Before you buy a used car, you have to make sure it is safe to drive and does not require expensive repairs. You want to check for signs of a serious accident, water and fire damage, and poor maintenance. If you are going to be sure you are buying a reliable set of wheels, you will need to take it to a professional mechanic to check for details you might miss. A professional used-car pre-purchase inspection verifies all components of the car are working, reveals obscure defects in its body, frame, and engine, and establishes its general condition. More than that, it increases your familiarity with the car and helps to build confidence in your purchase.
You can ask a mechanic you trust to accompany you to the dealership and inspect the car on the lot. Alternatively, you can take it to an independent auto diagnostic clinic. Most reputable auto dealerships allow prospective buyers to take cars off the lot for inspection. Typically, they will send a salesperson to accompany you to the repair shop of your choice. If a seller is reluctant to let you have the car independently inspected (a sales manager may cite insurance restrictions, for example), it is a sign he is hiding something. Walk away.
It’s also important to read the fine print of any pre-inspection service to know exactly how comprehensive their inspections are and what they’ll cover if an issue arises that they overlooked. Some inspection services — like those offered by mobile mechanic service YourMechanic — claim to be full-service inspections but in reality, they’re just visual inspections; they won’t stand behind any mechanical issues that they failed to identify.
How to set up a Used Car Pre-Purchase Inspection
Before you schedule an inspection, check that the car is in the actual condition the seller claims. Look for dents, rust and fluid leaks and ensure that everything inside and outside the vehicle is in good working order. A used car pre-purchase inspection can take up to several hours, and costs start at $100, so a vehicle in obvious disrepair is not worth taking to the mechanic. Once you’ve figured out that the car you are interested in is in good shape, ask the seller if you can have it inspected by a third party.
Next, determine where you are going to take the used car inspection. If you don’t have a relationship with a local mechanic, find a certified automotive repair shop that can do a comprehensive examination. If you are buying a rare, older or high-performance car, consider seeking repair shops that specialize in that make and model. Call the mechanic or repair shop you settle on, inform them that you would like them to do a pre-purchase inspection on a used car, and find if any of the dates and times you agreed with the seller works for them. The evaluator may ask you for the car’s make, model and registration number to generate a quote.
Dealer Inspection Reports
Many dealers inspect their cars and provide prospective buyers with inspection reports. An independent inspection can be a good idea even if the dealership has examined the car and is selling it with a warranty or service contract. In most cases, dealership evaluations—as with mandatory state inspections—usually focus on substantial conditions that could make driving a car unsafe. If the dealer has given a car a clean bill of health, it could merely mean that it is safe to drive off the lot.
Some used cars on a dealership lot may be marked “certified.” Usually, this means the cars have gone through a more thorough inspection and come with a limited warranty. If the car you are interested in is “certified,” ask for a report of what was inspected and what the warranty covers. The report should supplement rather than substitute an independent inspection.
Mobile Car Inspection
Where you take a used car for inspection largely depends on the options available to you. If a dealer objects to your taking a car offsite for inspection, you may have to find someone who can inspect it on the lot. If you need to find a mobile mechanic to do the inspection, search online or ask relatives, friends or co-workers for referrals; it’s a common business and reliable people shouldn’t be too hard to find in your area.
The mechanic should check, among other items, the engine, transmission, suspension, wheels, and electrical systems. He should also check the structural integrity of the vehicle’s body and its state of maintenance. Go with the mechanic on a test drive and ask about any issues that come up. Even without your asking, the mechanic should inspect the car against a checklist and give you a comprehensive report when he is done.
A mobile inspector could also be your only option if you are buying from a distance or cannot make it to the inspection. He can take close-up photographs of any damage the car has, advise you on its condition and reliability, and tell you right away if it is a good buy. The report he or she generates on the state of the car should come directly to you and not through the seller.
Although mobile car inspections are fast and convenient, they are not as comprehensive as auto diagnostic clinics. A mechanic will only carry a jack, code reader, and other light equipment to the dealership lot.
Automobile Repair Shops
An auto repair shop, on the other hand, can hoist the car and examine the undercarriage for bends, misalignments, and other signs of frame damage. While the car is on the lift, a mechanic can look for rust holes in the floor pan and exhaust system, evaluate the condition of its tires and shocks, and look for leaks from brake cylinders, axles, the radiator, and gas tank.
Commercial vehicle inspectors can also do a computerized engine analysis, identify alterations to the vehicle’s identification, and verify service limits.
Nearly all auto repair shops offer pre-purchase inspection services. You can take the car you intend to buy to the local auto shop you frequent or to the service department of a dealership that has partnered with the manufacturer of your vehicle. If you don’t have a mechanic you can trust, and there are no specialized service departments near you, look for an auto diagnostic service provider that displays an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) seal or any other reputable certification.
Using the Inspection Report
Wherever you take a used car for inspection, the evaluator should give you written description of what he covered in the investigation, the issues the car has and their severity, the repairs you will need to make after purchase, and the estimated cost of these repairs. The evaluator may include a purchase recommendation if the vehicle is in excellent condition.
If there are only a few cosmetic issues that blemish an otherwise spotless used car pre-purchase inspection report, you can proceed with the purchase in confidence. Relatively easy-to-fix issues are nothing to worry about because nearly all used cars have a few minor problems. Rather than getting hung up on these issues, use them to challenge the asking price. A detailed inspection report, especially one with estimates of repair costs, is a great bargaining tool.
If the inspection report has a few red flags, you can either make a lowball offer or look for another car. A dealer may offer to do the repairs and sell you the car at the original asking price. You can accept the offer and ask for evidence that the issues have been fixed. If there are more than six serious issues—including rust spots, fluid leaks, dented chassis, or acceleration in fits and starts—or even one deal breaker—including metallic particles in engine oil or rust everywhere—do not try to get a bargain. Look for another car.