How to Avoid Buying a Lemon

You may be shocked to find out that staring at an engine and kicking the tires before buying a car will not tell you that it will be a good reliable car. It certainly won’t intimidate the car salesman into thinking that you know what you’re doing. If anything, it will just get a good laugh in the break room at the dealership. The best idea is to have your potential “new” car looked over by a qualified mechanic.

Most auto repair shops charge $100–$200 for a used car evaluation. Although this may seem expensive, if $100 can save you $12,000 on a lemon, it is money well spent. An independent shop will give you a professional, unbiased opinion of a car you are interested in buying.

If you do not want to have your potential vehicle sent through a repair shop before you buy it, all hope is not lost. There are many things you can do to help insure your new wheels will be worth it. First, ask questions. Ask the sales person about maintenance costs and availability of parts. It is hard to pay a $2,500 repair bill on your Mercedes when you are on a Subaru budget.

Test-driving a car can be great fun, but just because a vehicle moves down the road, doesn’t mean that it is flawless. After making sure the stereo works, turn it off and listen to the car for noises. Whining, clicking or squealing on turns will clue you into power steering, axle and hub problems. A screechy belt could be a sign of a pulley problem. Howls or vibrations that come through the driver’s seat will point out possible serious drive train problems. Listen to the engine for abnormal knocks and clatters.

After you have taken the vehicle on a substantial test drive, get out, open the hood, and smell – yes, smell the engine. When oil or antifreeze is leaking, you can often smell it burning on the engine. Turn the heater blower on high, and smell the air from the vents and defroster. Most leaks are detected through the nose rather than spotting it on the ground.

Finally, visually inspect the automobile. Check the fluids to make sure they are full and clean. Bring a flashlight to look at the top and bottom of the motor. Although this means lying on the ground, dirty Levis are much cheaper than replacing a leaky rear main seal. Shine the light over the motor and gearboxes to look for signs of wetness. Even if the engine has been cleaned, a moderate leak should show up after a good drive. Make sure the tires are good and not wearing unevenly. This can be a sign of costly worn suspension parts. Don’t forget the obvious. Check air conditioning, door and window switches, stereo, and 4×4 (if equipped) for proper operation.

To sell you a car, most car sales personnel are willing to either have the vehicle repaired for you, or take the cost of repairs off the bottom line. Many of them appreciate a tip on a problem that they didn’t notice. By taking some time and initiative, you can save yourself money, and the hassle of owning a lemon.

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