No piece of car-buying advice is more often ignored than this: Have a mechanic inspect a used car before you buy it. Why do buyers plunk down thousands of dollars on a car with little more than an around-the-block test drive and a glance under the hood? Three reasons often deter car buyers from taking this vital step:

  • Some consumers don't know that good used-car inspections are readily available.
  • Many car buyers don't want to pay the extra money for an inspection.
  • Some people anticipate a hassle getting a dealer or private party to agree to an inspection.

With a little planning, the inspection process can be simple, not to mention as revealing as a hidden-camera exposé. If the inspection report is clean, you can buy with increased confidence. If it unearths ugly problems, you can back away or negotiate a lower price to reflect the cost of repairs.

Most sellers will let you take the car for an inspection or agree to have a mobile inspection performed at their home or place of business. If the seller hesitates, you might wonder what they're hiding and consider walking away from the deal.

The Vital Prepurchase Inspection

Experts agree that used cars must be inspected by a qualified specialist before the final negotiation for purchase. The ordinary car buyer, even if mechanically savvy, really can't do it justice. A thorough, professional inspection can tell you whether you're about to buy a peach or a lemon.

You should try to have the inspection performed by a mechanic with whom you've already built a relationship. And ideally, the inspection should include a test drive over a route that includes hills, bumps and potholes to reveal suspension problems and engine performance issues. Having a third party inspect and test the vehicle establishes trust and increases your familiarity with the car. Sure, there's a ton of information available on the web about every model, but what you need at this juncture is detailed information about this particular car. A professional inspection will tell you both what might be wrong with this vehicle and also what's right with it.

Smart sellers, too, know the value of a presale inspection. Having the car thoroughly scrutinized by a reliable third party before listing it provides an additional selling point in the form of a written report. While this is useful information and lends credibility to the seller, you should still insist on getting your own independent inspection before making the purchase.

What It Costs, What It Covers

Nearly all auto service facilities, from chain repair shops to dealerships to independent garages, offer some type of prepurchase inspection at a cost that generally ranges from $100 to $200. Most repair facilities will give a written description of the number of points covered in the inspection — typically more than 100 — and a detailed description of how it's conducted. Note that in most cases, however, the findings of inspections are not guaranteed.

Automotive experts agree that a good inspection serves several functions. It:

  • Verifies the functioning of equipment, including options, on the car.
  • Confirms the condition level of the car, including such things as tire wear and the condition of the brake pads.
  • Reveals hidden problems with the body, frame or engine.
  • Checks trouble codes that can reveal mechanical or electrical problems.
  • Builds confidence in the value of the vehicle.

Major problems that can be spotted by a good inspector include:

  • Frame damage. If the frame shows damage, it indicates the car has been in a serious accident. Unless it has been repaired correctly, the wheels might not track properly, causing the vehicle to pull to one side and lead to premature tire wear.
  • Poor previous repair work. This could range from improper engine service to sloppy bodywork to improper installation of accessories or modifications.
  • Flood damage or fire damage. A vehicle history report can red-flag a car that has been in a flood or fire unless its title has been falsified. You might not spot the fake title, but an inspector can identify the telltale signs of damage.

Other issues an inspection can reveal include hidden rust, fluid leaks, burned-out bulbs, nonfunctioning accessories, suspicious odors and overdue maintenance procedures.

Mobile or Garage Inspection?

Many people will be faced with the choice of having a mobile inspector look at a car or taking the vehicle to a local mechanic. While the most important thing is getting a qualified inspection, each method has its advantages and disadvantages.

A mobile inspection is fast and convenient. The inspector comes to your or the seller's home or office, performs the inspection on site, and prints out a report on the spot. Inspectors also photograph any damage, taking shots of the vehicle from different angles.

Inspections done by your local mechanic, or the service department of a dealership that sells that brand of car, are performed with more specialized equipment. For example, the inspector can put the car up on a lift and examine the underside for damage, fluid leaks and other irregularities.

Buying From a Distance

Online car-buying sites have given buyers access to thousands of vehicles they might never have found otherwise, but purchasing a car located far away can bring a number of potential problems. These might include out-and-out fraud, payment issues, paperwork difficulties and, critically, the inability to see the vehicle in person before committing to the sale. Here's where a presale inspection can help.

If you find a car you like in another part of the country, you should, of course, ask to see a lot of close-up photographs and get a vehicle history report from a service such as Carfax or AutoCheck. But a professional inspection will provide an important extra level of insurance that you're not buying a pack of trouble. And arranging an inspection that will take place elsewhere isn't that difficult.

Obviously, it isn't a great idea to rely on the seller to choose the person who will perform the inspection. If you know someone in the area where the car is located, you can ask them to recommend a reliable mechanic. Failing that, a dealership that sells that model of vehicle can generally be trusted to provide an accurate assessment. And if you're the one ordering and paying for the inspection, the report should come directly to you and not through the seller.

There are also several inspection services, such as Alliance Inspection Management and Automobile Inspections, that specialize in assisting buyers with long-distance purchases. As a last resort, a web search and careful examination of online user reviews can turn up an independent shop in the seller's area that can do the job for you.

If the vehicle happens to be an exotic or collector car, online forums and clubs can be a great source of information. Individuals who live near the seller and own the same type of vehicle will likely be able to recommend reliable mechanics in the area. Some may even be familiar with the exact car you're thinking about buying.

It's Car-Buying Insurance

While no inspection is guaranteed to find every flaw in a used car, a trained eye can help you avoid serious problems. A good mechanic, inspector or dealership technician will know what to look for and will have the equipment needed to provide a reliable assessment of a vehicle's condition, including the all-important safety equipment. Given thousands of dollars are at stake, an hour of your time and a reasonable fee are good insurance against the unknown.