In order to find the best cheap lathe, you will typically need to educate yourself on the various manufacturers so you know what to look for. The cheapest lathes are usually going to be secondhand, so you will also need to know how to identify warning signs when buying a used unit. Any lathe that is priced substantially below similar units probably has some sort of defect that you may or may not be able to easily identify. You may also find that certain cheap lathe brands use nonstandard parts that may be difficult to find if the unit needs repairs or you want to be able to create different types of projects.
Lathes come in a wide variety of different designs and specifications, so there tends to be a large price differential between the most and least expensive units. Buying a new cheap lathe will typically leave you with a relatively limited number of options. Most cheap lathes are smaller hobbyist units, which may be perfectly suited to the type of usage you expect to get out of your purchase. If you want to be able to use standardized parts and turn large bowls in addition to spindle work, you may need to look at secondhand lathes.
Many cheap lathe designs have a few potentially undesirable factors in common that you should be aware of when shopping for one. The high and low end revolutions per minute (RPM) of the motor is one factor to consider. Some cheap lathes have a higher low end and and a lower high end than expensive units, which can affect the types of jobs you can successfully perform. A low end RPM that is too high can prevent you from turning large bowls, so you may want to keep that in mind when looking at new units. Another factor to consider is the spindle size, since a cheap lathe may have a nonstandard diameter and require an adapter to use common chuck inserts or face plates.
When looking for a cheap lathe on the secondhand market, you typically have more options available. You also need to be on the lookout for a variety of different issues because a cheap used lathe may take a great deal of money to get into good working condition. One place to start is examining the work environment of the individual that is selling the used lathe because this may give you a good idea of how the unit has been treated and maintained. You can also examine the bed ways to ensure they are parallel as well as other factors, such as the spindle bearings. If at all possible, you should also run the lathe to see firsthand how it operates.