Thursday, June 5, 2008

How To Avoid Buying a Lemon

Did you hear about the guy who went out to buy a used car and came back with a lemon? For many years, used cars have been subject of vile humor because of their perceived lack of reliability and poor quality. However, increased consumer education about savvy used car buying and the improved reliability, performance, and safety features of recent-model used cars are changing car buyers' perception of used vehicles. That 44 million used vehicles are sold in the U.S. each year (more than twice the 17 million new cars sold annually) only confirms the car-buying public's unwavering faith in used cars and trucks. Still, the fact remains that a few lemons do slip through the cracks once in a while. Here are several steps you can take to avoid buying a trouble-prone vehicle.

1. Research the vehicle's reliability. Savvy used car buyers know that some vehicles are more reliable than others. But how do you know if the used car you're eyeing is a keeper or a stinker? You can find out about a vehicle's reliability by reading car reviews published in motoring magazines and auto websites. Car-related magazines and websites periodically come out with lists of the best and worst cars for every model year, as well as readers' choices for outstanding used car models. To supplement your research, ask friends and colleagues about what they may know or have experienced with the vehicle you are thinking of buying.

2. Check the information provided in the Buyer's Guide. Dealers are required by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission to post a Buyer's Guide in every used vehicle they put on sale. The Buyer's Guide discloses certain information, such as whether the vehicle is being sold with a warranty or "as is", and what percentage of repair costs, if there are any, the dealer is obligated to pay. Information provided in the Buyer's Guide overrules any contrary provisions in your sales contract. For instance, if the Guide states that the vehicle is covered by a warranty, the dealer must honor that warranty even if the sales contract says otherwise.

3. Find out if any recalls were issued on the vehicle. A recall doesn't necessarily mean the vehicle is a potential lemon. If a recall had been issued in the vehicle you're interested in, make sure that corresponding recall service was performed on it. Ask the seller to furnish you with documentation on recall service. The automaker is obliged to perform recall service free of charge, irrespective of the age of the vehicle or how long ago the recall was issued. Call up the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or visit the agency's website ( for information on all official recalls.

4. Check the vehicle's history. Nowadays, even vehicles can't escape a shadowy past. Find out if the vehicle has "skeletons under the hood" by getting a vehicle history report from CarFax or Experian Automotive. A vehicle history report can warn you of possible problems with the vehicle, such as odometer fraud and past damage due to fire, flood, or accident, as well as tell you if any rebuilt or salvage title has been issued for the vehicle.

5. Give the vehicle a thorough inspection. No amount of background research can replace the essential act of physically inspecting the vehicle. If you know enough about vehicles, you can do the inspection yourself; otherwise, it would be better to have it performed by a qualified mechanic. Check the vehicle both inside and out. Look for any signs of disrepair on the exterior, the interior, under the hood, tires, suspension, and steering. Consult this Used Car Inspection Checklist for an item-by-item guide to performing an inspection.

6. Take the vehicle on a test drive. Don't stop at physically inspecting the vehicle; take it for a spin. A test drive could reveal operational problems that an ocular inspection might overlook. Some problems might start to show only after the engine has been running for some time, so plan to spend at least 30 minutes behind the wheel. Check for any unusual noises, vibrations, or unexpected mechanical reactions, paying particular attention to the engine, transmission and clutch, suspension, acceleration, brakes, and steering.

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