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Basics of a Used Car Inspection: What to Expect When They Inspect


In a busy, constantly moving world, our vehicles are our livelihood. As our livelihood, cars require regular maintenance and the occasional weekend wash to keep them lasting long. However, there will be a time when a new car is needed, whether for family use or for the sixteen-year-old with a shiny, new driver's permit.

When buying a used car, it is important to get a pre-purchase inspection done before laying down the cash for the new-ish set of wheels. Although they might seem trustworthy, or maybe you don't even know them, the last few owners may not have been quite as honest as they claimed. While they swear that the bump on the side was caused from an out of control buggy at the grocery store, it may have been caused by something that had a lasting impact on the vehicle, like Mack truck.

How long does a pre-purchase inspection take?

With a little planning, inspections can be done quite quickly. The price may not be very cheap but future safety and peace of mind are well worth the charge when visiting a Certified shop.

According to Edmunds, a good inspection serves several functions such as:

  • Verifies the equipment, or options, on the car.
  • Confirms the condition level of the car.
  • Reveals hidden problems with the body, frame or engine.
  • Finds engine codes that can reveal engine problems.
  • Builds confidence in the value of the vehicle

What if the seller won't allow a pre-purchase inspection?

If buying from a seller and they're reluctant to allow you to get the car inspected, you may want to reconsider the vehicle and find another that can be inspected for any problems before you spend your hard-earned time and money.

Once the inspection has been cleared and you are confident in the condition of your used car, the inspection pays for itself in your future with the vehicle.

Now for the 7 follow up questions. Getting a professional pre-purchase inspection (PPI) on a vehicle before you buy can be the best decision you make in the purchase process because it can tell you about, not only the immediate, but also future needed repairs. These will help you determine if the entire cost of the vehicle, including the needed repairs, are within your budget.

1. Why should I have a pre-purchase inspection performed?

Getting a pre-purchase inspection is more important than most people realize. A good mechanic can find problems that may not be immediately apparent, which the seller might not even realize exist. Investing in the $100 range for a PPI can save you thousands of dollars down the road.

Even more important than dollars saved is you and your passengers’ safety. Most states in the U.S. do not require annual vehicle safety inspections, so the responsibility is on you and a trusted mechanic to ensure the vehicle you buy is safe to drive.

2. How much should I expect to pay?

The cost of a PPI will vary depending on your location; the vehicle’s make, model, year, and mileage; as well as the depth of the inspection, but the average inspection costs around $100.

3. How long will the inspection take?

The time it takes to complete an inspection depends on the thoroughness of the Inspection. The average time is one hour, but it can take anywhere from 30 minutes to more than three hours.

4. Where should I have an inspection done and how should I schedule it?

We recommend that you find the RepairPal Certified shop in your area because they have passed RepairPal’s rigorous certification assessment, which includes a technical assessment conducted by our team of certified master mechanics, guaranteed work quality that includes a minimum 12-month/12,000-mile warranty, guaranteed fair pricing, and consistently high customer satisfaction scores. You can find a RepairPal Certified shop at RepairPal.

Determine when you will have access to the vehicle from the seller or ask the seller to take it to the RepairPal Certified shop you select. It’s always best to call ahead and schedule an appointment for the PPI with the shop.

5. Are there different kinds of pre-purchase inspections?

Essentially, there are two categories of inspections: basic and comprehensive. • Basic Pre-Purchase Inspection A basic inspection usually includes a visual inspection of the interior, exterior, and under-hood of the vehicle. It may also include a basic component test and test drive. • Comprehensive Pre-Purchase Inspection A comprehensive inspection includes everything in a basic inspection, as well as other services, such as a diagnostic scan, additional engine tests, and a more in-depth test drive.

6. What kinds of problems can a pre-purchase inspection reveal?

When performing an inspection, the technician will look for any current or possible future problems with the vehicle.

  • Visual Inspection
    When a visual inspection is performed, the technician may find body damage, hidden or unreported repairs of collision damage, as well as any manner of leaks, including engine oil, transmission, differential, brake fluid, fuel, coolant, and power steering. He or she will also look for worn or corroded components and will check the general condition of the vehicle’s interior. He or she will also check for worn or uneven wear on tires. Uneven tire wear is usually an indicator of improper alignment, which may be caused by worn suspension components or off settings.
  • Vehicle Body Inspection 
    When checking the body of the vehicle, the technician will check whether the paint color matches on all panels and if there is over-spray in between or underneath body panels. This is usually an indicator of a re-paint, which if not disclosed by the seller, could be hiding previous collision damage. Other things technicians can look for while assessing body damage are cracked welds, uneven panel gaps, or bent frames, and he or she will use a magnet to check for thick body filler.
  • Worn or Corroded Components 
    Some of the common worn or corroded components that can be identified during a PPI may include batteries, cables, tires, belts, fluid condition, brake/fuel lines, exhaust, gas tank, and rust on body or frame of vehicle.
  • Test Drive
    When a technician test drives the vehicle he or she will test for vehicle alignment issues, noises, steering issues, brake performance/problems, function of gauges, transmission operation, and engine performance.

    Alignment issues are usually identified when a vehicle either pulls to one side of the road or tends to wander from one side to the other. This can be caused by improper settings or worn suspension components.

    Noises during a test drive may come from many sources and indicate different problems. Squeaks and rattles are usually caused by interior panels. Wind noises are usually caused by misaligned windows or worn seals. Clunks and rattling may also indicate loose or broken vehicle component mounts.

    Steering issues are usually related to suspension/alignment. Other issues with steering may include hard turning, which usually indicates a problem with the power assist system or if the driver experiences excessive play it may be any component from the steering column down to the suspension.

    Braking issues identified during a test drive may include vibration/shaking during braking, which usually indicates warped brake rotors. Having to apply excessive force to brakes for a complete stop usually indicates a problem with the brake assist system. Squealing or chirping may indicate glazed rotors or other problems with brake components.

7. What else should I do to ensure you I’m making a wise purchase?

In addition to a PPI conducted by a RepairPal Certified shop, here are some additional things you can do to make sure you make the right purchase decision and protect the value of this major investment:

  • Run a vehicle history report. This is done by submitting your VIN (vehicle identification number) to a service that provides these types of reports. You can usually find your VIN on the driver-side top of the dashboard or the driver-side door jam. 
  • Drive the car as much as possible before you buy it and then write down any abnormalities you noticed during your drive.
  • Make sure to test out all the gadgets and functions of the vehicle.
  • Finally, make sure the car feels like the right fit for you!

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