When it comes to buying a used or second hand car, it is always “buyer beware.” You never really know until you take a vehicle home if you’ve bought a solid and reliable car or if you’ve got a lemon on your hands. That said, there are some telltale signs you can look for that will let you know that the car you’re considering might not be worth the risk. It is possible to spot a lemon before you shell out your hard earned cash, provided that you know the signs. Here to help are 10 warning signs you should look for to tell you whether the car you want to buy is a lemon.

10. Uneven Tire Tread

Tires on a car tell a story. If a car has been properly maintained, then the tires should have been rotated regularly or all season tires should have been swapped out for winter tires. These events should have ensured that the tread on the tires wore evenly. If the tread wear on the tires is uneven, or worse on certain tires than others, it likely indicates that the tires were never rotated or changed with the advent of winter or arrival of spring.

This should be a sign that the car was not properly cared for. Worst case scenario, uneven tire wear could indicate that the car needs an expensive front end alignment job. Either way, uneven tire tread is never a good sign on a car regardless of its age. If you see uneven tire wear, your Spidey-sense should start tingling and you should start asking a lot of questions.

9. Strong Smells

When it comes to evaluating a car, it is best to use all of your senses. Don’t just rely on what you can see with your eyes. Trust your sense of smell as well. If you test drive a car and end up smelling something funny, pay attention. It is likely a sign that something is leaking or burning (or both) underneath the hood.

Sometimes the smell is obvious, such as the smell of burnt oil. Other times, it is more difficult to identify exactly what a particular smell is. But the bottom line is that if the car is functioning properly, you should not smell anything from the car. Any weird or unusual scent is a tip off that something is not as it should be with the car – notably the engine. That is never good. At the very least, a strong smell should prompt you to investigate further underneath the hood.

8. Stiff Bumper

One of the most expensive repairs for a vehicle involves the suspension. The suspension on any car is critically important and can get knocked out of alignment quite easily. A quick and easy way to test the suspension on a car you are appraising is with what’s called the “bumper test.” As you walk around the car, stop and push down on the bumper – both at the front and back.

A car that has a suspension in good working order will bounce up and down once or twice. If, however, the car does not bounce, the bumper feels stiff, or you encounter resistance when you push down on it, it could be a sign that the car’s suspension is out of whack. That might mean an expensive repair bill in your future, if you still choose to buy the car. A stiff bumper, in any situation, is never good.

7. Window and Lock Problems

Automatic windows and door locks are standard in most vehicles today. Those windows and doors that slide down and open with the touch of a button are powered by the car’s electrical system. If there are any problems with the windows or locks, it likely is an indication that there is a problem with the car’s electrical system.

Should a window only roll down halfway or the door not lock and unlock as it should, then it could be a sign that there is an issue with the electrical system in the vehicle you’re considering. While there may only be a problem with one window at the moment, chances are the issue will only worsen with time. Plus, you’ll likely have to pay a mechanic a lot of money to try and identify the exact problem with the car’s electrical wiring. Checking the automatic windows and locks yourself is a simple test you can do to identify a potentially complicated problem.

6. Low Oil Content

It takes only a second to check the dip stick in your car to see what level the oil is at. If the level is low, it could be that the previous owner just didn’t top up the oil that often. Or it could be a sign that there is an oil leak in the engine, which is a serious problem. You can add a liter of oil yourself to the car for about $5. Wait and see if the oil level drops quickly. If yes, then you definitely have a problem on your hands.

However, even if there isn’t an oil leak in the engine, having a low oil level is never a good thing. It shows that the previous owner was not the best caretaker of the vehicle. Any car that is driven for long stretches without oil likely has some significant wear and tear on the engine and its components. Oil is like the blood in a car. A good, fresh supply is needed to keep the vehicle performing an optimum levels.

5. Interior Damage

Some wear and tear in a used car is to be expected. But when the wear is excessive, it should sound an alarm in your mind. We’re talking about things such as frayed and damaged seat belts, sagging gas and brake pedals, missing knobs on the dashboard, ripped seat cushions with stuffing bulging through, missing head rests and so forth. These are signs that the car you’re looking at has not been maintained, or, worse, been abused by its owner.

Beyond the obvious mess, excessive interior damage in a car shows that the vehicle was not maintained very well. It likely has more problems beyond what you can see with your own eyes. Think of the interior of the car as the proverbial “tip of the iceberg.” Keeping in mind that 90% of an iceberg lies below the water’s surface and cannot be seen with the naked eye. If the interior of a car is in really bad shape, one can only imagine what it’s like under the car’s hood.

4. Loose Steering Wheel

If you take a car for a test drive and notice that the steering wheel feels loose or wobbly, that can be a sign that there is a problem with the alignment or steering fluid. It can also be a sign that the car is old and on its last legs. The car’s steering should feel responsive, but also tight and controlled.

A loose steering wheel is an indication of slack, bad alignment, and possible fluid problems – none of which are good. At the end of the day, you want a car that is not only reliable, but safe too. If the steering wheel is too loose, it should be taken as a sign that the car may not be worth the risk of purchasing. Do yourself a favor and keep looking elsewhere for a more reliable vehicle.

3. Pulling and Shaking

When test driving a car, always be sure to take it out on a highway for a spin. Once on the highway, get the car up above 60 mph. As you accelerate, you should notice if the vehicle begins pulling to one side. Or if the steering wheel starts shaking when you reach a certain speed. Either pulling to one side or shaking are indications of an alignment problem with the car. They could also be a sign that there is a bigger problem with the engine.

No matter what, you will want to think twice about buying a car that pulls to one side or shakes when driven fast. This could prove to be a safety issue, and it could end up costing you some serious money in repairs. Pulling and shaking should be considered deal breakers.

2. Knocking and/or Hissing Sounds

Back to the human senses. As we said earlier, use them all. Your sense of smell and touch are as important as your vision. Your sense of hearing is also important when buying a car. Listen for any sounds coming from the vehicle that do not sound normal. Notably, listen for any sounds of knocking or hissing coming from underneath the hood. That knocking sound could be a major problem with the engine such as a piston or head gasket that is about to blow.

Hissing is most likely the sound of a fluid leaking and hitting the hot engine underneath the hood. Neither of these sounds is good. You should take pause when you hear them. It doesn’t matter whether you hear these unusual sounds when driving the car or when it is stopped after driving. Any strange noises coming from the car should cause you to prick up your ears and grab hold of your wallet.

1. The Person Selling The Car is Evasive

Body language and behavior are always good indicators. When it comes to someone who is trying to sell you a car, you should be able to tell from their behavior whether they are trustworthy and on the up-and-up.

Is the person selling the car willing to answer your questions? Does he or she seem evasive? Do they have all the required paperwork on hand? Can they produce a vehicle history report upon request? Can they turn over vehicle maintenance records?

These are all important pieces of information. It should be no problem for you to get it from the seller. If it’s suddenly a problem, that’s a sign that the person you are dealing with is not to be trusted — and neither is the car they are selling. Turn and walk away.


This article was worked on by a variety of people from the Autoversed team, including freelancers, editors, and/or other full-time employees.