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How to Spot a Lemon


Lemon or lifer? Look for these 5 things when shopping for a used car 

When it comes to buying a used car, one of the biggest fears for consumers is falling for a “lemon,” AKA: hunka junk. 

Good news is, by putting on your detective hat and learning a few solid investigative skills that I’ll share in this article, you can avoid a car that’s better fit for a landfill than the highway. 

Already suspect you’ve got a lemon? There are laws to protect you – but more on that in a few minutes. 

For now, here’s how to spot a lemon and end up with a used car you’ll love for miles to come!

Tire Treads

image of tire treads with even wear
Inspect tire treads for even wear before purchasing a used car.

Wondering if that used car has been well-maintained? Or has it been driven rough? Looking at the tires will tell you its story.

Look for any uneven wear on the tires. If the owner took good care of the vehicle, including doing regular tire rotations and maintaining proper tire pressure, the tread on the tires should wear evenly. If certain tires look worse than others or there’s uneven wear, be cautious.

Tires with heavy wear near the sidewall could indicate hard driving habits. If the car was driven overly aggressively, it could cause more wear and tear on the rest of the vehicle (and more problems for you to fix down the road).

Underinflated tires will have more wear on the sides, and overinflated tires will have more wear in the middle. Furthermore, cupped tires can be an indication of issues with the steering, suspension, or brakes.

Body Damage

dent in bumper of car
Look for evidence of previous accidents as well as dents and dings you can use during negotiating the price.

Misaligned panels and a new paint job can be signs your dream car has been in a wreck, so be sure to do a thorough inspection of the exterior before buying. Look out for dents and scratches that you can use during negotiating the price, as well as evidence of body damage that’s been covered up by filler.

While you’re at it, do a visual inspection under the hood to check the oil, brake, transmission and coolant fluid levels as well to make sure they’re the right color and have been properly changed.

Online car buying can make it more difficult to do a proper visual inspection, but not impossible. If you’re shopping online, try to find something within driving distance so you can inspect it in person and do a test drive to check for any strange noises, knocking, pulling, or shaking. 

You can also go with an online service like Carvana that delivers to your home and offers a risk-free test drive period. 

(RELATED: The Complete Guide to Online Car Buying: 2021 Edition)

Water Damage

Flooded cars on the street of the city. Street after heavy rain

A water leak can be hard to diagnose and do a number on your car’s carpet. Check for a mildew smell and make sure all electrical components are working properly as these can be signs of water damage. 

It’s not completely out of the question for a car that’s been flooded in a hurricane to be resold in an area far, far away where buyers would least expect it. So be sure to look out for silt in the trunk, evidence of corrosion, discolored or recently replaced carpeting, and other signs of flooding. 

Consumer Reports also found that some flood-damaged vehicles can resurface with a “clean title,” so beware of any vehicle being sold without a title or only a bill of sale.

Buyer’s Guide

Employees deliver vehicles to customers couple is picking up a car from the garage.

Dealers are required to post a buyer’s guide (usually in the window) of the vehicle being offered. This window sticker includes information such as whether or not the vehicle is being sold “as is,” if it comes with a warranty, and what percentage of repairs the dealer is willing to pay.

This guide is very important and whatever it says will override anything negotiated in your contract. So if you do negotiate changes in coverage, such as a warranty, the buyer’s guide must be changed to reflect that.

If you make a binding purchase for a car that is guaranteed to be functional and ends up being faulty, you’re entitled to a replacement or refund.

On the other hand, pay attention to a car being sold “as is.” This means there are no guarantees as to the condition of the vehicle. So what you see is what you get. If problems arise post-sale, you’ll be responsible for the cost.

Ask a Mechanic

Services car engine machine concept, Automobile mechanic repairman checking a car engine with inspecting writing to the clipboard the checklist for repair machine, car service and maintenance
Get a pre-purchase inspection before buying any used car.

Along with visually inspecting the interior and exterior of the vehicle, you should also have a pre-purchase inspection at a trusted independent mechanic. Some problems may not be noticeable at first and require diagnostic work. While taking along the FIXD Sensor in your pocket will allow you to scan the vehicle for any check engine lights that may have been disabled by the owner, a qualified mechanic will be able to tell you even more about the car.

FIXD app vehicle history report
View previous owner info, accident history, and more with FIXD Premium.

FIXD Premium subscribers are able to scan any used vehicle in question with the FIXD Sensor and app as well as view the full Vehicle History Report. This report contains critical information, such as accident history, previous owner information, and more. Subscribers also have access to the FIXD Mechanic Hotline, which can offer more advice about any used vehicle they may be interested in purchasing.

Remember: Any reputable dealer should have no problem with you taking the car being offered for a third-party inspection. If you’re purchasing from a private seller, they may feel more comfortable going along with you or meeting you at the shop. But if the person selling you the car seems nervous about this inspection or evasive, it may be a sign it’s a lemon.

Know Your Lemon Law Rights

In 1975, Congress passed the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act to make product warranties more clear and enforceable and protect consumers like you and me. While this isn’t the only “lemon law,” it’s probably the most well-known when it comes to federal lemon law cases. 

Today, there are multiple lemon laws that vary greatly by state and have different requirements for what information manufacturers are required to divulge to customers and how responsible they are for faulty products. In general, these laws exist to protect you in the event that you do purchase a faulty vehicle, especially from a dealer. 

If you end up with a lemon, find a lawyer who’s experienced in dealing with these types of cases. If you suspect you’ve purchased a rebuilt wreck, National Automotive Dealers Association’s Automotive Consumer Action Program may be able to help you find mediation.

There are fewer options available if purchased from a private seller, which is why it’s a good idea to get any guarantees about the condition of the used car in writing. This will come in handy if there are issues with the car when you take it home.

To find out more about your specific state’s lemon law information, visit Lemon Law America.

FIXD Research Team

At FIXD, our mission is to make car ownership as simple, easy, and affordable as possible. Our research team utilizes the latest automotive data and insights to create tools and resources that help drivers get peace of mind and save money over the life of their car.

We’re here to help you simplify car care and save, so this post may contain affiliate links to help you do just that. If you click on a link and take action, we may earn a commission. However, the analysis and opinions expressed are our own.


About the Author

FIXD Research Team

FIXD Research Team

At FIXD, our mission is to make car ownership as simple, easy, and affordable as possible. Our research team utilizes the latest automotive data and insights to create tools and resources that help drivers get peace of mind and save money over the life of their car.

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