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Shopping the Classifieds: Beware of Lemons Posing as Cherries


If you are looking for a used car or truck--or a "previously owned" vehicle, as the dealers like to call them--the easiest way to locate the candidates that suit your priorities is to peruse the classified ads.

But remember, whether you choose to cruise through newspaper or magazine listings by make, model and year, or to search the Internet by other criteria, one thing remains the same: Every one of these ads has been written by someone who wants to sell you a vehicle.

For this reason, used-car ads often focus on the luxury items that an uninformed consumer may see as priorities, such as high-tech sound systems, leather seats and sport packages. But these ads may gloss over the important automotive questions that should concern you: How many miles are on the engine and transmission? Are the tires in good condition? Are service records available?

After all, if the vehicle can't make it up a hill, who cares what it looks like or how many CDs the sound system can handle?

So, unless you want to spend days hunting down and rejecting unsuitable cars or trucks, when you read these ads you have to look between the lines.


To help you decipher the euphemisms you may find in some used-car ads, here's my version of what the sellers really mean:

Firm price: They say they won't bargain, but they usually will.

Asking price: They don't really expect to get this much, but they would be thrilled if their dreams came true.

Negotiable: Whether or not you see this term, it describes most "asking" and "firm" prices.

Best offer: They are praying for a millionaire who just adores older vehicles, but they'll take what they can get.

Loaded: The original owner requested--or fell for--every extra the dealership could add to the basic vehicle. Even if you refuse to pay more for these goodies when negotiating your used-car deal, they can still cost more to maintain, insure or replace when car thieves can't resist them.

Custom: The vehicle has been embellished with spoilers, ear-splitting amplified speakers or a flashy paint job. Even if a black vinyl "bra" on the nose of the car appeals to you, be advised that most custom stuff will do little more than raise your insurance premiums.

Vintage: Very old. If the vehicle could have been described as "antique" or "classic," the owner would have done so.

Clean: This could indicate that the vehicle isn't leaking anything and the body is relatively unblemished--or it could simply mean that it has been washed recently.

Cherry: Buffs reserve this term for automotive perfection. Some sellers use it if the vehicle looks good after dark or when it zooms by on the highway.

Mint condition: A synonym for "cherry." As a rule of thumb, beware of vehicles that are described in terms of flavors--they may turn out to be "lemons."

Excellent shape: Probably no major problems or damage. I would trust it more than "cherry" or "mint," but the owner may be viewing the car or truck through rose-colored glasses.

Good condition: Not "cherry," "mint" or "excellent," but probably worth looking at.

Looks (or Runs) OK: The equivalent of a large yawn. If the owner can't view the vehicle in a more positive light, why should you?

Drivable: Even worse than "OK."

Needs work: Unless you're looking for an auto-shop project, are an ardent shade-tree mechanic or need a movie prop for a car-crash scene, forget it.

Lemon: A description you'll never encounter in a used-car ad. Which doesn't mean you won't find one masquerading as a cherry.


In the interests of fairness, here are some terms worth looking for:

Original owner: Such a seller may not have treated the vehicle with kid gloves, but he or she can tell you where it has been and what it has been through and may even have all its service records.

Well-maintained: If it's true, then the oil has probably been changed regularly. But remember, we each have our own standards.

Garaged: The body may be in better condition--with less rust, fewer dings and less faded paint--than if the vehicle had been parked on the street or in a lot.

Family pet: Such affectionate terms can mean that the owners took good care of the vehicle, but then again, they will probably put a higher sales price on it too.


Highway 1 contributor Deanna Sclar is the Los Angeles-based author of "Buying a Car for Dummies" (1998) and "Auto Repair for Dummies" (1999), both from IDG Books.

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