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Weed Out the Lemons

You can save time and money on mechanics with a simple do-it-yourself inspection that will help you find trouble signs when shopping for a used car. "Some signs are easy to spot, and you don't have to be an expert," advises Jack Nerad, editorial director and executive market analyst at Kelley Blue Book (kbb.com). It's a matter of knowing what to look for when doing a preliminary inspection on your own.
 
Worn Brake Pedals
A vehicle with an odometer that reads 30,000 miles or less shouldn’t show much brake-pedal wear. Strong wear marks may signal lie actual mileage is questionable.
 
Engine Fluid Leaks
Open the hood and check for signs of sprays or leaks from hoses and tubing. Check under the car for liquid on the pavement. Pull out and examine the oil dipstick, too. If the oil is a burnt-yellow color, that signals infrequent oil changes and possible internal damages.
 
Undisclosed Body Work
Rough spots on the body paint or on the underside of fenders are likely the result of repairs from an accident. Check to see if the paint matches when you compare different sections or open the doors.
 
Matched or Bald Tires
A car with 30,000 miles or less should usually have all its original tires. If tires are different brands, ask why. Tires with uneven wear – bald on one side or only in the middle may indicate that the wheels need alignment
 
Rust
Check under the carpet in the trunk and look inside the wheel wells and on the panels below the doors for rust. If you find some, keep shopping.
 
Flood Damage
Watch for watermarks or musty odors in the carpet. Lift the trunk’s spare tire to look for water. Extreme cleanup, like a steam-cleaned engine, can be a red flag.
 
Check out your short list that passes your inspection at carfax.com. By promoting the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the website, you’ll discover whether the car has had flood damage or been in a wreck that led the insurance company to declare it a total loss. One search costs about $20. Then take the car to a mechanism for a $75 to $125 inspection.