How to avoid buying a lemon

  • What you need to check for on a used car
  • Ensure there's no shady past with a car check
  • Do a car valuation to avoid being ripped off

You can pick up plenty of well-presented, mechanically sound and respectable used cars. The problem comes in separating these examples from the bangers that could cause you a huge amount of problems and even more cash.

There are some basic things you can do to check that you aren't being ripped off or that you are buying a dodgy motor. First off you want to check that the car you're looking at hasn't been stolen or written off sometime in the past. To do this you can take out a car check. If everything comes back sound from your history check, you'll then want to get a car valuation to make sure you aren't being ripped off.

As well as doing these simple things, you will also want to check the car for minor mechanical problems. Now you don't have to be a qualified mechanic but there are some basic checks you can do to make sure the car is in the condition the seller says it is.

Outside the car

  • Start off with the general condition of the exterior. Are there any dents or have any of the panels got any scratches? Also you will need to make sure all the panels fit smoothly as this could all cost money in the long run to fix.
  • Next up are the tyres. Here you will have to look at general condition as well as the tread depth. Also if any damage is uneven there could be a more serious problem with the car.
  • Look for any bubbling on the bodywork as this normally points to rust. It's best to check all over, but the most common places are the bumpers and wheel arches.
  • Open and close all the doors, including the boot, to make sure they are all working smoothly and check all the rubber seals for any damage.

Inside the car

  • First thing to check here is that the condition of the interior matches the mileage. If the car has a low mileage but the seats and steering wheel look like they've had much more use the car could have been clocked.
  • Now you want to check that everything inside works. This ranges from the air con, electric windows and stereo right through to the seats, fuel filler cap lever (if it has one) and bonnet lever.
  • Check the steering column and ignition for any signs of damage as this is a dead giveaway that the car could have been stolen. The car check should have flagged it up if it has been stolen, but always best to double check.

Under the bonnet

  • This is where you will normally find the car's VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) and if it's not here it could be at the base of the windscreen or the driver's footwell. Make sure it correlates with the car's logbook.
  • Look around the engine for any sign of oil, water or any other fluid leaks. You will also want to have a look at the ground underneath the car to make sure there are no leaks.
  • Have a look at the battery connectors to make sure that these are rust-free and in good condition.
  • Take out the dipstick and wipe it with a cloth before returning it. Take it out again to check the oil level is good. It should be between halfway and max. If it has some debris in it and isn't a nice smooth golden colour, then it may need to be drained and replaced.

Paperwork checks

  • Finally you'll want to give the car's paperwork a good look over as there are some vital bits you will want to check
  • Check that the car has MOT certificates and servicing stamps. Regular servicing intervals are a good sign and the mileages should increase at an even rate on these.
  • Make sure all paperwork is the original and official documents. The logbook should have a watermark and it is even worth trying to call the garage that carried out the last MOT as well as the previous owner if you are really concerned.

Once you've finished all these checks and are satisfied, you're ready to take it for a test drive. See our guide to what you should be looking for here.