My journey dealing with lemons, I did it the hard way so you don’t have to
Did anyone ever tell you to “not do things the hard way”? I’ve heard this many times. It’s the idea we should measure twice and cut once, look before we leap, don’t try to navigate without knowing where north is.
The thing is, without making mistakes, we don’t learn much. We are bound to make errors if we are going outside of what we already know. If you always measured twice, you wouldn’t hone your guesstimating skills based on intuition.
If we didn’t learn other ways to navigate like paying attention to landmarks, we would be too single-mindedly following a direction. Maybe the person who gave you directions said north but it really was northwest.
The basic idea is, there are rewards for taking risks. All this being said, there is also value to limiting wasteful risk. This is a guide to mitigating the uncertainty, stress and wasteful spending of time and money after you buy a car you likely shouldn’t have.
The definition of a cheap car or a car in bad shape varies on your price range greatly, but the implications are still the same. You might have thought you were getting a great deal, understood it needed work but thought the price reflected it, or you might’ve simply been lied to.
If you bought a “beater” car, also known colloquially as a “lemon”, chances are you are either low on money, time, or experience, but it can happen to anyone. Even a high-end car is not immune to this. The difference there is, typically parts and labor is a lot more for a luxury vehicle.
Technically a lemon originally referred more specifically to manufacturer defects, but today it has a slang meaning associated with any type of junk car you find yourself stuck with.
Maybe it is because of the sour face you’ll make if your car fails to do its job. Terminology aside, this is why it is so important to do your due diligence and research on any car you buy.
This article is for someone who bought a vehicle and is experiencing a lot more problems than they anticipated.
Don’t throw parts at the problem
It may be tempting to just start replacing parts hoping to solve issues quickly, but this can just as fast become wasteful of both your time and money.
When I was diagnosing the many issues with my car, I tried to not waste money on parts that would not necessarily solve the problem. Thankfully though, I did this a couple of times so I can speak from experience and share with you the best ways to avoid this. There are even shops who will do this so be wary of a mechanic who seems unsure and recommends replacing parts hoping it solves the issue.
When I first got my current car, the airbag light, ABS light, check engine light and trunk light were all on. The air conditioning did not work, and the rotors were bad on the front brakes. It was a mess. For this example, let’s start with the air conditioning. I bought a used A/C compressor on eBay with a warranty and paid 325 dollars to have it installed.
It worked fantastically for about 3 days and then it stopped. It is worth the cost of getting a full diagnostic done on the A/C system. If you replace the compressor but the condenser is bad, it’ll cause the compressor to fail again and then you are out all the money for the labor. This is most likely what happened to me, but I still don’t know for sure. If you recharge the A/C refrigerant with a cheap do-it-yourself kit, it only allows you to read the low-pressure side of the system, which doesn’t tell you much.
Don’t assume work done was done right
Despite the hopefully best intentions of the previous owners, do not assume anything not done in a full-fledged shop was done correctly. On the flipside, don’t assume just because someone went to a shop they did it right either. Even if you are friends, if something seems off, do not assume it is okay. I did this with a major issue with my Honda.
This car has a variable valve timing unit that according to my best understanding, alters the timing for better fuel efficiency and more power. When it works, it is a really good feature. Unfortunately, it won’t simply bypass if the unit is malfunctioning and the car will go into “limp mode” where it will fail to go over around 3000 RPM, making acceleration very bad.
It also makes it very unsafe on the highway as to reach 70 mph in the Element, you need to go over 3000 RPM, so I would have to carefully keep it at 68-69 MPH otherwise it will cut the power abruptly until it returns to about 60 MPH. The previous owner knew about the issue and thought he solved it. I have since spent about 700 dollars on diagnosing the issue.
Don’t drive it far until you address its issues
This should be common sense but maybe not, so just in case I wanted to put this ahead of the rest of my advice. You do not want to end up stranded or be a hazard to yourself or others. If you don’t trust the car you bought, it’s likely not safe. This is not meant to scare you, as some mechanics will say this potentially to scare you into getting more work done. It is just a reminder to not ignore warning signs.
What to do after you already bought a beater, a step-by-step guide
Run a vehicle history report
I was too trusting and did not do this. After all the issues, I finally ran one. I found out the car had been in 3 accidents, one of them bad enough to require a tow. Accidents vary on cars and an experienced Honda mechanic told me Elements are typically totaled so they must have been minor, thankfully. Yet still even a small accident can cause issues that remain unseen for a long time. These accidents may be why my airbag light is on, even though the part specified by the car’s computer has been replaced and the airbags were replaced under warranty. So even if you already bought the car, running this is worth it. The funny thing is, the mechanic I mentioned actually had worked on my exact car before and knew about its history from hands on experience. He knew this because when I ran the report and sent it to him, he saw the dealer he worked at, and the dates matched. You never know what you’ll find out.
Don’t do what I did. Do not trust anything about the vehicle, even if you are friends with the seller
If you’re reading this, I am assuming you didn’t get a pre-purchase inspection by a trusted and highly rated mechanic. Even if they say they put a whole new engine in it, pay attention to the symptoms.
Take a full accounting of its issues and write it all down
Make sure you can’t reverse the sale!
All other points aside, in some states if you can prove the seller knowingly mislead you or misrepresented the condition of the vehicle you may have a chance to undo the deal. If so, don’t wait, get out of the deal and next time get it inspected beforehand!
Address those warning lights
Almost all cars will have a computer these days unless you are driving something classic. If you bought a beater, I am guessing you might have some lights on. This is the new school method of diagnosis but thankfully you can utilize your detective skills alongside the technology to figure things out. AutoZone and a few other auto parts stores offer free reading of trouble codes. While these are lower end readers, they should give you a decent idea of where to start. The reason the light is on isn’t always the same as what the computer says, so pay attention to actual symptoms.
Learn how to do basic diagnostics before you take it to a mechanic
You should know how to check your various fluids such as oil, power steering fluid, brake fluid and transmission fluid. Write down a list of anything that sounds bad, looks bad or is not working right.
Look for rust and signs of negligence
If the air filters are very dirty, the battery terminals corroded, rust unabated and spreading, the interior is dirty, it is behind on scheduled maintenance, understand you will likely run into more issues. This speaks to the owners habits. If they drove with dirty air filters and rust, do you really think they changed their oil regularly? If it had a rear differential, did they change the fluid on it ever? Was the transmission fluid ever changed? If a car is neglected and then sits for a while, the effects of sitting are exacerbated.
For example, my Honda Element was running rough, so I ran some Seafoam through it, a common engine cleaning fluid. Shortly after doing so and getting a fresh oil change, I had two oil leaks! This, I learned, was because the grime and grit was likely plastered to the seams of the engine and this barrier of sludge was the only thing keeping the old gaskets from failing. Sometimes these petroleum-based engine additives can remoisturize dried out gaskets but if they are already shriveled and out of place, it is likely only a matter of time before they require replacement. For my case, it was the valve cover gasket, a oil pressure switch gasket, and the oil pan gasket!
Some rust is called “surface rust” and won’t really effect the structural integrity of the vehicle, whereas more serious rust is often called “frame” or “structural”. It is important to know the difference. If you are unsure, take it to a mechanic. They will be able to tell you if it is worth saving, although ultimately it comes down to how much you are willing to spend.
Learn to listen for noises, learn to research them, how to describe them
Using the right word to describe an issue you are having can make a huge difference when you are trying to explain something to the mechanic. It also helps while trying to do research online. Another excellent resource is an online community for your specific make and model. It’s very helpful to be able to post a picture of under the hood when you don’t know what a part is. How do you google something when you have no idea what it is?
As for noises, brakes squeal when the wear indicator is exposed, and this tells you how much life the brake pads have left on them.
Look for leaks
You should put some cardboard or better yet white paper or aluminum foil underneath the vehicle while it is parked to see if there are any leaks if you suspect there may be or any fluids are lower than they should be. Look up a reference chart for what color each fluid is.
Think backWhen you first looked at the vehicle, were they a little evasive when answering your questions? Often, even if they did put money into the vehicle, they already drove as many miles as the parts are worth. For example, if they said they replaced the timing belt, but it was 55,000 miles ago and it has an interval of 60,000 miles, you now know you need a timing belt right around the next oil change. Even if you take the car for diagnostics, don’t assume the mechanic will check for this.
When you go to get it inspected, don’t assume the mechanic knows best, but be respectful
Mechanics often deal with people who think they are getting ripped off or oversold services they don’t need. While this does happen, don’t assume this right away, yet don’t be afraid to get a second opinion. If they are trying to milk money out of you, they’re not going to admit it, so just listen to their diagnosis and if it doesn’t make sense to you, seek advice elsewhere. Make sure they understand not to do any work before you explicitly sign off on it.
There are way too many makes and models of cars for your mechanic to figure out a complex issue easily, unless they have seen that exact issue before, and even then, they are sometimes wrong. A mechanic I had trusted and respected made the faulty diagnosis of a failing timing chain when it was just a valve that needed to get replaced. They quoted me for almost 2000 dollars worth of work when in the end it only cost me 300 dollars. Big difference!
Get the car fully inspectedDon’t just tell them you “want it inspected”. Most mechanics will do a quick lookover for either a very low cost or free but for a full inspection expect to pay around 100-200 dollars. If you’ve already established the car needs work and you’re keeping it, this is absolutely worthwhile. A good mechanic will give you loads of valuable information from this. They will let you know how much life is left on many parts and see problems that have yet to present themselves. Make sure to ask what a full inspection entails as the details and jargon vary greatly. Typically they are called a point inspection , and each point refers to a system or part of a system on the vehicle. Any time anyone is going to perform a service on your vehicle, you should understand exactly what they are going to do. Sort of like a surgery, you wouldn’t let the surgeon operate on you without explaining what they were going to do first would you?
Learn how to troubleshoot your specific make and model
There are many quirks to different car brands. My last car before the Honda Element was a Mitsubishi Galant. Several mechanics told me they were strange cars because Mitsubishi built them like racecars. My engine layout for example, on a 6-cylinder made it very expensive to replace the valve cover gaskets. There was an upper and lower gasket and the lower one took a lot of time and effort to reach. Had it not been for this layout, the job would have only cost a maximum of around 300 dollars, but because of this, it was almost 800 dollars.
See what you can do yourself, how much you have to invest in tools but recognize when you are out of your depth on an issue
A good guideline is to figure out how much spare time you have, and how much you are willing to invest in tools. If you have the time and patience to learn, while it is a big price tag up front, it’ll save you money as you go. If you realize you don’t have the time or a place to work, just do the simple stuff you won’t likely run into any issues on.
Any major engine work, transmission, some stuff to do with brakes, suspension… anything requiring a complex breakdown and rebuild could leave your car in need of a tow if you run into a rusted-out part that will require a more expert touch to remove or replace. If its something like an air filter, a battery, or a part you can easily reach yourself, go for it! If you live in an apartment with shared parking, it is best to not do anything that would take more than 10 minutes or so.
Make sure to check for warranties and recalls, even on old vehicles
The Honda Element is a 2004 but there are still open warranties and recalls Honda will repair for free to this day. The airbag inflators were sending out shrapnel and causing injury and death. I actually got my code read for free, even though most dealers want to charge around 100 dollars just to plug into the OBDII port, because it was safety related. They saw my airbags had already been replaced but there was an open warranty for the driver side seatbelt sensor, so they had to check. They told me I needed a new clock spring, the connector that allows you to turn the steering wheel without disrupting the connection between the airbag or supplemental restraint system (SRS), the horn and cruise control. My cruise control would sometimes not work so this diagnosis made sense to me.
Shop around for best deals on parts and laborYet don’t skimp out if multiple reviewers said aftermarket brands would fail on them. The oil pressure switch I mentioned earlier on my Honda Element is notorious with enthusiasts for failing shortly after installing it. Mine did but to be fair I was told it was OEM (original equipment manufacturer). You’d be amazed how many parts known to fail are still allowed to be sold online and even in auto parts stores.
Make sure to pay attention to how much you are spending
Assuming you took my advice and got a full inspection done, and you know the history as well as possible, you should have a fairly accurate estimate on what it costs to get it in good shape again. If this number is higher than the value of the vehicle you might want to consider selling it and moving on. Some repairs can be put off for a while though, so you could spread out the cost over time.
If all else fails, take it as a learning experience and don’t kick yourself for making a mistake.
Try not to panic or stress, these things happen but if you resolve it with a positive attitude, you can make it a net gain even if you lose money.
So you made it this far
You may have arrived here because you were googling what to do with your beater, maybe mistakes were made, but I hope you leave with a better strategy going forward. Just remember, it’s not the end of the world, you’ll figure it out and learn from the experience.
Next time, go to a platform where only thoroughly vetted cars are allowed. It will likely cost more but it'll be worth it!