The tell-tale signs you're buying a 'used lemon' - KAIT-Jonesboro, AR-News, weather, sports


Are you buying a 'lemon?'

Purchasing a used vehicle could save you lots of money. Buying a car or truck that already has issues, however, could end up draining your savings account, and costing hundreds, if not thousands of dollars.

Ken Collins is an instructor in the Automotive Technology Department at Central Piedmont Community College at the Levine campus in Matthews, North Carolina.

During America Now's visit to the campus, Collins was showing students in his automotive class how to change the oil in a car. 

During his 27-year-career as a mechanic, Collins has worked on all kinds of vehicles. He has also run into a number of people who felt bamboozled after buying a used car or truck.

Collins says you can avoid buying a lemon, if you know what to look for.

Don't be fooled into thinking you have a low-mileage car if you are told the motor has been replaced.

"That motor could have 250,000 miles and the car may only have 100,000 miles on it," says Collins. "You're not sure what you're actually getting in that motor when it is installed in that vehicle."

His suggestion? Pop the hood.

"If you see yellow or orange crayon markings on any of the engine parts, that means they're used and were likely salvaged from a junkyard," Collins says.

Flood-damaged cars are another big problem for used-car buyers.

These cars are often taken to other areas of the country where unsuspecting buyers purchase them.

Collins says you should look for the tell-tale signs of flooding "up under the dashboard, the trunk area or even look underneath carpets or spare tires for mud and sand residue that maybe they forgot to clean or didn't get cleaned."

The engine in a flood-damaged car may sound okay for now, but six months or year later, you could start having problems with failed mechanical parts or even electronic system malfunctions.

Flood cars can also have mildew problems and owners will often try to mask those odors with heavy-duty cleaners.

"If it has a really strong deodorant smell to it, you may just want to walk away from that car," Collins recommends.

Another reason to walk away is if the 'check engine' light remains on. That's why some sellers remove the bulb, or the fuse that powers a vehicle's computer system.

What few people realize is that you would have to drive a car about 75 miles or more before the monitoring systems detect the problem triggering the 'check engine' light to come back on again.

Most buyers simply aren't going to test drive a car that far, so it's best to take the vehicle to a mechanic and ask them to run an onboard diagnostic test.

One of the biggest concerns a used-car buyer has is buying a car that has been in an accident, because not all damage is visible to the naked eye.

What you can see, however, are the body lines or those gaps between the hood, fender and sides of the vehicle. They should be no more than an eighth or a quarter of an inch.

Collins showed us a car trunk door with a half-inch gap on the left side and barely a gap at all on the right side. He says this is a clear sign the car was hit on the driver's side.

Sellers will also mask dents by having them repaired with plastic fillers, but a magnetic telescoping pen will let you know if the car has been patched up. You can find those pens at any auto parts store.

"If the magnet sticks on the top of the vehicle, but doesn't stick at the bottom of the vehicle, then that's an indication there's plastic filler in there," Collins says.

Before shaking hands to seal a deal, ask to see the title.

"If the vehicle has had more than 30 to 40 percent damage to it, it will have a big salvage stamp onto it and that really lowers the value of the vehicle," he says.

Collins advises if the seller objects to showing you the title, "Move on."

You can also find out if a car or truck has been damaged by providing the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) to your insurance provider. They can check Department of Motor Vehicle records in your state to see if any accident claims have been paid out on the car or truck. 

Remember, pre-owned cars can be a good deal and they don't have to mean you'll drive away with a lemon.

"Not if you follow these steps," Collins adds.

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