6 Sure-Fire Signs the Used Car You Plan to Buy is a Lemon

Buying a used car always comes with a certain degree of risk. The harsh reality is there will more than likely be something wrong with it. The key is being able to spot the imperfections and determine the seriousness before forking over the money. If the issue(s) poses a risk to your use, value, or safety, you can potentially receive benefits with the help of a lemon law attorney.

You might be asking yourself; what is a lemon car and what is the procedure?
Well, it’s no picnic. As a consumer, you want to avoid this and know what to check for when buying a new or used car. There are several signs that indicate a high risk of ending up with a lemon. Here are six critical questions to ask before pulling out your wallet or signing any paperwork.

1. What if the vehicle is being sold “as is?”

Buying a used vehicle “as is” doesn’t always guarantee that it is faulty. However, it means that there is no warranty in place and the seller makes no guarantees about the condition of the vehicle. In the case that the vehicle is defective, you may not be entitled to any legal benefits under the lemon law.

If you are buying the vehicle from a private seller, this is par for the course. Dealerships, on the other hand, are required by federal law to post a Buyer’s Guide with every used vehicle they sell. This guide will indicate whether the car is being sold “as is” or is covered under warranty.
In regards to avoiding a used lemon vehicle, it’s highly recommended to not buy a car “as is.”

2. What’s the model’s reliability record?

When it comes to buying used vehicles, you need to be aware of the makes and models that are prone to trouble. Thankfully, there are many resources that can help you with this. Consumer Reports has a very detailed car buying guide on used vehicles to help narrow down your choices. It shows how certain models hold up overall, and in 17 different “trouble” areas.

If you are looking at a generally troublesome car that is being sold “as is,” you are smart to play it safe and keep shopping to avoid a potential lemon.

3. What are some red flags on the exterior?

Buying a used vehicle is tricky business. In order to avoid getting burned, you need to know what you’re looking at and what the big red flags are that signal a lemon.

Start by doing a walk around of the vehicle. In addition to dents, chipped paint, mismatched body panels, etc., be sure you are doing a close inspection for paint overspray on rubber trim or chrome in the wheel wells. This can be a strong sign that there was body panel repair and could indicate a lemon.

Another thing to look for is if the doors are having trouble closing – this may be a clear cut sign that the vehicle poses a threat to your safety. As you are inspecting the doors, hood, and trunk, look for inconsistent welds – as this indicates that repair work was done.

4. Red flags on the interior?

A look through the interior of a used car can yield many indicators of a potential lemon.

For starters, look at the seatbelts. If the straps are frayed or damaged, this is putting you at serious risk and is a HUGE red flag that the car is a lemon.

There are a number of other signs that indicate if a used car is potentially defective. Look for things like cracks in the dashboard, electrical issues, missing handles, etc.

Now, as you turn the car on, be sure to look for an airbag warning light. This may indicate that the airbag has deployed or was replaced improperly (or not at all). If there is an issue with the airbag, the vehicle is certainly a lemon.

5. What should I look for under the hood?

In terms of what to look for when buying a used car, examining under the hood is a crucial part of the process. If you are not a car expert, there is no denying that this can be a little intimidating. However, there are several red flags that don’t require an expert eye to spot.

Start by looking at the engine, radiator, and battery. These should not be covered in grease and have very little visible corrosion. Next, look at the belts. If they look overly worn, it could mean trouble in the near future.

From an overall perspective, keep a close eye out for things like melted tubes, wires, lines, or black spots. These can be signs of engine overheating. Additionally, look out for wet spots, as these can indicate leaks.

In terms of the engine, you need to make sure the fluids are clean and properly filled. Pull out the dipstick and clean it with a rag, then re-dip and remove the stick. The oil level should be between the “full” and “add” marks. Also, be sure to note the color and consistency of the oil. Healthy engine oil is brown or black. If the consistency is gritty or gelatinous, this is a telltale sign the oil hasn’t been changed in a long time. If the oil is super thin and light brown, this could mean there was a blown gasket or damaged cylinder head – both are strong evidence of a lemon.

Next, look at the transmission. This should be checked after the car has been driven for more than 10 minutes. With the engine idling and the emergency brake on, shift through all the gears. Now, put it in the park or neutral and check the dipstick level. The fluid should be red to light brownish. If the fluid is dark brown or black, this could be a sign of serious problems.

6. What about the steering?

As you could imagine, the steering is one of the most significant factors that could indicate a lemon. With the vehicle idling, turn the wheel both ways and look for things like excessive slack, play, or clunking. This can be a sign that there is a bad gear or linkage.

Now, during your test drive, go at a normal speed on flat pavement and make sure the steering doesn’t wander when you let it go. If it needs constant correction, this could mean that the alignment or balance is off. In some cases, this can be a quick fix. However, it could also mean there are problems with the suspension, frame, or driveline. All of which is very expensive and dangerous if left unfixed.


Keep in mind, these are surface level signs that a used vehicle is a lemon. Regardless of what you see, it’s always smart to take the vehicle to a qualified mechanic to diagnose. This might run you anywhere from $100 – $150, but is well-worth it if it means avoiding a lemon.

If you have any more questions about used lemon vehicles, please get in contact and our experts are happy to help!

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