When shopping for a used car, it is important to be able to recognize the signs of a potential
lemon. A visual inspection can be enough to steer you away from a bad deal. It should not
replace a proper inspection by a qualified mechanic, but the visual inspection can tell you if you
should continue to that point.
The first thing to consider is whether the odometer is reasonable. The average car is driven
about 15,000 miles each year. Now the world may be filled with little old ladies who only used
their car to drive to church on Sundays, but there are also those who will roll back the odometer
to try to get a higher price. If the mileage seems low, check to see if the dashboard shows any
sign of tampering, like scratches or missing or mismatched screws. Check the wear of the
driver’s seat and floor mat as well as the steering wheel and pedals. Does the amount of wear
seem to match the reported mileage? Try to find an oil change sticker and see if the information
on it matches the odometer.
Every vehicle has a unique VIN, or vehicle identification number. You can use this number to
obtain a vehicle history report. This report will be able to tell you the vehicle's complete history,
including its place of assembly, accident, repair, and odometer history, whether the vehicle has
been leased or used as a rental car or taxi and whether there is a lien paced against it.
Before purchasing the report, however, it is a good idea to check to see if you have the correct
VIN. The VIN can be found in three places, on the vehicle registration card, on the bottom of
the windshield on the driver’s side and on the manufacturer’s label, which is usually found on
the driver’s side door or door jam. Check that the VIN is in all three places and is the same.
Also, check to see if any of the labels show signs of tampering. A missing or altered VIN is a
sign that the vehicle may be stolen.
Next you should look for signs that the vehicle has had bodywork done. These signs include
paint splatter or over spray in the seams between panels, areas where the paint doesn’t match
or feels rough to the touch, and bumps, dents, or ripples in the paint. Recent bodywork is
evidence that the car has been in an accident.
Other things you should look for in a visual inspection include signs of rust, leaking fluids and
excessive tire wear (tires may be expensive to replace, especially immediately after purchasing
a vehicle). Also check the condition of the interior. Make sure that the lights and signals have
not burned out, and that all the switches and fittings work as they are supposed to. Your goal in
doing a visual inspection should be to find that the vehicle appears to have been properly
maintained. If everything looks good at this point, you can ask to take the vehicle to a mechanic
for a proper inspection.