Service Puts Squeeze on Used Lemons

Times Staff Writer

Queston: I am in the market to buy a used car. I don’t know anything about cars, and I can’t afford to get stuck with a lemon. I have read that it is a good idea to have a car inspected by a mechanic, but the only time I asked a person if I could take his car to a mechanic for an inspection he looked at me like I was crazy. Should I stick with a dealer?--D.S.

Answer: Although buying a car from a dealer is easier and sometimes less risky than buying one from an individual, you are not necessarily less likely to avoid getting a lemon just because you go to a dealer. In fact, a used car lot may have less documentation about a car’s mechanical repair and service history than an individual seller.

Even if you have little knowledge about automobile mechanics, you can use common sense in evaluating a car’s value. You should check comparable cars in the newspaper want ads to see if the price is in the right range. You can evaluate the wear and tear on the interior and exterior to gauge how well the car has been cared for. You can ask to see the service records for the car. And you can also buy one of the many books that have been written on how to buy a used car.

Of course, the opinion of a trained mechanic can help avert a disaster, but getting a car to a mechanic is a major hassle. Most individual automobile sellers will not permit the car to be taken for several hours--and for good reason. In big cities where auto theft has become epidemic, it is simply asking too much to take a car for hours.


But there is a good compromise. In some areas, mechanics have started businesses in which they will travel to a car and make an inspection on the spot. It’s a fledgling business, but with the value of a typical used car now at $6,000, its time has come.

In Los Angeles, one of the first such services was opened by Automotive Appraisal Service. It is operated by Mark Koch, a former mechanic who carried certification by Automotive Service Excellence, a national association that certifies mechanics.

He checks 100 items on the car in a 45-minute inspection and then spends 30 minutes with the prospective buyer going over his findings. The service includes a computerized printout of the car’s recall history and a list of potential problems with the specific model. The service costs $50. He can be reached at (213) 677-7652. Other similar services often advertise in newspapers.

Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.