How to Avoid Buying a Lemon when Used Car Shopping

Purchasing a used vehicle is a great way to get a good deal on the type of car you are looking for. In fact, every year, there are more than twice as many used cars sold compared to new vehicles in the United States.

Thankfully, California is an exception – as its lemon law does extend to used vehicles in some cases. If you find yourself in this scenario, you’ll need an experienced California lemon law lawyer to determine whether or not your used vehicle would qualify.

The good news is you can (hopefully) avoid this situation altogether with several key precautions.

Here are four simple tips to help you find a great, non-defective used vehicle.

1. Do Your Research

When you are looking for a used vehicle, start by making a list of the car types or even models you are most interested in. Maybe you want a large truck with high towing capacity, or you need a compact sedan with great gas mileage. Typically, it is a good idea to do some research beforehand to see which makes and models fit your criteria.

In addition to researching factors like price, appearance, and other features, you should also see which vehicles tend to have the highest number of mechanical issues.

According to AutoGuide, you are generally pretty safe going with a Toyota, Honda, or a Mercedes as they have the fewest reported lemons. You should beware of Jeeps, Cadillacs, and Fiats, though. These manufacturers have the most lemons.

If you do have some potential vehicles in mind, take a look to see if there were any recalls for that year’s model. Some recalls may be for small, rather insignificant issues, but others could be a big problem or safety hazard.


2. Consult the Buyer’s Guide

Some dealerships and private sellers will offer a vehicle “as is” at a lower rate. This basically means that the seller is not responsible for any issues and offers no warranty.

Now, this should obviously raise some red flags. You have no safety net if your car starts to have mechanical issues. Therefore, unless you are very knowledgeable about cars or have a trusted mechanic shopping with you, it is typically best to avoid “as is” vehicles.

If you are purchasing from a used car dealership, inquire about the warranty. Most used dealerships will offer one unless the vehicle is very old or has high mileage on it already. Ask if it has undergone a certified inspection and if any parts have been replaced or repaired.

If you are purchasing a used vehicle that is less than two or three years old, it may still be covered by the original manufacturer warranty, since this extends to 36 months or 36,000 miles in most cases. This means that if you do end up with a lemon, you could still file a claim.


3. Check the VIN for Vehicle History

You have every right as a consumer to know the history of a vehicle before purchasing it. Most dealerships will provide a copy of the “CarFax”, which will show history of ownership, mechanical service history, and whether or not the vehicle has been in any reported collisions.

If you are purchasing from a private seller or simply want to check this information on your own, enter the vehicle’s VIN number and retrieve a car history report., VINCheckPro, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau offer free, extensive reports.

Once you receive this report, look out for any indications that the vehicle could be a lemon or have potential issues. For instance, if a vehicle has had lots of previous owners, it could be a sign that it has issues they didn’t want to deal with. You also definitely want to avoid a vehicle with a salvage or junk title. This is basically a guarantee that it will have problems.

Be sure to take a close look at the service history. If there are repeated services (such as oil leak repairs), it could be due to underlying issues that are unfixable.

4. Do a Pre-Purchase Inspection

Before you sign any paperwork, you should always conduct a fairly thorough inspection of your own. Take your time examining the interior, exterior, and under the hood. Look for any signs of corrosion and rust, strange smells, or other signs of wear.

Pay close attention to safety details, too.

  • Do all of the seatbelts clip properly or are they frayed, rusted, or broken?
  • When you take the vehicle for a test drive, are there any strange noises or does the engine “surge” when you reach a certain speed?

These could be signs of transmission issues or problems with the steering column, which can be expensive to fix.

Lastly, ALWAYS take the vehicle to a mechanic before you buy to do a thorough pre-purchase inspection. This may cost you around $100 or more, but can potentially save you thousands in the long run.

Some shady car dealers will create fraudulent reports to make a vehicle look like it is in better condition than it really is. So, if a dealer tries to dissuade you from taking the vehicle to a mechanic, it could be because they know it will reveal additional issues.


Buying a used vehicle is a big decision – so you want to be sure that you end up with one that is not going to cost you an arm and a leg in repairs. There is certainly more risk in purchasing a used vehicle over a new one, meaning your decision should be very well-informed.

If you think you have a lemon on your hands or simply have any questions regarding warranty coverage, please reach out to our knowledgeable California lemon law lawyers. We are happy to answer any questions!

Share this post
Table of Contents