How to Spot a Lemon at the Used Car Lot

Most blogs about how to spot a lemon at a used car lot recommend you do homework before you start car shopping. In other words, they say you ought to research the makes and models you might be interested in, and check:

  • that they are known to be reliable
  • that there are no known safety or operational issues with any particular year
  • that recalls have been kept to a minimum or are non-existent
  • that friends and family don’t have anything bad to say

While researching makes and models is an important step in the car buying process, it wouldn’t exactly help prevent you from ending up with a lemon. Why? Let’s take a look:

How to Spot a Lemon at the Used Car LotWhat Makes a Lemon, a Lemon?

The federal Office of Consumer Affairs describes a “lemon” as a vehicle with a manufacturer’s defect that may affect its safety, use or value. More generally, a lemon is simply a car that has had an unusually high number of things gone wrong with it, regardless of owners’ best efforts to keep it running smoothly.

It may be bad because the entire model year was deemed poorly designed (this is where research would help), or it could just be a bad version of a good make and model—an anomaly, a one-off, a badly built version of a reputable model from a reliable manufacturer (research can’t save you in this case).

You can almost compare lemons on the car lot to items that end up at the liquidators. It may say Calvin Klein on the label, but those liquidated dress shirts have ended up on the discount rack for a reason. They might have been faulty, or Calvin may have made too many of them; it’s hard to say exactly. Cars can be the same way. If you have scored a great deal on a highly rated vehicle, that one could have been discounted for a reason—it could be a lemon, a car that is beyond fixing.

Spotting a Lemon on the Used Car Lot

Like other car experts out there, we at Searles Auto Repair believe that it’s a good idea to read up on the make and model of the used vehicle you have in mind before showing up in person to have a look at what’s caught your eye. However, you’ll also want to follow some proven tips to prevent yourself from ending up with a lemon, because, unfortunately there is no tall cup of lemonade waiting for you with such lemons.

Lemons are often easy to spot and come with warning signs. Not labels, but signs. That means you’re going to have to be actively looking for them. They could be huge red flags or more subtle nuances. Spotting a lemon requires checking for stuff that has already gone wrong and been patched up, as well as checking for stuff that hints at future problems.

Here are the top things to be on the lookout for:

  1. Exterior inspection:
    At first glance, how does the vehicle look? Check for dings, dents, rust, chipped paint, cracked windshields, misaligned and mismatched body panels, DIY paint jobs, etc. Much of this is likely wear and tear, but there could be hidden clues here. Don’t forget to check the tires. Their condition won’t necessarily point out a lemon, but their condition might give you some room to negotiate on the sale price.
  2. Spotting a Lemon on a Used Car LotInterior inspection:
    Next, take a look inside. Inspect the dash, the seats, the roof, the shifter. Can you tell if this vehicle has belonged to a smoker? Are the seatbelts in tact? The car may have been detailed, but detailing won’t solve cracked dashboards, burn marks, or frayed seatbelts. How worn out do the seats look? This car might be well-loved and come with high mileage, a worn out seat is a tell-tale sign of high mileage. Again, these signs might not point to large problems, but what’s the harm in looking?
  3. Take a look under the hood:
    A look under the hood should reveal a relatively clean state free of grease and corrosion. Check the condition of the hoses, and if you’re able, check the car’s fluids. Any visual signs of wetness will usually mean an expensive leak to repair. How do the battery posts look? You can tell if a battery is in rough shape just by looking—learn how with our blog on batteries.
  4. Time for a test drive:
    If you’re satisfied with steps 1-3, you’re going to want to test drive the vehicle. A lemon tends to sound like it is suffering or struggling, so listen for unusual sounds. Keep the radio off, and don’t allow guest passengers to talk your ear off. Pay attention to how the steering feels, how the clutch and brake pedal feel, and how the acceleration checks out. Is that a bad tailpipe you’re hearing? If so, start negotiating!
  5. Check the vehicle’s history:
    After thoroughly inspecting the vehicle yourself, you can and should check its history by looking up its VIN number. There are many firms in Canada you can turn to for help, like ICBC or CarProof. These reports will tell you if the car has been in an accident, has been issued recalls, or has any liens against it.
  6. Take it to the pros:
    Finally, take the vehicle you are considering buying to an auto mechanic you know and trust who can not only look up the history for you, but really give it a thorough inspection. We are talking its undercarriage, battery power, computer diagnostics, engine condition, suspension, tires, and brakes. They can also check for leaks and such. It won’t set you back much and could end up saving you from ending up with a nightmare of a vehicle on your hands.

Bonus Ways to Avoid a Lemon

Another good way to help ensure you end up with a great vehicle is to buy a certified used vehicle from a dealership rather than a budget car lot. These types of vehicles, which are prevalent in Victoria and all over Vancouver Island, are under factory warranty and are usually easy to finance. Some were leased vehicles, meaning the previous owner had to have been meticulous about car repair/maintenance in order to avoid financial penalty.

Certified used vehicles are the cream of the crop of used vehicles and can be worth the dealership fees. Dealerships aren’t known for certifying too many known lemons. Instead, they pass them off to other lots. In other words, cars that are newer than four years old and are available through a budget used car lot should be viewed as suspect. If they weren’t good enough for the dealership such a young age they may be lemons or may have been in an accident. Buyer beware, buyer ask questions.

What Can I Do If I Suspect I Already Have a Lemon?

In Canada, we don’t have so-called lemon laws like they do in the United States but we aren’t exactly powerless, either. If you suspect you’ve been dealt a lemon, and your car is less than four years old, you may consider going through the Canadian Motor Vehicle Arbitration Plan (CAMVAP), an organization in place to help you resolve disputes with automobile manufacturers.

A Look on the Bright Side

Searle's Auto Front DoorsBelieve it or not, there are not many actual lemons on the roads these days. Cars are better built than ever; more and more people are finding themselves in newer, more reliable vehicles; and manufacturers are stricter about issuing safety recalls than in the past. All of this ensures safer, better-quality vehicles on the road. Don’t get us wrong, there are lots of cars in
poor condition out there, but they are not to be considered lemons; they are simply poorly maintained vehicles. And you don’t want to end up with those either!

For more tips on buying a used vehicle, check out our other post: Buying a Preowned Car? Here’s 5 Essential Tips.

Car shopping? If you’re considering buying a pre-owned vehicle, consider bringing it in to Searles Auto Repair in Victoria, BC. We will give the car a thorough inspection and give our honest opinion on its condition and value. Call us or book an online appointment today!


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