The first car I ever bought on my own was a lemon. I had just graduated from college and thought I had a fairly good head on my shoulders. I did a little research, brought two knowledgeable friends to look at the car with me and made the best decision I could at the time. But within weeks of buying the car, I noticed a glaring problem — at 70 miles per hour the motor would turn itself off.

I can laugh about this slight problem now. Back then, I did not find it funny to be driving 70 miles per hour in the passing lane with my power shut off. What did I do wrong? How did I end up with a lemon? I think there are a lot of reasons, but ultimately there are three important things I learned from that experience, and I hope they can help you avoid the same:

1. Suspect the story
The guy I bought the car from owned a small lot of vehicles in Birmingham, Alabama. Instead of taking me to the lot to look at the vehicle he brought me to his house. I think that a home environment helped serve as the foundation for the story he told me about the car. It was his daughter’s car. She had a new one and wanted to make sure the car went to somebody that was going to appreciate it. Hey, I thought, I can be that somebody. I got caught up in the story. This was not a used car experience, this was one family member helping out another, a heartwarming moment shared between father and daughter. Looking back on it now, I’m not sure there ever was a daughter. If a seller ever tries to spend time wrapping you up in the story of the car, be suspicious. You’re buying the vehicle, not the back story.

2. Go to a mechanic
You might have a close friend who knows how to change his own oil. Your father may know how to tinker with lawn mower engines. One of your coworkers might be a “car guy.” But no team of people will ever be able to give you the same in-depth advice as a trained mechanic. I didn’t take my lemon to a service station, but if I had, I suspect that my intensive engine problems would have been exposed. Always, always, always take any used car you’re thinking about buying to a trusted mechanic. If the seller offers to take it to their mechanic, politely say “no, thank you.” You need an unbiased professional to run the vehicle through its paces and give you a detailed description of what might be issues for concern.

3. Close your eyes when you buy.
I have to confess that I apparently gave considerable weight to a car wash and a wax job. There’s really no other way to explain how I became so hypnotized by my lemon. It was gleaming the first time I saw it. Freshly waxed with rays of warm Southern sunshine reflecting off the hood. The leather was really impressive. The large moon roof. The nearly perfect paint job. All of these things and many more started working together to make me completely miss the things that mattered most, like the engine. I got caught up in the image of the car, in the idea of owning it and lost sight of what a lemon it was. Next time you go car shopping take great care not to let your eyes convince your wallet that you’ve just got to have a certain car.

So, those are my three lemon lessons. A chance to learn from my foolishness and avoid your own. There are thousands of great car dealers scattered across this country, but there are some lemons out there too. Hopefully you’ll never have to make lemonade.


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Jon Acuff is a staff writer for

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