What Is a Lemon?

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What Is a Lemon?

The word "lemon" was originally used to describe any highly flawed item in both American and British vernacular as early as the beginning of the 20th century. Today, the word "lemon" is most commonly used to describe a flawed vehicle. A lemon is a car that has been found to be defective but not until after it is purchased by an individual. Typically, an automobile that is considered a "lemon" has one or numerous severe issues that cannot be fixed. Often, this is realised after several unsuccessful attempts at fixing the problem.

A consumer should not purchase a vehicle that has the potential to be a lemon. A potential car buyer should understand the definition of a lemon, as well apply a few tips for avoiding lemons in the process of purchasing a new or used vehicle. Further, a buyer should only attempt to purchase a new or used car at a new dealership, used car dealership, or online at websites like eBay, with a trustworthy seller or dealer so as to avoid buying a lemon whenever possible.

Definition of a Lemon

Lemons are generally known as faulty vehicles that cannot be used for their intended purpose. A lemon refers to an individual vehicle, as opposed to a class, model, or particular brand of vehicles. Lemons can come about in a variety of different ways depending on if a buyer purchases the vehicle in new or used condition.

New Cars

New vehicles that are considered lemons typically contain hidden flaws or mechanical defects from workmanship errors or automotive factory build process errors. These errors can fall under a number of categories including but not limited to: incorrectly installed parts, tools that have been left behind in the vehicle, or materials with structural or chemical defects.

In some countries, new vehicles are only considered lemons if the same problem occurs despite multiple attempts to repair the issue, or where defects have caused the vehicle to be out of commission for a prolonged period of time. Some countries have lemon laws that force manufacturers to purchase a lemon car back from the buyer or exchange the vehicle for a working one.

Used Cars

Used vehicles can also be considered lemons. In addition to the same problems that cause new cars to be coined lemons, used cars can also be considered lemons based on previous abuse, improper maintenance or repairs, as a result of being improperly rebuilt after an accident or collision. Lemons can also be vehicles that have been tampered with to hide high kilometres, corrosion, mechanical defects, or other damage.

One type of used lemon car is referred to as a "cut and shut" or a "clipping". Typically a car that is considered a cut and shut or a clipping is a vehicle that has been through a severe accident and is then repaired by sawing off the damaged part of the vehicle and replaced with the matching section of another vehicle. While not typically known as lemons in the UK, these cars can become lemons based on improper repair. Further, cut and shut vehicles or clippings can be dangerous when driven at high speeds, or involved in any type of collision due to the weakness of the welds or pins holding the two different vehicles together.

Tips for Avoiding Lemons

There are a few ways to identify from the outset if a new or used car is a lemon, though some defects or malfunctions are not apparent until a buyer owns the vehicle. The following tips help consumers avoid purchasing lemons whenever possible.

Get a Vehicle History Report

When shopping for a used car, the best way to check problems that would indicate that the car is a lemon is by obtaining the vehicle's history report. The vehicle history report should provide if the car was in any major accidents. Further, a vehicle history report should redflag any odometer fraud. If a car was in any major accidents, consumers should do more thorough research into the repairs of the vehicle to ensure that the repairs themselves do not classify the car as a lemon. As a general rule of thumb, consumers should avoid purchasing cars that have been in major accidents, as there may be lingering effects down the road.

Read the Window Sticker

Particularly when shopping for a used car, buyers should pay attention to everything written on the window sticker, not just the price. Consumers should avoid cars that are sold "as is". "As is" indicates that a seller or dealer makes no guarantees about the condition of the vehicle. As a result, a buyer is responsible for any immediate repairs to the vehicle. Further, cars are typically only sold under this label if something needs to attended too, however major or minor. Consumers looking to avoid purchasing a lemon should avoid purchasing a car with "as is" written on the sticker or a similar label.

Check the Exterior of the Vehicle

Whether new or used, consumers should do a thorough inspection of the exterior of a vehicle. Buyers in the used car market should pay special attention to the outside of a car, looking for dents, chipped paint, mismatched body panels or parts, and paint overspray on the wheels. All of these things indicate some damage and subsequent repairs done to the vehicle. Further, a door, boot, or window that does not shut properly might be indicative of a past repair or a major problem. Consumers looking to avoid purchasing a lemon, should pay attention to these exterior issues.

Check the Interior of the Vehicle

Consumers should also take a close inspection of the interior of a vehicle. Particularly for used cars, consumers should pay close attention to the seatbelts, knobs, handles, and buttons in the cabin of a vehicle. If a vehicle is missing any of these, or if the seat belt is frayed or contains melted fibres, there is a good chance there were some past issues with the car or possibly even an accident.

Further, a buyer should compare the odometer with the condition of the interior of the car. Worn pedals or a sagging driving seat are typically indicative of high kilometres. If the odometer does not seem to match up to the condition of the interior of the car, this could be a sign of tampering or fraud. While the interior of the car is not always as indicative as the exterior, a consumer should still avoid purchasing a car with major interior issues to avoid lemon-like problems.

Inspect Under the Bonnet of the Vehicle

One of the most important things a consumer should do when checking for lemons, is look under the bonnet of the car. Whether new or used, the engine, radiator, and battery should have relatively little grease and little to no corrosion. Further, wet spots indicate leaking oil or fluids, which can cause long-term problems. Additionally, consumers should avoid cars with melted wires, tubes, or lines under the bonnet as these can be signs of an overheating engine or even a mechanical fire. If any of these items under the bonnet seem suspicious, purchasing the car should be avoided altogether.

Check for Recalls

Another quick but important step is to check to be sure that model and year of the car a buyer is interested in has not been recalled by the manufacturer. Car recalls are usually an indication of problems that might cause a car to be a lemon. At the very least, a consumer should check to make sure that the vehicle has undergone any necessary recall repairs.

Visit a Mechanic

Even after a thorough check of the interior, exterior, and bonnet, a used car should not be purchased until it is checked by a professional automobile mechanic. While an individual should be able to weed out the obvious lemons, only a professional can get deep into the vehicle to identify internal problems that indicate a car is or could become a lemon. A mechanic should do a basic diagnostic test and check the undercarriage, as well as look for hidden structural repairs. If a seller or dealer is reluctant to allow a consumer to get the car inspected, the buyer should take this as a sign that the vehicle likely has mechanical problems and avoid purchasing that car.

How to Buy a Non-Lemon Car on eBay

Whether buying a new or used car, there are steps you can take to avoid purchasing a lemon. One of the easiest ways to avoid purchasing a lemon is by purchasing a vehicle from a trustworthy seller. Even if a seller does not know that a car is a lemon upfront, a reputable seller or dealer should be willing to work with you if the vehicle turns out to be a lemon. For example, eBay created a feature to help you identify reliable and reputable sellers. eBay's Top-rated seller feature identifies those sellers that deliver consistently, provide accurate descriptions, and charge fair postage. Additionally, Top-rated sellers have participated in at least 100 trouble-free transactions over the period of a year and have received at least 98 per cent positive feedback.

eBay has thousands of used and new cars available for purchase from a variety of sellers. If you are looking for a used Audi for example, navigate to the eBay website portal and type used Audi into the keyword search. A list of used Audis is then displayed for you to view, including the descriptions of the sellers.


Joan Koenig first used the term "lemon" to describe a defective Volkswagen model sold in the 1950s. However, the term "lemon" was first officially coined as a word to describe faulty cars by the economist, George Akerlof, in the 1970s. Today, defective and faulty vehicles are commonly referred to as lemons. While technically a lemon automobile cannot be termed as such until after it is purchased, there are still several steps a consumer can take to avoid purchasing a car that turns out to be a lemon.

The term "lemon" is used a little differently when referring to a car in the used market, as opposed to a car in the new market. Whereas a lemon in the new car market is almost always the result of a defect at the production plant, a used car lemon can come about as the result of a production defect, or a repair defect later in the car's life. Whether in the market for a used or new car, consumers should understand how to identify and avoid lemons.

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