Inspecting a used car can be a minefield.

Where do you start?

Modern cars are so complex and few of us have much mechanical knowledge.

Follow these tips, though, and you should avoid the lemons and pick up a peach.

This advice should be especially useful if you plan to buy your next car privately.

Check the paperwork

Don’t just examine the car – ask to take a look at the paperwork. Make sure the seller shows you the car’s service history.

Don’t take their word that every service has been carried out on time. Check the stamps in the service book.

Ideally, the seller will have receipts for the work, too, and details of any repair work which has been carried out.

If the used car is over three years old, make sure it comes with an MOT certificate. To make sure it’s genuine, you can check the MOT online.

Check the mileage on the certificate is lower than the current mileage – otherwise the car has been clocked (someone has wound the odometer back to make it appear the car has covered fewer miles).

Next, ask to see the V5, also known as the logbook. Hold it up to the light and inspect it carefully. A real one will have a watermark. If the seller is a private individual, check that it’s their name and address on the V5.

Otherwise, you have cause to be suspicious. Is the car really theirs to sell?

Under the bonnet

Keep hold of the V5, as you’ll need it when you start to examine the car. Find the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN). The easiest to spot it is at the bottom of the dashboard on the driver’s side of the vehicle.

Check that it tallies with the number in the V5. If it doesn’t, the document belongs to another car.

Be very wary if you can see any sign of the VIN number having been tampered with.

Now open the bonnet and turn your attention to what’s underneath. Don’t be put off if the engine is dirty, and don’t necessarily think a clean engine is a good sign – the owner could be trying to hide something.

Instead of focusing on superficial appearances, concentrate on specifics. Check the oil level using the dipstick. It’s basic maintenance to keep the level topped up, but many owners neglect this.

Fresh oil should be clear and the colour of honey, old oil will appear thick and dark. Remove the oil filler cap and inspect the inside. Any milky or mayonnaise-like deposits are a sign that oil is mixing with water.

Make sure the engine is cold, then take off the radiator cap and look at the water. Any white spots are bad news, as that’s a sign of oil and water mixing. A blue or red tinge shows that there’s anti-freeze in the water, as you would expect.

An orange colour could be a sign of rust.

Now inspect the engine block itself for any signs of oil leaks.

Some sellers may try to cover these up by giving the engine a thorough clean, which is why you’ll be checking it again later.

Get a clear view

It’s always best to arrange to see a car in daylight and in the dry. Otherwise you won’t be able to see the bodywork properly.

Take a good look around from a few metres away from the car.

Are any of the body panels misaligned or wonky?

Can you see any dents and scratches beyond normal wear and tear?

Is any of the bodywork a different colour from the rest of the car?

If you can answer yes to any of these questions, the car may have been in an accident and repaired poorly.

Now get up close and look for any sign of rust. You’ll see bubbling under the paint if it’s taking hold.

Take a look at the tyres. Are they worn and in need of replacement?

Have they worn more on one side than the other? This might suggest a problem with the suspension which could be expensive to fix.

Open and close all the doors and the boot. Does everything open easily and close properly first time?

On the test drive

First of all, this is your chance to find out how the car drives, not for the seller to try to close the deal.

If they try to hold a conversation politely tell them that you want to concentrate on your driving.

Does the engine start first time?

Does the clutch engage smoothly?

Does the steering respond quickly or does it feel slack?

Is the car comfortable over bumps, and do the brakes pull the car up quickly and in a straight line?

Ideally, you should drive the car on a variety of roads, so you really get a feel for what it’s like at different speeds.

Make sure the lights work, the windows wind up and down, and the stereo is in good working order.

Anything you find which doesn’t work is a chance to negotiate on the price.

After the test drive

Once the drive is over, pop the bonnet open again. Take another look for oil leaks just to be sure.

Have a thorough nose around inside the car and in the boot. Is there a musty smell or are the carpets damp? If so, this suggests a water leak or rotting bodywork.

If you are happy with the car, it’s still worth having a mechanical inspection done before you part with any cash.

You should never buy a car without carrying out a history check through an organisation such as HPI.

This will tell you if the car has any outstanding finance or has been written off in an accident.