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How To Avoid Buying a Lemon Used Car

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Why Buy Used?

Lots of people have it in their head that buying a used car is nothing more than "someone else's problems".  While this logic may have held true 40 years ago, when most vehicles were on their deathbed upon hitting 100,000 miles, it is no longer true today.  Like the old saying "change your oil every 3 months or 3,000 miles", the myth has remained throughout the years despite no longer being applicable.

Below are just a few of the advantages to buying a used car rather than new:

  1. It's cheaper.  Period.
  2. Less depreciation.  You may have heard before that a new vehicle will lose 30% of its value the minute you drive it off the lot.  While this may not be true in all instances (sometimes it's not quite that drastic) it's impossible to deny that cars are a terrible investment.  Unless you're buying a very limited production Ferrari, your car's value is only going to go down.  So why not buy a vehicle that has already undergone that initial drastic depreciation?
  3. More selection.  If your budget is $20,000, you don't have too many choices in the form of new vehicles.  But if you expand your horizon to used, you're able to get much better, more comfortable cars, that are just as reliable.
  4. Tested and proven.  When manufacturers introduce new models, or new iterations of existing models, they are unproven.  There is no way but waiting to determine long term reliability.  Furthermore, you as a buyer can gain insight prior to purchase by reading things like long term tests about what it's like to live with a car day in and day out- whether it be ride quality, reliability, and other quirks that may pop up during ownership.
  5. You can still get a warranty and maintenance costs covered with a Certified Pre-Owned (CPO) vehicle.  Meaning that if you're the type of person who gets worried about being ripped off by mechanics, you can still have your peace of mind.

Now that you're sold on buying a used car, it should be noted that lemons are still out there.  Not every vehicle you find for sale is going to have been babied and kept up to date with maintenance.  This doesn't mean you can't find a great deal on a dependable car!  Instead, you are just going to have to put in a bit of work searching.  It'll save you thousands of dollars up front, as well as headaches down the road.

Do Your Research Beforehand 

All models, even those produced by manufacturers known for their reliability like Honda and Toyota, have their own problems.  Typical maintenance is expected in any vehicle, such as changing the oil and getting new brakes.  However, generally speaking you can find out what the weak parts on a car are prior to purchase.

test driving

After deciding what models you will be test driving, do a bit of research on the most common faults and problems.  You can check long term tests, online forums and communities, or just Google "YEAR MAKE MODEL problems".  Additionally, find out at what mileage these problems tend to occur.  If the timing belt is known for failing prematurely at 60,000 miles, and the car you're looking at has 55,000 miles, you have a bit of bargaining power for a repair you will need to address soon after purchasing.

Listen Up 

It sounds obvious, but its worth remembering.  Listen carefully both inside and out the car.  Upon start-up, when driving, when on the highway, from outside of the car, when turning, etc.  If something sounds funny or off, then there's probably something wrong.  A car can be high mileage (200,000+) and still sound smooth and quiet.  Don't be fooled by someone saying "Oh well it's a few years old, there's bound to be noises."

Test Everything 

Cars these days have a lot of features.  Because of that, a test drive these days is a much more intensive process than ever before.  Back in the day it was a matter if the car turned on and drove straight.  Nowadays though, there are a lot more working parts that can become not-working.

The only way of ensuring you don't miss any problems here is by testing everything.  Press all of the buttons, and make sure they're doing what they are supposed do.  If you don't know what they are supposed to, break out the owner's manual right there on the spot (it's probably in the glove box) and check.  Just because the car came with cruise control, a back up camera, and a heated steering wheel doesn't mean that it still has all of those features now.  Even basic things like power seats and power windows should be checked out.  These are all run by components that cost money to replace, and everything wears out eventually.

Judge the Seller Too

Chances are during your car search you are going to run across some great private party deals, often times priced better or at least competitively with dealerships.  Obviously if you are buying a CPO car private party is out of the question.

Lemon

However, you often see people buying out of warranty cars but refusing to buy from anyone but a dealership.  This is a huge mistake.  If you don't think that dealer lots try to take advantage of you as a customer, you're wrong.  In fact, it's often preferable to go private party.  Used car salesman can hide faults in a vehicle just like private sellers off Craigslist can.  The only difference is that they are better at it.  So if you aren't buying a CPO, drop the "no private party sales" crap- you're only hurting yourself.

By judging a seller, you get a good idea of how the car was driven, as well as how it was maintained.  For instance, you have probably heard that it's a bad idea to buy a car that was previously owned by a teenager.  This is because teenagers tend to drive their cars hard (read: stupidly), and even if they don't, they are also known for being rather lax when it comes to maintenance.  This logic should also extend to most car owners in their 20s, particularly males.  Often times their cars are run on a budget, which doesn't bode well for you down the road.

Ideally, you want to find a car that was owned by someone a bit older.  A 45-year old man who used the vehicle to commute on the highway to work is probably going to be a great choice.  It's someone who is far enough in their career that they probably had the money to maintain it, and needed it to be a reliable vehicle as they needed it for their job.  Senior citizens are also great people to buy from.  Often times they have low mile cars used for "going to church".  Furthermore, they're likely to take it to the mechanic the minute they notice it running funny.

These are stereotypes of course- there are some teenagers who genuinely care for their cars and maintain them accordingly, just as there are older people who ignore routine maintenance recommendations.  But there are always going to be rare exceptions, just as some cars being lemons tend to be the exception and not the rule.  In either case, it doesn't mean that relative advice should be ignored.

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