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How To Spot A Lemon

Aug 17, 2007
It isn't always easy to find a reliable used car. Learn to spot problems before you drive off the lot, to save thousands in costly repairs and headaches.

Check the reliability record:
Avoid getting stuck with a trouble-prone vehicle by checking the reliability records listed on several consumer websites including ConsumerReports.org. Here, you'll find lists and records of vehicle models by year and a list of common problems to watch out for. Also, check with the manufacturer for any recalls that may affect the model and year of the car you are considering.

Check the vehicle's history:
Getting a report from carfax.com or autocheck.com, may cost a few dollars now, but can save you a great deal of grief and expense down the road. These reports are a wonderful way to detect odometer fraud, reveal past fires, flood or other damage due to an accident. It will even warn potentials buyers if the vehicle has been rebuilt or salvaged. You'll need the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), in order to run the report. The entire process takes less than 5 minutes and $20.

Read the window sticker:
The Federal Trade Commission requires all car dealers to post a Buyer's Guide on used cars that are for sale. The guide must list any warranty information offered and the repair responsibilities of the seller. Take special note of "as is" sales, since they offer the consumer no protection.

Inspect both the exterior and the interior:
Look for areas that may show signs of an accident: dents, scratches, and obvious repairs. Make sure all locks and doors close properly. Look for paint overspray on chrome or rubber trim. This can be a sign that a body panel has been repaired. Other things that may signal previous repair work are:

-Chipped or mismatched paint.
-Filler under the paint (check with a magnet. If the magnet doesn't stick to a certain part of the car, which could mean that there is repair filler underneath the paint.
-Frayed seatbelts: this could be a sign of a previous accident.
-Warped dashboard/ missing knobs.
-An airbag light that won't shut off may mean that the airbag has been deployed.

Check the engine:
There are a lot of things to watch out for under the hood that could be a telltale sign of trouble in the future. Some simple things even a non-mechanical buyer can look out for are:

-Relatively grease-free engine, radiator and battery.
-Pliable and unworn hoses.
-Melted wires and tubes.
-Wet spots (indicates fluid leaking).
-Full oil level.
-Bright red or brown transmission fluid (not dark brown or black).

Inspect the tires:
Heavy tread wear on outside of the tires, near the sidewall, can be a sign that a car has been driven hard. Cupped tires that are worn unevenly can also sign of trouble, since it generally indicates problems with steering, suspension or the brakes

Watch the steering and suspension systems:
Check for chunking noises in the steering. Excessive play in the wheel can also be a sign of worn steering gear. When test driving the vehicle, take note as to whether the car tends to wander in one direction or the other. This may indicate an off alignment.

To check for suspension problems, push down hard on each fender and let go. The car should rebound softly once or twice. Also, drive the car or truck over a bumpy road at 30 mph to check for excess juggling or bouncing.

Get A Mechanic's Opinion:
Before purchasing any used car or truck, it's usually a good idea to have a certified mechanic have a look. A thorough diagnostic test usually costs more than $100, but some independent mechanics will at least do a quick check for obvious problems for much less.
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