Avoiding the Lemons: 7 Tips for Buying a Used Car

The Romans used to say “Caveat emptor.” We say “Buyer beware,” and that’s the best advice you can get when shopping for a used car.

Experts estimate that one in ten cars sold in the United States are lemons. Here’s a handy checklist to help ensure that you’re not one of the unfortunate 10% stuck with a bad auto investment:

1. Check the reliability. Once you’ve decided what type of car you want , be it a sedan, SUV, convertible or truck - go to Consumer Reports or another reputable public research website and look up the repair records for each manufacturer. Does a 2002 Chevy sedan end up in the shop more than a 2002 Toyota? Check both the manufacturer and the model year because there can be radical differences from year to year, even for the same model from the same auto maker.

2. Don’t pay too much. Even before you start looking, take the time to go online to kellybluebook.com. For 80 years, Kelly has been accumulating ongoing records of selling prices for cars in every condition, from mint to sub par. Understand that a dealer will be asking the top price in every range, while a private owner will probably accept a price in the middle or bottom of that same range. Since the used car market is more regional than you’d imagine, compare the Kelly prices to the ones shown in your local classified ad sections.

3. Check out the history. Don’t you wish you could learn more about that used roadster you’ve been eyeing? Well, you can! The company carfax.com has the complete recorded history of almost every vehicle in the country, including mileage records, repair and accident history - plus salvage, junk and flood reports.

4. Watch out for safety. Will your new car help you survive a wreck? Will it roll over too easily? Are owners complaining about it? Go to the website of the National Traffic Safety Administrator for detailed records on the crash-worthiness of your new ride. These folks spend their time smashing crash-test dummies into brick walls - and not just because it’s fun. The wellbeing of you and your family may depend on the research you do at this website, so be thorough.

5. Take a spin. Before buying any used car, you should spend 20 minutes taking it through its paces on both city streets and highways. Check the operation of every switch and feature when idling. Then assess the alignment, brakes and transmission as you drive. If the car pulls to one side, or makes a grinding sound when you brake, there’s a problem.

6. Take it to a mechanic. Spending a few dollars having your mechanic go over the car is a wise investment. Have him drive it, check the electrical system and pull the tires to check the brakes. Some mechanics have a used car inspection, where they perform a thorough check of all the car’s systems and provide you with a printout of anything that needs to be fixed – a great haggling point if you’re going back and forth on price.

7. Just in case, squeeze the lemon. Every state has different definitions and laws regarding lemons. In general, a lemon is a car with a repetitive problem that affects the operation of the vehicle. If you end up with a lemon, get the details of the regulations that apply to you at lemonlawamerica.com.