Avoid the Lemon: 5 Things to Look for When Buying a Used Car

April 26th, 2019 by

What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

You’re here because you want to know what to look for when buying a used car. There’s a lot to cover, so let’s dive right in.

Do Your Research

One of the perks of buying a used car is the vehicle has had time to age. That means there’s a lot of information and reviews about vehicles available online.

Research different brands to find which ones have the most reliable workmanship. Find out which vehicles have proven to be sturdy and reliable. It’s one thing if all the reviews complain about a loose visor clip. It’s completely different if reviews complain about a shoddy transmission.

Consider insurance costs. Used vehicles have cheaper insurance than new ones. Even still, insurance costs vary based on brand, year, and vehicle as well. It’s worthwhile to look at what your insurance rates will be for your chosen vehicle.

Consider your loan and how long you want to own the vehicle. Check out our nifty payment calculator here.

Once you pick a car, get the vehicle’s history. Find the vehicle identification number (VIN). The VIN is usually found on the inside door frame on the driver’s side. The vehicle history will give you a full ream of information. You can find out where it was first purchased, where it was registered in other states, and if it’s been in an accident.

Looking up the vehicle’s history can let you know if it was totaled or flooded. Either of these can spell ruin for your vehicle.

Look at the Exterior

So you’ve picked out your car and looked at the vehicle’s history. Let’s have a look around! There’s a lot you can tell about mechanical issues about your vehicle before you even set foot in the car.

Body Condition

Look for scratches and dents. Cosmetic issues aren’t anything to worry about, but you can use them as negotiating points. Rust is a big red flag.

Rust is especially prevalent in icy regions where the roads are salted to melt the ice. That salt ends up on the vehicle and corrodes the metal. Rusty frames can’t be replaced, and they ruin your car. Small bits of rust along panels or bumpers are less of a cause of concern. But keep an eye out for more ingrained rust issues.

Check the body panels to make sure they’re all aligned. Look for gaps. Look for changes in paint color. Any of these are indicative signs of shoddy work.

Check the wheel wells. Again, look for rust.

Look for anything made of rubber. Make sure rubber seals aren’t torn or cracked. Look for weird smells or signs of rot.

Open every door, the hood, and the trunk. Check the hinges. Do they support the door or show signs of sagging? If the hinges are loose, it means the car is well used.


Is the windshield chipped or cracked? Small chips aren’t much to worry about, but make them a negotiating point. Long cracks are expensive to repair. You’ll likely have to replace the whole windshield.


When you push down on each corner, does the car spring back into place? Or does it bob? If it bounces at all, that means it’s broken.

Does the car look level, or does one corner droop?

Grab the top of the tires and tug them back and forth. Do they wiggle? Can you hear any odd clunking or ticking? That means they’re broken.


Do all the lights work? Are the lenses cracked or fogged? They shouldn’t be.


Do the tires have proper tread? Take a penny and stick it with Lincon’s head down. Can you see Lincoln’s head? That means there’s not enough tread.

Are they worn irregularly? It could show a sign that there’s something wrong with the suspension. It could mean the previous owner didn’t maintain the (tires, or the rest of the car.

Are the tires brand new on a low mileage car? That’s another red flag. Are the tires all the same brand? They should be.

Check the sidewalls. Do you see any odd cracks, scuffs, or bulges? That’s a bad sign too.

How’s the spare? Does the car come with the proper jack and lug wrench? Make sure you can find these.

Look at the Interior

So the vehicle has passed the exterior inspection, let’s take a look inside.


Does the car smell weird? Is it musty, moldy, or mildewy? These can be signs of water damage. Are there wet spots under the floor mats?

Does the ashtray or lighter have ash residue? It means the previous owner might have been a smoker.

Some odors, like water damage, smoke, or pets, are hard to remove. You’re better off getting a different car.


Are the seats torn? Do they have weird stains? Can you buckle each seat belt? Are there weird lumps or sags on any of the seats, even the back seats? Can you adjust the seats? Do adjusters work? Can you adjust the driver’s seat to a comfortable position?


Look for signs of wear, or worse, are they brand new? Either which are signs that the car has been driven a lot.

Check the Dashboard

Push all the buttons and make sure they work. Leave no control unexplored. Does the heat work? How about the A/C?

How’s the sound system? Can you connect your phone or other playlists? Do the AM and FM radio work?


Does it have a sunroof or a moon roof? Does the sunroof open? Are there any cracks in the seal?

How’s the headliner? Does it sag? Does it have weird stains? Any signs of leaks?

Getting a convertible? Make sure the top opens and closes without problems. How are the seals? Are there any tears or weak spots in the liner?

Look at the Engine

It’s best to look at the engine when the vehicle hasn’t been driven for over an hour. Ideally, look at the car while it’s parked in its usual spot.

Hoses and Belts

Touch the hoses and belts. They should be firm, but supple. If they’re cracked, rock hard, or mushy, or frayed they need to be replaced.

Check the Fluids

The owner’s manual will tell you exactly where to find the fluids. Especially check the oil, transmission, radiator fluid, and brake fluid.

Oil can range from honey-colored to dark brown. It shouldn’t be gritty, and it shouldn’t be watery. Both of these are bad signs. If it’s honey-colored, that means it has fresh oil.

Transmission fluid should be pinkish. Brown, fluid is bad. It shouldn’t smell like oil and it shouldn’t smell burnt. Anything in the fluid, like metal particles, is a sign that something is wrong.

Radiator fluid should be greenish or orange. Look for green stains on the outside of the radiator. These are signs of a pinhole leak. If the fluid is milky or rusty colored, that means something is wrong.

All the other fluids should be within safe zone levels.


Check for signs of corrosion. Have a mechanic to a “load test” to see how much the battery can handle.

Start the Car

When you turn over the ignition, do all the warning lights light up? Especially look out for the “check engine” light.

When you start the engine, do all the lights turn off? Is it easy to start? Does it idle smoothly?

Look Under the Vehicle

Shut the engine off and take a peek under the vehicle. Bring a flashlight, so you can get in there.

Look for Stains

Are there weird pavement stains under where the car is usually parked? Can you see leaks? Water is normal. Usually, it comes from running the A/C so don’t worry.

Check the Tailpipe

Is it greasy? That means it’s burning oil – which it should do. Is there a lot of rust? That means you might have to replace the exhaust.

Look for Dents

Look for dents, welding, and fresh paint. Any of these could be signs of an accident or recent structural repairs.

Check the CV Joints

These are up next to the front wheels. They’re round, black, rubber bellows at the ends of the axle shafts. Check for leaks and cracks. That means they’re broken.

Take it For a Test Drive

Still looking good? Time to take your ride for a test drive.

Drive around in an empty parking lot. Hit the breaks hard at a low speed. Does one side stop faster than the other? Does the vehicle pull to one side?

Turn the car in a tight circle both ways. Any weird sounds or clunking? That means something is broken.

Speed up fast. How’s the acceleration?

If possible, get the vehicle up to highway speeds. Check the cruise control. Does the vehicle shift smoothly? Are there any weird sounds?

Blast the heat. If the car has any leaks, these will bring them out. Stop the car and check for leaks again.

Especially if you have a convertible or a sunroof, take it through the car wash. Any leaks? There shouldn’t be.

Take it to a Mechanic

Finally, take the vehicle to a trusted mechanic. Insist on this, even if the dealership has already done a full checkup.

Get a full list of mechanical issues. This will cost about $100, but it’s better than buying a car that turns out to be a lemon. You can use this list as a negotiating point to get the vehicle to a more desired cost.

Now You Know What to Look for When Buying a Used Car

It’s a long list, but a vehicle is a major purchase. Take your time. Don’t less a salesman pressure you into buying a vehicle you’re not comfortable with.

Take this article and print it off, so you have a checklist of what to look for when buying a used car. A thorough check gives you peace of mind and lets you know exactly what you’re buying.

Are you ready for your next ride? Check out our used cars here.

Posted in Used Cars