Surest Signs That a Used Car Is a Lemon

Buying a used car means you can save an incredible amount of money over buying new (check out this infographic to find out which car holds its value best). So if you’re looking for the best value when car buying – used is simply the way to go. But what about the hassle? After all, you don’t want to buy a lemon (a car plagued with never-ending issues).

That’s where this post comes in. This post tells how to spot a lemon. With this knowledge, you’ll be safe. Let’s get going:

A Problematic Model/Year/Trim Level

Lemons are often found in bunches. This is because, even with modern day manufacturing methods, large batches of cars can come out wrong. And the car manufacturer will know of these problems but still not issue a recall. Recalls are only required by the government if the car has a fault which could put its occupants in danger. So these batches of lemons live on.

Search the internet to see what common problems could face your particular car. For instance, a Mitsubishi Eclipse with the nonturbo motor from 1995-1998 is prone to head gasket failure. But it 1999, it was fixed so consider avoiding pre-1999 models.

If a batch of cars has a lot of problems, consider forgetting about that type of car altogether.

Service Records

What service records does the particular car you’re looking to buy have? There is a happy medium here. You want service records that show the car has been maintained. These are records for oil changes, coolant changes, tire rotations, etc. But you do not want an entire binder of service records. That shows the car has had a lot of problems and chances are you’ll need a binder of your own to keep up with them.

Some people think that a car that’s had a lot of problems is a good deal – it means the parts of the car that will break already have and you’re buying a car with fewer things to break. That’s incorrect thinking. A car has tens of thousands of moving parts. There’s plenty more to break.

Smoke of Any Kind

Smoke is bad news. So if a car is smoking at all – it has a major problem and you should probably walk away.

Common reasons for a car smoking include head gasket failure, bad valve seals or worn piston rings. Each one of those problems require opening up the engine to investigate. And if you think that sounds expensive – it is. Whenever the engine needs opened, it’ll cost $1,000+. Unless you’re looking for a project car, walk away.

Signs of Neglect



If a car has been neglected on the outside, it has probably been neglected on the inside. And if it has been neglected at all, it may very well mean the car is a lemon. The new owner has likely grown so tired of the car’s lackluster reliability that they don’t even wash the car anymore. They likely feel that it eats up so much of their money just to keep running – they don’t want to spend the money keeping it looking good. Maybe they feel the car doesn’t deserve to look good.

It’s also probably not out of bounds to say that if an owner has an unkempt looking car, they probably don’t care for its maintenance either.

A Spotty Carfax Report

A Carfax report is basically a report card for your car. It reveals basically everything you need to know to determine if the car is a lemon or a cherry. The report covers things like past service history, owner history and everything in-between. These run about $30 so if you’re buying a car of any value, it’s very wise to get one.

The rules for the Carfax are similar to what applies for service records. You want them but you do not want too many of them. But with a Carfax report, it basically knows the right amount. It will evaluate the information for you and it basically tells you if you’re looking at a lemon or not.

Multiple Owners

A car that changes hands more than every five years is considered to have a high turnover of ownership. This could not be a big deal. For instance, if the previous owners have always enjoy driving the latest version of the vehicle, they may trade up quite often. But usually, many past owners is a very bad sign.

A lot of past owners means the vehicle has been kicked down the road many times. You need to ask yourself, “Why were so many people willing to give up this car?” It’s usually because it was unreliable. The person then kicks it on to the next buyer before the next big ticket item breaks.

Furthermore, when a car has had multiple past owners, those owners have probably neglected it towards the end of ownership. For instance, they may delay doing things like oil changes and coolant changes because they know that problems that arise from delayed ownership problem won’t show until the car is sold. So corners are cut.

Worn Service Points

It’s a bad sign if the current owner quickly knows how to pop the hood. It means they have done it often.

Look over the car for futher signs it has been worked on a lot. Look for spilled fluids around the engine bay. Look for wear marks on bolt heads. Look for anything that doesn’t look like a factory part. These are all signs the car has been fiddled with. Lemonds need fiddled with a lot. The best cars look showroom fresh – even a decade after they’ve been in one.

It’s Being Sold with Problems

If the current owner wants to get the most out of the car, they know to fix its problems. For instance, recharging the air conditioner costs $50 or so but will be well worth it when the new owner feels that blast of cold air. But if the air conditioner hasn’t been properly charged, it’s a bad sign.

This can often mean that the car has been so unreliable, the owner is just fed up. They don’t want to put another dime into the car. They just want to sell it as-is and move on. And this probably also means the current owner just plain doesn’t pay attention to the maintenance of the car. As discussed earlier, that’s an equally large concern.

A car should be easy for the current owner to sell. Ideally, all you want them to do is put out an ad that it’s for sale.

The Vehicle Has Been for Sale for Too Long

A good car will sell fast. So if you notice a car has been hanging around for awhile – it’s not a good car to buy. It could be priced too high. But it’s likely a lemon. And people would are spectacular at spotting lemons have already seen the car and passed on it. Don’t be the one to bite. If a car has been for sale for a long time – pass. And don’t second-guess your decision to pass.

The Lemon Law

Some states have what’s called the lemon law. That essentially means that if a car has too many problems, you can receive a refund. It keeps people from tricking people into buying lemons and then running away with the money even after the owner has discovered problems. This is fantastic protection. For peace of mind, see if your state has it. If not, read this post a few more times. Happy hunting!