Must Do's During a Pre-purchase Inspection

  • by: Patrick Peterson
  • January 08, 2020

car inspection

You’ve been searching valiantly and finally found a great used car, but before you rush over to buy, have a mechanic give it a thorough inspection. It sounds like straightforward advice, yet most used car buyers don’t follow through. Buying a used car can be a risky proposition and when you are caught up in the excitement of the purchase, it’s easy to overlook mechanical, safety, and even cosmetic issues. Perhaps a buyer is unaware that inspections are easy to arrange, they don’t want to spend the money, or deal with the hassle of arranging an inspection.

All of these so-called challenges are minor issues in return for the buying confidence gained. An inspection can reveal the car is a lemon, allowing you to reconsider or negotiate the purchase, or confirm you found a four-wheeled dream.

What is a Used Car Pre-purchase Inspection?

As its title suggests, a pre-purchase inspection is a service performed by an independent, qualified professional to evaluate a vehicle’s condition before purchase. A mechanic will thoroughly inspect the vehicle for defects, damage, operational integrity, maintenance history, and safety; and provide a written report to help you make a purchase decision.

Ideally, the inspection will be performed by a mechanic you trust to be very thorough, reviewing not only the car’s condition under the hood but its undercarriage, interior functions, fluid leaks, failed accessories, and critical electrical systems. The inspection should also include a road test on a route featuring everyday interactions such as potholes, rough surfaces, hills, and sharp turns in order to fully test suspension and engine performance.

An inspection will also verify tire wear, hidden problems with the body, and repair codes for that particular vehicle. In addition to overall condition, a savvy mechanic can spot more significant issues including frame damage from a serious accident, which can cause a host of other problems; shoddy past repair work; or flood or fire damage. All of this is invaluable information to build confidence in the vehicle or inspire you to back away from the sale.

Is it Expensive?

Most every reputable auto service shop from one-person garages to sprawling, high-tech dealership repair centers offer pre-purchase inspections that typically range from $100-$200 and will provide you with a detailed report of everything that was inspected and how. In the grand scheme, the cost of an inspection is a small price to pay for its long-term benefits.

Which is Better? Mobile Inspection or Shop?

Once you’ve made the smart decision to get a used car pre-purchase inspection, you now need to decide to go with a mobile service or take the car to a garage. Both options have pros and cons of course but as long as the end result is a professional inspection, it’s up to you to choose what fits best.

For the convenience factor alone, it’s tough to beat an on-site inspection. A mobile inspector will show up at the seller’s home, a workplace, or wherever you like and perform the inspection. They also typically photograph various areas of the car and when finished will provide you a written report.

One downside to on-site inspections is the lack of specialized equipment. Raising a car on the lift, for example, is the best way to closely examine under the car for damage, leaks, and potential hidden damage. Inspections completed at your local garage or dealership servicing a specific make car will have all the equipment necessary close at hand.

pre-purhcase inspection

Purchasing a Used Car Online or From an Out of State Location

Today’s digital world makes it easy to find and buy the car of your dreams but similar to a blind date, you don’t really know what you’re getting until you see it. That said, you can leverage the same technology for locating a car to locate a third-party inspector.

Spend some time researching reputable inspection services companies in the seller’s area. When you have secured one you like, they will send an inspector to the car’s location, complete the examination, and send you a detailed report, often including the car’s accident and maintenance history as well.  This is sound advice for both the seller and buyer in online or non-local transactions.

Secure a Qualified Inspector

A trained inspector knows what to look for and with the proper equipment can provide a thorough and reliable assessment of a vehicle. While there is no way to guarantee that every issue will be found, a small investment of time and money is sound insurance when your safety, and a significant purchase price, are on the line.

You may have complete faith in your local mechanic but is he or she a qualified inspector? A qualified inspector is trained for and specializes in gathering and interpreting the specific results of a vehicle inspection. Most often, an inspector is an expert in particular makes of cars or commercial vehicles and is trained to evaluate the safety, structural, and operational components.

Along with arranging an inspection prior to purchase, be sure the inspector is a qualified and trained professional with experience in the field as well as with your particular brand of car.

car pre-purchase check

10 Things to Check in a Pre-purchase Inspection 

Pre-purchase vehicle inspection checklists are usually available from your local DMV or online websites and are an excellent resource to familiarize yourself with the important details, including this list of ten important pre-purchase checks:

  1. Dashboard components' condition and operation
  2. Tire wear, tread depth, and vehicle suspension
  3. Fluids, including engine oil, brake fluid, coolant, power steering fluid, and windshield washer fluid, and transmission fluid. Check for levels, leaks, and fluid clarity.
  4. Brakes—check for wear, corrosion, and pad condition
  5. Overall engine inspection: cooling system, belts, air filter, ignition components, transmission, exhaust system
  6. Check transmission for smooth operation.
  7. Exhaust manifold and muffler system
  8. Body condition—check for dents and rust
  9. Lights—headlights, brake lights, turn signals, hazard lights, reverse lights, interior dash and dome lights
  10. Heating and cooling system, including air conditioning and heater operation and temperature settings

What if I find damage during a vehicle inspection?

Take a close look at your pre-purchase inspection report. Was any damage disclosed? If so and the damage is not a deal-breaker or compromises safety, a vehicle with existing damage history can still be a great buy and in some cases is an unexpected opportunity to upgrade to a higher-level model.

Not only is a pre-purchase inspection the best way to learn a vehicle’s history and ensure any damage has been repaired, past or existing damage is an excellent leverage point when it comes to discussing a sale price.

Beware, however, of cases where a seller claimed a vehicle had no damage but was unwilling to verify it. This is usually a red flag that the seller is hiding something and it is probably a good time to back away from the sale and avoid any further issues. It is also good information to know that in some states, used car sellers are only required to disclose prior vehicle damage of more than 25% of its fair market value.

That means you could be in dark regarding a great deal of a vehicle’s damage. Even new cars in some states can include less than 5% damage and not report it to buyers. Keep in mind that every state has its own regulations involving vehicle damage and wise buyers will educate themselves to this effect before purchasing.

Is it Time to Buy?

When purchasing a used car, a pre-purchase inspection can be an invaluable tool in making a final decision. Did you learn that the car rear-ended a garbage truck a year ago and the car’s frame is damaged? Is that odd odor in the back seat the result of standing water inside the car from a flood? Did the PPI report come back clean as a whistle and the car is in even better condition than you thought?

If you are not satisfied with the PPI report, it’s now time to decide if you want to buy or not. You can return to the seller and renegotiate a price or discuss other buying options or if you are buying from a dealer, they will likely work with you however possible to encourage the sale.

In either scenario, the advantage is on your side. It’s up to you to decide to make the purchase. The responsibility is also yours; if a vehicle fits your individual needs and desires but has some form of damage or particular malfunction, this is your opportunity to buy the car and address or live with the imperfections. On the other hand, it is also the time to be smart and in light of significant mechanical issues, negotiate pre-purchase repairs or a lower sale price.

Your ultimate goal is a safe, reliable car that you enjoy. Everything you can do prior to purchasing that car goes a long way in securing the product you want, without surprises. Don’t buy a used car without arranging a thorough inspection completed by a pro. It is time and money well spent.