How to Spot a Lemon of a Car

by Emma Riley Sutton

Cars are not cheap. It is important that you get the most for your money. Unfortunately, finding a good used car is not easy. It is hard to know what to look for when you have to buy a car. With all of those little parts under the hood, finding a reliable car is almost impossible for the average Joe and Jane. Fortunately, there are ways to check to see if the car you are looking at is worth the money--or if it is a lemon.

Do your homework. Make sure the vehicle has not been recalled. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a list of official recalls. Call 1-800-424-9393 or visit their website (See Additional Resources, below) to see if the car has been recalled. Be sure that all recall work has been done. The manufacturer is required to do all recall work free of charge. It doesn't matter how old the car is or when the recall went into effect. You should also get a vehicle report from Experian Automotive or CarFax (See Additional Resources, below). There are fees for the reports and you must provide the vehicle identification number.

Look under the hood. It should be clean and without corrosion. Look for any signs of fluids that may be leaking. When the engine is cool, check to see if the fluids are clean. Hoses and belts should be flexible. Check the oil. If the car has a blown head gasket, the oil can look like chocolate milk. This can also indicate a damaged cylinder head or block. Make sure there are not any pieces of metal in the oil. This can be a sign of damage and heavy wear.

Drive it. Listen for unusual noises like pings and knocks. This can be a problem with the timing or a sign the engine is starting to overheat. Make sure the car steers properly and quietly. The car should drive straight without needing a lot of correction, and the steering wheel should not shake. This could be an easy problem to fix like balancing the wheel or a much bigger problem like the driveline or frame. Look at the smoke that comes out of the tailpipe. A small puff of white smoke is OK. Blue smoke can be a sign of burning oil. Black smoke can be caused by a dirty air filter. Lots of white smoke can mean serious repairs, including a cracked block, blown head gasket or other expensive problems.

Check the tires and the suspension. The tires should be worn evenly. Make sure they aren't worn more in some areas than in others. This can mean there are problems with the suspension, brakes or steering. Extensive wear on the outside of the car can mean the car has been driven too hard, which can lead to problems in other areas of the car. Push down hard on all the fenders and let go. The car should gently bounce once or twice. If it bounces more there could be a problem with the struts or shock absorbers.

Look at the exterior and interior. Check for mismatched paint, parts and panels. This could mean the car has been wrecked. Make sure there are no broken windows and lights. Look for streaks on the chrome; this could mean there was previous body damage that was repaired. The hood, trunk and doors should close properly. Make sure all the knobs, buttons and handles are in place and work properly. Make sure that the seat belts are not frayed. If the seat belts look burned, this could indicate a previous wreck. Use your nose as well. If you smell mildew, this can indicate a leak or even flood damage.

Take the car to a trusted mechanic. Make sure the mechanic puts the car on a lift to look at the undercarriage. The mechanic should look for welds, dents and bent parts. These can all indicate a past accident. Of course, the mechanic should do all of the routine diagnostic testing before you buy the car.


  • check Ask lots of questions; make an informed decision. Only use a mechanic whom you trust and is not associated with the seller of the car.


  • close Do not buy a car you are unsure of, even if it checks out OK. Always go with your gut. Do not buy a car if the owner or dealership is unwilling to let you completely check out the car.

About the Author

This article was written by the It Still Runs team, copy edited and fact checked through a multi-point auditing system, in efforts to ensure our readers only receive the best information. To submit your questions or ideas, or to simply learn more about It Still Runs, contact us.

More Articles