Buying a used car? Tips to avoid a lemon
Considering a used car? Proceed with caution by navigating through the risks and rewards of the prospective purchase.
Because a used car has been driven before, it’s important to do your homework before buying a particular vehicle. If you want to avoid a lemon, and even enjoy the used-car buying experience, follow these tips from our consumer research team:
Research, research, research
- Decide what make, model and year of vehicle you're interested in, how much you're willing to spend and the maximum number of miles you ideally want the vehicle to have been driven.
- If buying from a private owner, or if a dealer doesn’t provide it, spend the money for a vehicle history report. A vehicle history report will give the potential buyer access to the car's history, including its most recent odometer reading and title. These reports can indicate problems with the car, including whether it’s been in an accident. Sources of reports include Carfax, AutoCheck, vehiclehistory.gov and the National Insurance Crime Bureau's database.
- Check other resources — including Kelley Blue Book, autotrader.com or cars.com — to find reliable estimates on what a vehicle might be worth.
- Use all of the above information to negotiate with the seller.
Related: Should I buy or lease my next car?
How does the car perform?
- Always take a test drive to see how the car runs.
- Have it inspected by a trusted mechanic to learn if there are any problems and what its present condition is. They will inspect for any wear or defects. If you don’t have a reliable mechanic, ask friends, family and neighbors for recommendations, and consult consumer reviews on trusted online sources.
- Look for drips and leaks and review any available service records to see how well the car was maintained.
- Thoroughly check the interior and exterior for wear.
Reasons to buy used
- Many are in good shape. If you're looking for something newer, search for a certified, pre-owned vehicle that has met its manufacturer's strict guidelines. Some of these vehicles are still covered under warranty, have not been in accidents and have undergone thorough inspections.
- You'll avoid the significant depreciation that occurs as soon as a new car is driven off the lot. A car’s value can depreciate by as much as 20 percent after purchase.
- A used car is typically more affordable than a new car.
Related: Get the most for your trade-in
Reasons not to buy used
- If you buy an older, used car and there is very little information about it, you could end up with a clunker. In such cases, it's impossible to know if the previous owner followed manufacturer's guidelines on oil changes and other routine maintenance.
- Older cars may break down more often than new ones and are often not covered under warranty.
- You’ll have less choice about color, options and other extras.
Auto experts with whom our team of researchers spoke said that if you do your homework, buying used can be best of the three options. But just taking the seller’s word for it without doing any homework could make it the worst.
Angie Hicks is the founder of Angie's List, the nation's most trusted resource for local consumer reviews on everything from home improvement to automotive repair. Follow Angie on Twitter @Angie_Hicks.