Checklist: Everything You Need to Know to Avoid Buying Someone’s Used Lemon

Learn how you can avoid buying someone else’s used lemon.

Want to make sure your next pre-owned car is a peach instead of a lemon?


It takes doing good research and investigation to ensure you buy the vehicle of your dreams so you don’t end up with another person’s nightmare. Use this checklist to guide your buying journey.


1. Do your homework.

Sure, no one enjoys doing homework. But, it’s the only way to reduce the risk of purchasing a vehicle that could cause you major problems in the future.


Go online and research the autos that you’re interested in. See if they have good reliability records. A solid reputation for reliability is not a guarantee that a car will be trouble-free, but it’s likely that the vehicle you buy will cost you less in maintenance (and frustration) over the long term than ones with identified issues. If a model you’re considering has certain known trouble areas, pay special attention to them when you’re looking over your car or having it inspected.


2. Review the window sticker.

The Federal Trade Commission requires that used car dealers post a Buyer’s Guide on every vehicle they offer for sale. You’ll typically find it attached to the window. Comparable information must be included in an online listing and a Buyer’s Guide must be part of the final deliverable.


It must contain certain information including whether the automobile is being sold “as is” or with a warranty. If it’s being sold “as is”, it means the dealer makes no guarantees about the condition of the vehicle. You should think twice about buying autos without guarantees. If a car comes with a warranty, the Buyer’s Guide should include specific information about what percentage of repair costs the dealer is required to pay, for what and for how long.


Note: Information on the Buyer’s Guide always overrides that on your sales contract or other paperwork, if there are any differences. If you negotiate any changes to the coverage in the warranty, the Buyer’s Guide must be updated to reflect them. Also, many states do not allow “as is” sales for autos being sold over a certain price. Check online to find out if this is the case in your area, especially if you’re buying a more expensive used car.


3. Inspect the vehicle.

Look over any auto you’re thinking about buying carefully. You may not be an automotive expert, however you can learn a lot by looking, listening and smelling.


Here are some key things to pay attention to:



  • Check each section of the car, looking out for scratches, dents, rust and other signs of damage. These could indicate the auto may have been poorly maintained or might be in bad condition.
  • Examine the lines of the vehicle. Misaligned panels or large gaps between them, could be signs it was badly built or repaired after an accident.
  • Look at the color of the car under clear light. The paint and finish should be the same on every body panel. If it’s not, it may suggest the vehicle was in an accident and not properly refinished.
  • Inspect hard to reach places like wheel wells, the rocker panels beneath the doors and the door bottoms. These are places that often hide issues like rust, damaged paint or frayed rubber seals.
  • Open and close each door, the hood and the trunk. The action of each of these components should be solid and secure.
  • Check rubber seals for tearing or wear. Bad seals let in water, which could lead to serious damage over the long term.


  • Look out for cracks or pocked areas. A small chip may be no big deal, but you could leverage it to reduce the price of the car. However, it’s likely that cracks could get worse and result in costly repairs.



  • Walk around the auto a few times to see if it’s level. If it’s not, it could be a sign of a worn suspension system.
  • Press down on each corner of the car. If it bounces up and down after you release it, it’s likely that the shock absorbers are shot.
  • Push back and forth on the top of each front tire. If you feel movement or hear an odd sound, the wheel bearings or suspension joints may be in poor shape.


Lights and lenses.

  • Check that all the lights are working. Make certain that the lenses and reflectors are not cracked or fogged up. Lights are pretty basic, but they are among a vehicle’s most important safety features.


  • Make sure the tires have at least 1/16 inch of tread. That’s the minimum amount required to drive the car off the lot. If the tread is that low, consider asking the dealer to replace the tires.
  • Check that all four tires are identical. A single different one could negatively impact vehicle handling.
  • Look at the tread wear patterns. If they’re odd or uneven, it could be a sign that the tires were not regularly rotated, that the car had been previously owned by an aggressive driver or other concerning issues.
  • See if the wear on the tires correlates with the vehicle mileage. A low mileage auto should have its original tires. If that’s not the case, it could be a sign that the odometer has been rolled back.
  • Finally, check that there is a spare tire, that it’s in good shape and that the jack and lug wrench haven’t been removed.



  • The engine bay should be clean and in good condition. Be wary if you see oil splatters, corrosion or loose components. These visible issues are a sure sign of a car that has problems.
  • Check the hoses and belts. The rubber should feel solid, yet supple, not hard, cracked or mushy. Look out for belts that are frayed.
  • See if the fluids are the proper color. Oil should be dark brown or black. Transmission fluid should be pink. Radiator coolant should be greenish or orange. Any variations indicate problems. Also, moisture or water droplets in the fluids or lines or containers point to serious issues. Check that fluids are at their proper levels.
  • If the car has a maintenance free battery, it should have a charge indicator. When it’s green, it probably means the battery is in good shape. If it’s yellow or black, it could be on its last legs. It’s hard to know the condition of a battery based on a visual check. A mechanic should check out the charging system and test the battery to know for certain.


Underside of vehicle.

  • Before you get into a car, look below it to see if there is any gasoline, oil, coolant or transmission fluid on the floor or pavement. These types of leaks could be serious and a sign of bigger issues.
  • Check the tailpipe. If it’s black or greasy, it likely means the car is burning oil. If you see rust on it, you may need to replace the exhaust system, which is costly.



  • Give the inside of the car the sniff test. A musty or wet smell could point toward water leaks or damage. Check for wet spots under the mats. If you find them step away from the vehicle and find another one. It could indicate very serious issues, perhaps the auto having been involved in a flood. Also, if you smell cigarette smoke, it could be a good idea to not buy the car. It’s a very difficult odor to eliminate.
  • Try out ALL the seats, even the ones you won’t use yourself. Make sure the upholstery is clean, not torn and in good shape. Try all the adjustments to see if they work properly. Check that you can find a comfortable driving position.
  • Inspect the pedals. Make sure they aren’t worn, especially if it’s a low mileage car. If they are, it’s possible that the odometer has been tampered with.
  • Check the instruments and controls. See if the warning and other lights go on and off as you’d expect. Try out every touch screen, switch, button and lever to ensure it’s working. Turn on the heater and air conditioner to prove that they blow hot and cold air and the fan is fully functional.
  • Try out the sound system. Find out whether all the features are functioning and the audio quality meets your expectations. Ensure the bluetooth connectivity is working on your smartphone or other device.


Roof and trunk.

  • Inspect the roof looking for sags or water damage. If the auto has a sun or moon roof, try it out to find out if it opens and closes properly. If the car is a convertible, make sure the roof is fully operational and that it isn’t torn.
  • Check out the trunk. Look out for any signs of wetness or rust. If you see — or smell — any issues, it’s a smart move to look for another vehicle.


Take it for a test drive.

    • As a final step, take the vehicle out for a test ride. Try it out in a variety of conditions, including highway driving, on suburban streets and over rough pavement. Make sure the steering is tight and the brakes are solid. Listen for any knocks or other odd sounds.


4. Have the car inspected by an independent mechanic.

Before you purchase ANY used vehicle, have it looked over by a shop that specializes in diagnostic work. Dealers will allow you to do this if you let them make a copy of your license. If they resist it, they may have concerns about what the mechanic might find.


A typical diagnostic review should cost approximately $100. It could be the best money you ever spent because it will give you peace of mind knowing you are purchasing a sound pre-owned vehicle. Or it could prevent you from driving off the lot with a lemon.


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