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Get a Used Car Inspection Before You Buy

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A sparkling coat of wax and shiny black tires could hide a host of problems in the used car you’re ready to buy. Even if the new-to-you used car from Craigslist or a used car lot looks like new, it’s wise to avoid potential problems by getting a used car inspection. You don’t want it to break down when you’re driving it home or have it develop weird sounds and run rough within a few days.

Used car inspections are readily available and can be money well spent if they help you avoid buying a lemon. Car buyers typically pay about $200 for an independent inspection, and reputable sellers should agree to it.

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What is a used car inspection?

A used car inspection, also known as a prepurchase inspection, is conducted by an independent mechanic. A local mechanic or inspection service will examine the car based on a checklist of potential problem areas, alerting you to anything that might make you think twice about buying the car.

The mechanic may point out issues that could be serviced or repaired to put the car in good working order, or they may highlight problems that make the car too risky to purchase. The idea is to go into the deal fully informed about the car’s condition. While a dealer may conduct an inspection, it’s a good idea to also visit a mechanic not associated with the dealer.

What it covers and what it costs

A typical used car inspection uses computer diagnostics and a visual inspection of major systems, including:

  Heat and air conditioning
  Steering and suspension
  Brakes
  Wheels and tires
  Fluid levels
  Hoses and belts
  Body condition and exterior surfaces
  Check for accident or flood damage
  Road test

The inspection may also include photos of major systems to document their condition and point out problem areas. The mechanic should put the car on a lift to inspect the underside for damage or rust and to look for evidence of fluid leaks. A road test will help identify any problems with the engine, transmission and brakes.

Prices for a used car inspection will vary by location, the type of car and the depth of the inspection. Some mechanics offer a basic visual inspection and test drive for $70. A more detailed inspection, including putting the car on a lift, may cost up to $200. Nationwide car care chains offer free basic courtesy checks that could help you spot obvious issues.

Here are some sample prices for various levels of inspection services:

Courtesy checkFreeNational service chains such as Goodyear and Firestone
Basic visual inspection$70Often includes test drive
Pep Boys$74.99120-point inspection and CarFax
Detailed inspection$100 to $200Often includes lifting the vehicle, an accident inspection and a test drive
Mobile inspection service$200May include pictures, depending on provider
Lemon Squad
sports/exotic car inspection
$259For luxury vehicles like Porsche, Lamborghini or Bugatti
Lemon Squad
classic car inspection
$299For cars 20 years old or older

Can I trust the seller’s inspection?

Used car dealers often tout their multipoint inspection service, but it’s wise to also find an independent mechanic who is unaffiliated with the dealership to look at the vehicle. Cars bought from dealerships or online car-buying sites are usually inspected and repaired before being listed for sale. Not only are certified pre-owned cars inspected and reconditioned to meet the manufacturer’s standards, but they also may have an extended factory warranty period.

While the seller may have conducted an inspection, they also have a vested interest in finding as little as possible to fix before selling the car. An independent mechanic is free to be very picky. Used cars are rarely perfect, so it’s important to know about anything that isn’t working right or could fail soon. Understanding how much life is left in the brakes and tires, for example, can help you determine the value of the used car.

Where to find a used car inspection

There are a number of ways to get a used car inspection. You could go to a trusted mechanic or find a service that comes to you. Mobile inspection services may be the most convenient option, but they may also be the priciest.

  • Local mechanic: If you already know and trust a local mechanic, ask them to inspect the car. A garage inspection has the added benefit of having the equipment necessary to lift the car and inspect its underside.
  • National/regional chain: Chains like Pep Boys, Goodyear and Firestone offer free courtesy inspections and more detailed inspections for a price. Chains assess many different cars and are knowledgeable about potential problems.
  • Another dealer: Many car dealers offer vehicle inspections through their service departments. Even if you’re buying from a dealer, take it to a different local dealer for an inspection. A dealer of the same make will be familiar with frequent trouble spots but doesn’t have a vested interest in selling you the car.
  • Mobile service: The dealer may not allow you to drive the car off the lot for an inspection. Or, you may be using an online car-buying site. If you can’t bring the car to the inspector, you can have the inspection service come to the car. Companies like Lemon Squad and Carchex connect buyers with qualified inspectors in their local area who conduct used car inspections. The buyer pays for the service and then receives a comprehensive report.

Is a prepurchase inspection worth it?

The short answer is: Yes, it is. In most cases, once you buy a car, it’s yours, according to most used car laws. An inspection could save you the headache and hassle of dealing with a lemon car. Or, it could give you peace of mind that the car you’re considering is right for you.

Even if issues are found, the inspection can help you budget for necessary service and maintenance costs. Spending around $200 to avoid possibly thousands in repair bills and the inconvenience of dealing with a car that doesn’t run well is a smart investment.

How to do your own inspection

While it’s a good idea to get an independent inspection when buying a used car, you can also perform a basic inspection yourself. Following this car inspection checklist can help you pinpoint trouble spots that could be checked out by a mechanic later.

Download the full used car inspection checklist

Review the car’s history

Start by running a free vehicle history report (VHR). This report will show you the state the car is titled in, the last date it was titled and the mileage of the car. Look out for branded titles, such as junk, salvage or flood, which can reveal whether the car has suffered damage in the past. The title will also indicate whether the car has been declared a total loss after an accident.

A free CarFax report will show ownership, accidents and recent service history.

Run a diagnostic scan

Auto parts shops have code readers that can display error codes for free. These readers will tell you if the check engine light or other warning lights have been triggered recently, even if they’re not showing at the moment. If error codes do show up, you may have to do some detective work. Depending on the car, a check engine light may be due to something simple, like a loose gas cap, rather than a major problem.

Give the car a once-over

Under the hood

In the engine bay, perform the following checks:

  • Use a flashlight to look for signs of fluid leaks.
  • Check belts and hoses for fraying or bulges.
  • Inspect the dipsticks to check the engine oil and transmission fluid. Some cars may not have an easily accessible way to check the transmission fluid.
  • Look at the coolant tanks for fluid levels and signs of leaks.
  • Check out the battery terminals for corrosion.

The car’s interior

Before you get in the car, lift up the floor mats and carpet to look for water damage. Take a moment to smell the car — water damage can leave a faint musty odor. A leaking heater core could leave a sweet, candy-like aroma from the radiator fluid.

Inside, test every button and feature you can:

  • Push the seats forward and back to make sure they work and to check for damage.
  • Adjust the seats and mirrors.
  • Test all the technology, such as the backup and front cameras, the radio and the infotainment and navigation systems. Try different modes and volume settings to make sure it all works.
  • Test both the heat and air conditioning. If you inspect the car during the summertime, you may not think about turning on the heat.
  • Move the windows up and down, and test door locks.
  • Look for stains and tears in the upholstery.
  • Sit in the passenger seat and the rear seats to make sure the seats aren’t broken down and to look for any problems out of sight from the driver’s seat.

The car’s exterior

You probably won’t crawl under the car, but you can tell a lot from the outside:

  • Look for rust and signs of damage or repairs, such as scratches, dents and mismatched paint.
  • Examine the tire tread depth to see how much is left and whether the tires are wearing evenly. Uneven wear could be a sign of alignment or suspension problems.
  • Determine whether all four tires are the same brand and size. If not, find out why.
  • Look for cracks and minor chips in all the glass.
  • Get help to see if the headlights (both high and low beams), taillights and turn signals are working.
  • Look for water or condensation in the light housings and see if the headlights are cloudy.
  • Push on the bumper to see how the suspension responds.

Go for a test drive

If the car has passed muster so far, take it for a test drive. Start with a circle around the parking lot or around the block, then get permission from the seller to drive it in normal traffic and over speed bumps and railroad tracks. If possible, get it up to highway speeds.

On the drive, you’ll want to:

  • Listen for any unusual sounds when starting the car, like a grinding sound.
  • Let the car idle for up to a minute to check for rough running and any excessive exhaust smoke or sounds.
  • Listen for unusual noises when you put the car into gear, like a heavy thunk or a high-pitched whine.
  • Accelerate slowly, listening for any sounds that occur only when the car is moving.
  • Feel for vibrations through the steering wheel or the seat.
  • See if the car goes where you steer it and doesn’t pull to one side.
  • Test the anti-lock brake system with a fake emergency stop. Of course, don’t do this in traffic.
  • Listen for the squealing or rubbing sounds of worn brake pads.

 

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