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Five ways to avoid buying a lemon

What measures can you take to avoid driving off in a dud?

In 2014, sales in the used car market started to pick up real pace and have showed little sign of slowing down since. Between January and June this, more than four million used cars changed hands in the UK, according to figures from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT). That’s a record number for the first six months, and the trend appears to be continuing, which is expected to make 2016 a record year for used car sales.

This increase in sales, fuelled by a 7.9 per cent jump in demand, has been married to five years of consecutive growth in the new car market. Quite simply, there are more cars in the used car market now, so prices are competitive and the consumer’s choice is huge. However, with more cars to choose from, there is inevitably a larger chance of buying a bad one.

So what measures can you take to avoid driving off in a lemon?

Check the documentation carefully

V5C form – Is the seller the registered keeper of the car? If the answer is no, then you should ask why. There’s a chance this is a quick sell, with the seller trying to get the lemon off their hands without even registering it in their own name.

MOT certificates – Check the mileage information carefully, and make sure it lines up with the service history and the odometer on the car. Any period of very low (or zero) annual mileage may mean the car has been off the road for a long period of time for substantial repairs. Also look for any advisories – it is not illegal for a dealer to sell a used car with MOT advisory notices, but you should treat any advisories as imminent repair bills.

Car history – If you are uncertain about the seller then look into getting a full vehicle check from a registered mechanic or breakdown cover company.

V5C logbook, UK registration certificate

Consider the valuation carefully

Understanding the true value of the car you’re looking at is, well, invaluable, for a number of reasons – the obvious one being that you don’t want to overpay for a car… but actually it’s underpaying that is more likely to leave you with a lemon. If the deal looks too good to be true, it usually is!

There are a number of valuation services online that only require the vehicle’s mileage, registration and car insurance renewal month to generate a reasonably accurate figure to start your own calculations.

Run through an inspection checklist

An inspection checklist is great to have in your armoury at a dealership or during a private sale. Mainly because you’re going into a pretty stressful environment, and forgetting little details will be inevitable.

You’ll most likely remember to check the condition of the tyres and the wear and tear of the bodywork, but what about the spare tyre or any dampness under the floor mats? There are plenty of example checklists available online, so a quick search will yield some good choices.

Be vigilant during the test drive

An American study by DMEautomotive found that one in six car buyers do not take a test drive at all when buying a car. That’s an extraordinary statistic considering what a substantial investment buying a car is for most of us.

Not only should you insist on a test drive, it’s also vital to be extra alert when you do, particularly with a used car. Have a think about how you are most likely to use the car and then take it into those environments. If you’re driving in the city, take it up and down hills – and then into areas with plenty of traffic. Test the clutch for a high biting point, and the brakes for a slow response rate. Both factors could mean the car is need of a trip to the mechanic.

If you’re planning on commuting everyday on the motorway, don’t be afraid to find the nearest dual carriageway to see how it runs above 60mph. Does the steering hold the car straight? Is the engine tone consistent?

A mechanical inspection will highlight any concerns and ensure you don't end up with a lemonMechanical checks really worth investigating

Having a cynical mindset is a good starting point when you buy a used car, although there are plenty of well-meaning car dealerships and private sellers out there. For now, though, let’s pretend there aren’t.

The odometer (mileage counter) is the big one to look out for here. Worn screws around the panel could mean it’s been replaced or tampered with. Remember to double check the mileage against the MOT certificate.

Under the bonnet, other surprises may await. Look for warning signs of leaks or spilled fluids – check the oil filler cap, brake fluid reservoir, windscreen washer bottle and radiator.

Right at the front there should be a saddle which holds the top of the radiator and connects the front wings. You should see it screwed onto the car’s frame. If there is any welding, you will want to forget the car. Welding, in general, is a big red flag that you should always question.

What if I’ve already bought the lemon?

I discovered an inconsistency far too late with one of my first cars, and was later told I had a car about 60,000 miles older than it was supposed to be. Unfortunately it took me more than six months to realise.

With the Consumer Rights Act 2015, car buyers are well protected if they do business with a dealership, although far less so with a private seller. Your rights depend on how quickly you take action, with the possibility of a full refund protected by law for only 30 days.

For more information on getting that lemon out of your life, check out The Car Expert’s guide to your rights on rejecting a car.

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