When you purchase a used car from a private individual, you should expect to have some problems, but not a ton. If the vehicle has several problems, you may have a lemon on your hands. You should always test drive the vehicle and have it checked out by a trusted mechanic. Before you go through the trouble of doing that, you can determine on your own whether the vehicle is worth it.
Check the Mileage
Checking the mileage can tell you a lot about the condition of the vehicle. Even if it was properly maintained, you can expect certain repairs at certain mileages. If a vehicle is right around 60,000 miles and has a timing belt instead of a timing chain; and the seller cannot produce proof of a timing belt replacement, you should expect to do that maintenance. Timing belts can run from a few hundred to several hundred depending on the year, make and model. Higher mileage cars may also need a battery, alternator, water pump, brakes, and suspension work. This is normal, but what is not and may indicate a lemon is that all of these things are bad at the same time.
Check the Fluids and Hoses
The fluids should be full and the hoses should not leak. The transmission fluid should not smell burned. If it does, this could indicate a transmission problem. The oil should not be thick and goopy, nor should it have a white froth on it. If you pull the dipstick and the oil looks milky, the vehicle most likely has a head gasket problem. This could indicate additional problems such as a broken water pump, bad radiator or a previous hose leak.
Check the Brakes, Suspension, Steering and Tires
If the bushings are worn or the vehicle bounces more than once or twice when you bounce on the bumper, this indicates problems with the suspension. The power steering rack/gear should not be leaking. If the tires are wearing unevenly, this could indicate an alignment problem.
If the engine light is on and the seller tries to tell you "It's nothing" and shrugs it off, you could have one or more problems with the sensors or the computer. Some of these repairs could be expensive.
A seller should tell you what is wrong with the vehicle, and the price should be accordingly discounted. If too many things are wrong, you could have a lemon on your hands, though this is usually caused by poor maintenance or by hard driving. A used lemon is different than a new lemon — if you have a new lemon, the vehicle has several problems right off the showroom floor. Most states have lemon laws that cover the purchase of a defective vehicle.