Six Ways to Avoid Buying a “Lemon”

Buying a car is a big investment – whether it’s brand new or a used car. It can also be an exciting time and thinking about possible defects in the vehicle may not be top of the list of features you’re looking for.   However, the recent recalls have opened our eyes to the possibility that even a brand new car from a manufacturer previously considered safe could have a defect and turn out to be a ‘lemon.’

What should you do to protect your investment and make the purchase of your next car a pleasant and rewarding experience?

1. Know the Car Manufacturers’ Statistics Regarding Lemon Law Cases

Once you find a car you like, check on their lemon record.  Statistics are available that give the percentage of lemon law cases by vehicle manufacturer. What to look for?  The higher the percentage of lemon law cases compared to the number of vehicles sold is an indication that something is wrong.  Check for recalls or recent safety issues.

2. Do your homework.

If you are buying a pre-owned vehicle, check its history. Have you ever heard the phrase “laundered lemon”?  When a car has a defect the dealer or manufacturer could be forced to buy it back.  These cars have been known to find their way back onto the lot and get sold again, without the required disclosures.

One way to check if the car you want to buy has a ‘hidden past’ is to do a title search through the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System at Many states, including California, require “lemon buyback” to be included in the title of a vehicle.

Go the extra mile with your research: Find the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) and research the vehicle’s history. For a small fee you can get a title history from CARFAX Vehicle History Reports, AutoCheck, Consumer Guide and others.  It’s wise to check a number of sources; just because one report is clean another might not be.

3. Buy from a reputable dealer.

Whether you’re looking to buy a new car or a used car, it’s best to go to a well-known dealer.  They keep only the best trade-ins and they are usually easier to deal with if you do happen to get a lemon.

4. Check out the Warranty

What are the terms of the warranty for a new car? What exactly does it cover?  And if it is pre-owned, dealers must include the FTC Buyer’s Guide. Sometimes a used vehicle is sold with a warranty and sometimes it is sold ‘as is’ or ‘with all faults’. A service contract does not confer the same rights as a warranty so be sure to clarify exactly what you’re getting.  Get any form of warranty offered in writing.  The conditions should be clearly stated, such as what percentage of labor and parts the dealer will cover, for exactly which systems within the vehicle, and for what duration.

5. Always Take A Test Drive

Always take a test drive and make a note of any unusual squeaks or rattles.  Note if the car pulls to one side.

6. Have the Vehicle Inspected

If everything else checks out, before you sign on the dotted line, take the car to an independent mechanic and have the vehicle thoroughly inspected.

If you do your homework your new car should be a reliable and enjoyable asset for many years to come.  Should you have the misfortune to run into difficulties with defects, remember that every state has some kind of lemon law to protect its citizens from the nightmare of a defective vehicle.

Image credit: Alen Stojanac

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