Lemon Proof: Smart Strategies for Used Car Shopping

key-791390_640Sometimes buying a new car makes no sense at all. New cars cost more to purchase, more to insure, and sometimes more to repair. Even worse is the fact that new cars lose 20% of their value in the first year of their life and up to 60% over five years. Buying used actually makes a lot of sense, but people worry that they are going to get a lemon.

In 2011, J.D. Power reported something remarkable – a decline in the reliability of new cars. The trend didn’t continue, but the J.D. Power report highlights a fact that many people overlook, which is that new cars aren’t always more reliable than used cars. In fact, if you choose well, you can find a used car that is more reliable than some new cars. So how do you avoid the lemons? The answers probably won’t surprise you, but here they are anyway.

Check Reliability Records

Whether buying new or used, checking the reliability of the brand and model of car you are interested in is key to avoiding a lemon. Consumer Reports, J.D. Power, Edmunds, and a host of other well-respected corporations amass mountains of data on cars and their reliability. You can look to see not just which brands are on top, but which models, which sub-models, and even which years are most reliable. For the most part, manufacturers improve both fit and finish of their cars over time. The VW Jetta is a perfect example. The newest iteration of the car was panned for poor quality, poor handling, and poor reliability when it first came out in 2011. For the 2016 model year, however, the Jetta is widely praised for its quality, handling, power, and reliability.

Get Dirty

You need to see the car you are considering in person. You need to touch it, see it, hear it, and smell it. Take it for a test drive to see if there are squeaks, rattles, thuds, shimmies, or other weird sounds and behavior that raise red flags. Look for condensation in the headlights, signs that bodywork had been done, peeling paint, rust, uneven tire wear, sloppy steering, suspension movement, and other signs of major underlying problems. Don’t be afraid to really poke around. If you can manage it, have a trained mechanic do the poking for you. A mechanic can look for things that you may not notice, like a failing head gasket, a bad master cylinder, a cloudy white exhaust indicative of a coolant leak, and more.

Check for Recalls and TSBs

TSBs are Technical Service Bulletins sent by manufacturers to dealers telling them how to address recurring problems with a specific model. TSBs are different from recalls, which relate to safety, and thus may not show up on the NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Administration) website. Additionally, manufacturers aren’t required to alert owners to the fact that a TSB has been issued, it’s just there for mechanics to consult when you finally come in complaining of the common problem. Some vehicles have many TSBs while others have very few. The fewer the TSBs, the more reliable the car is likely to be.

Basic Rules

To avoid getting a bad deal, compare the cost of the car you are interested in to other similar models by searching online. Services like can make it easy to not only find a car you are interested in, but to compare its price and amenities to dozens or even hundreds of other examples. At the very least, compare the price of the used car to a similarly equipped new car.

History Check

Use services like CarFax, Experian, instaVIN, etc. to check for odometer fraud, floods, fires, or accident damage. The services will also tell you if the car was salvaged and rebuilt, even if its current title is clean. Reports only cost about $15 dollars and take a few minutes to get. All you need is the VIN (vehicle identification number) and you can check the car’s history. You can even do it from your smartphone.

Remember that buying used is no more or less risky than buying new. In fact, at the rate at which new vehicles are being recalled, buying used may offer some peace of mind as the most serious flaws will already have been ironed out. If you buy a used car from a dealer, consider a warranty. These can offer the same peace of mind that a new car warranty provides at a fraction of the cost.

At the very least, plan to invest a little to get a lot. A history report will cost about $15 and a good mechanical review will cost $100-$200. These expenses seem outrageous, but they can save you thousands down the road (literally).

Erik Hervas is a Marketing expert at, a company that publishes car listings in Ecuador. We provide a friendly platform to help users sell their cars. And we bring buyers by promoting the listings through many channels. Erik has worked for many companies in marketing and he is currently seeking to succeed with He graduated as Food Engineer in 2004 but after owning his business he decided to pursue a career in the Marketing field. He currently reside in Ecuador with his wife and two children.

About the author


Leave a Comment