle history report and take the car to a mechanic for a quick inspection.

What to do if you buy a lemon

Sorry this happened to you! If you purchased your vehicle from a dealer, check your contract carefully. Is there a warranty or guarantee policy? If you bought the car from a private seller, you may have a harder time fighting back. But you can always take the seller to small claims court or seek arbitration through a consumer advocacy bureau.

Are all used cars lemons?

No! Plenty of used cars are safe and high-quality vehicles. By choosing a vehicle that’s only a few years old, you could save a ton of money on the purchase price—and you can get
cheaper car insurance
, too.
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