Security and Safety

Avoiding Buying a Lemon

By Kristy Alpert 5.1.17

Everyone knows that when life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Unfortunately, when a used-car dealer sells you a lemon, no amount of positive thinking can sweeten the deal.

Buying a used car makes a lot of financial sense — especially since new cars typically lose 20 percent of their value within the first year of ownership according to research at — but even after you’ve done your research online and walked the lot, the final decision can still feel like taking a shot in the dark. Buying a used car is an investment, and it’s one that is worth protecting with a quality auto insurance plan.

Nearly 40 million used cars are sold each year, and, unfortunately, a number of those cars can be classified as lemons. Different than a car that just needs some mechanical or body fixes due to age and low upkeep, a lemon is a car whose flaws originated in the manufacturing stage.

Fortunately, there are a few tricks to weeding out the lemons from the lot. Whether you’re in the market for a reliable car for your college-bound kid or you just want a well-worn 4×4 to hit the trails this summer, use these eight smart used-car-buying tips to protect your investment and drive away with a quality vehicle.

1. Select Your Seller

Not all used-car salespeople are created equal, and selecting a reputable seller is the first step in getting a quality used car. Dealerships offer an advantage of warranties, financing, and trade-in deals, but they’re not always the best for scoring the best deal. Private sellers have more flexibility to negotiate, but buying from one means you need to do a bit more homework and possibly pay a little extra for a mechanic to inspect the vehicle if you’re unsure of your own inspection skills.

2. Wait for Financing

It may seem like a nice gesture: letting you drive off in your new vehicle while the dealer works out the financing. However, less-than-reputable dealers often use this as a tool for swindling buyers into paying higher interest rates. The term for this is “yo-yo financing,” and it describes when the buyer is brought back to the dealership when financing fails and is then forced to pay higher interest rates and fees. Avoid this ploy by practicing patience and wait to drive off until financing is finalized.

3. Avoid the Night

Never accept delivery of your new vehicle at night, as it is difficult to make out small defects or paint scratches once it gets dark. If you must take delivery of the car at night, ask the salesperson to move the car to the showroom floor or service drive to allow you to inspect the car in plenty of direct light.

4. Go Beyond the Carfax

While Carfax reports can be useful, they’re far from comprehensive as even the company’s disclaimer states, “Carfax depends on its sources for the accuracy and reliability of its information. Therefore, no responsibility is assumed by Carfax or its agents for errors or omissions in this report.” Oftentimes key milestones in the vehicle’s life go unreported, and there are even ways for dealers to alter the vehicle’s history. Do your own research and get a thorough inspection done on the vehicle you have your sights on.

5. Check the Interior

Although minor wear and tear is normal, there are some red flags that indicate bigger issues (e.g., a low mileage reading on a poorly kept interior is an indication that the meter has been tampered with). Ripped leather and torn fabric seats are not deal breakers, but it’s important to make sure the seats go up and down and all the controls are functioning properly. In fact, make sure all the buttons and dials work inside the car, checking to see that all the dashboard lights are on and the A/C, heater, radio, media players, navigation, sunroof, and windows are all in working order.

6. Check the Exterior

The vehicle’s exterior can be the biggest indicator of internal problems if you inspect it with a keen eye. Start your inspection when the vehicle is on flat ground, and look beneath the carriage for signs of sagging to one side (a key indicator of a damaged suspension). From there, check for rust, dents, dings, and rough spots that have been painted over as these are signs the vehicle may have been in an accident or a flood. Watch out for gaps in the door panels and trunk, as this could indicate that the panel has been replaced or repositioned.

7. Drive it

Taking the car out for a test drive is the only way to know for sure whether it’s the right fit for you. It’s also the best time to check for flaws. When you’re driving, turn the radio off and listen to the car (Do the breaks squeak, do you hear an air leak in the roof, etc.?), testing out all the gears individually as you drive along a familiar route. While on the highway, notice if the vehicle pulls to the left or right, as this could be as serious as an alignment issue or as simple as unbalanced tire inflation.

8. Take Your Time

Even if you’re on a deadline to get behind the wheel, try not to rush the decision. Time is the best trick to getting the right car for you and the best deal possible. Historically, the best deals are offered at the end of the day, during the end of the month since salespeople are often aiming to fulfill quotas by the last business day of the month, but special “selling events” and holidays can make for excellent opportunities for used-car buying.

Taking these eight simple steps before driving off the lot can save you both money and hassle — and help you find a hidden gem, instead of a lemon, the next time you’re looking for a new ride.

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