Useful tips to avoid buying a lemon car

singapore registered bmw 523i f10 in toa payoh multi storey carpark

You’ve decided to get a used car, and after hours upon hours of research, have finally decided on a particular car you found online. You go down to the dealer to take a look and take it for a test drive, but you’re still unsure about the car.

You may get this feeling probably because you aren’t 100% sure if the car is in good condition. Sure – the car feels good to drive, and the exterior doesn’t raise any alarms. But cars are complex machines with thousands of parts. Which is why there’s more to just the looks and drive.


You’ll primarily want to look at :

  • Tires (check that they are the same brand and model, and equally worn)

  • Paint (any signs of paint being touched up)  

  • General condition of the car (any panel gaps or misalignments)

  • Dents

  • Scratches

  • Rust

  • Boot and doors (check that they open and close properly)

Also open the engine compartment, and inspect the car’s body (surrounding the engine), there should not be any crooked lines. If there are, it could mean that the car was in an accident before and that the previous owner tried to fix it.

The engine bay itself should be presentable, with no leaks. Turn on the engine and listen for any unusual sounds. As the engine is complex, this may require a mechanic to use his professional skills to diagnose if it’s ok to go.


Things to check :

  • Air-con

  • Seat belts

  • Interior lights

  • Windshield wipers

  • Turn signals

  • Headlights

  • Fog lights

  • Audio system

  • Infotainment system

  • Seat adjustments

  • Floor (check under the floor mat for any water leaks or water getting into the car)

  • Odometer (to check if mileage is same as what was advertised, and that the mileage looks right for the age of the car)

Make sure that all the above work !

During The Test Drive

Just before test driving the car, turn on the engine and let it run for a few minutes first and stand outside the car. Drive the car forward, and you will want to check the floor for any leaks. Leaks are a bad sign and can be expensive to repair.

Black fluid might be an indicator of leaking oil, green fluid may indicate a leak in the coolant system and pink fluid may indicate a leak in the transmission.

When you are on the road, avoid playing any music. You’ll want to test the car for its soundproofing and also be on the alert for any funny or strange noises like rattles and creaks. When going over bumpy roads or humps, listen to the suspension, axles, brakes are the car in general. Does the car emit rubbing noises, or the sound of metal clanking against each other? Or does the brake squeal when you press on it? These are signs that some component is worn and needs to be replaced.

Also drive your own route and drive the car for at least 15 minutes minimum, so that you can thoroughly test the car in different scenarios (u turns, going up a slope, in stop start traffic, in bends etc.) and get a feel for the acceleration and the brakes.

Try letting go of the steering wheel slowly, and see if the car drifts off to one side. If it does, it could be a tire alignment issue, or best case scenario – the tires are are not filled with the correct pressure all round.

At the end of the test drive, ask yourself :

  1. Do you feel comfortable with the car?

  2. How do you feel when driving it?

Follow your gut instinct! Sometimes the car looks good, and it drives well – but you’re still unsure about buying it for some reason. You get this feeling deep down that makes you uneasy. If you feel unsure or uncomfortable about the car, it’s perfectly fine to walk away from the deal. You are spending a lot of money after all – so you want a reliable, working car.

After you’re done with the test drive – be sure to send the car for a pre-purchase inspection ! This can be done easily, check out how to get it done here.

Other Useful Tips :

  • Bring a friend (or 2) along ! Sometimes, in all the excitement of viewing a car, we may miss out certain things that our friends could have noticed. Additionally, sometimes the seller/dealer may be eager to sell their car and make bold claims, or explain things to you in a way you may not understand. Your friend is there to help clarify, or give you a better idea of what’s going on.
  • Google the car, and add “common problems” after the model name. E.g if I am in the market for a 2010 BMW 523i , i would search for “BMW 523i F10 common problems”. BMW 523i is the car make and model, while F10 is the chassis code for that generation of BMW 5 series. This helps you pinpoint common problems other car owners face with their car.

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