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How to avoid buying a 'lemon' vehicle

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SALT LAKE CITY — Think you’ve found a bargain on a used car in the online classifieds? Well, if you don’t inspect the car, you could get stuck with a lemon. Once you sign the papers and drive off, that car and all its problems are now all yours.

“You don’t want to buy a car for $2,000 and then have to put another $2,000 into it,” said mechanic Bob Kasubuchi.

Kasubuchi, owner of Kasubuchi Motors in Murray, has been fixing cars for over 30 years. He said a good place to start checking out a car is to look for anything that doesn’t seem right in the paint and body.

“A lot of times, you’re going to be able to see damage that’s been repaired,” explained Kasabuchi. “You can see send marks in the paint, you can see rough paint.”

Smaller, superficial dents are likely okay, but Kasabuchi said a larger repair job could mean trouble, especially if someone has tried to straighten the frame.

“If it’s been wrecked and then straightened out, it’s never going to be as strong as it was originally,” Kasabuchi said. “It will fail in a collision.”

He believes a Carfax report on a car can be very useful, but it may not show a recent crash or one the owner paid to fix without going through insurance.

“A lot of times, we’ll find a car that has damage on it, and they’ll (the customer) say there’s a Carfax on it and it says there hasn't been any work done on it,” mentioned Kasabuchi.

Next, check all the doors, windows and locks. Make sure they work properly.

“If a window doesn’t work, you’re looking at about $300 to fix a car,” Kasabuchi said.

Check the oil to see if it’s clean. If the oil level is low or dirty, that could indicate the car hasn’t been regularly maintained. Check the ground below the car for leaks: oil, coolant, transmission and others.

“Vital fluids, just like bleeding,” Kasabuchi said. “If you’re bleeding, you’re going to die unless it is stopped.”

Always take the car for a test drive with the radio turned off. Kasubuchi recommends at least 15 minutes on both city streets and the highway. Be sure it steers straight, brakes smoothly and shifts easily. Loud rattles, thumps and clunks could mean big problems.

Watch the oil pressure and water temperature gauges. Low oil pressure could mean a serious motor trouble. A high temperature could be as simple as a bad thermostat or as costly as a failing head gasket; that could be a $2,000 repair.

Use your nose. The smell of mildew or mold means water damage. Smell something burning? Oil could be leaking out onto the hot engine or exhaust. Smell rotten eggs?

“It’s probably got catalytic converter damage,” said Kasubuchi. That could be a thousand-dollar fix or more.

When you turn the key on, all the indicator lights in the dash should come on for a bulb check. Then, when the car starts, those lights should shut off within seconds.

But Kasubuchi says the very best thing you can do with a car you have your eye on is to take it to a mechanic. It may cost you $50 or $100, but you’ll know what you’re buying. If the seller refuses:

“I’d walk. If he doesn’t want you to take it to have it checked out, he knows there’s something wrong with it,” he said.

Utah’s lemon law does not apply to cars bought used from individuals or dealers. Same goes for our surrounding states, though Nevada and Arizona have some protections including warranties for used cars bought at a dealership.

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Sloan Schrage


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