How Much Does a Pre-Purchase Car Inspection Cost?

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There is an old saying, when it comes to purchasing large items — any items, really — “Caveat Emptor,” or “Let the Buyer Beware.” What it means is that if you want to buy a car and it turns out to be a lemon, you should have known about it, so the responsibility is yours.

Looking for a certified mechanic to conduct a pre-purchase car inspection is one of the most vital parts of the process of buying your next car.

During the Pre-Purchase Inspection (PPI), the mechanic or an auto technician will do a thorough inspection and checking of the condition of the vehicle you want to buy for its safety, operability, and overall functionality.

He or she will then submit to you a report that will cover all the important details you need to know about the car you are buying.

Inspecting using computer illustration
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The Cost to Get a Car Inspected

The average used vehicle inspection costs between $70 and $140 and can go as high as $275. It takes about 30 minutes to an hour to complete. The price range varies due to packages and location where you are going to go for the pre-purchase inspection to be done.

This price range is typically based off of the FTC guidelines for a used car, but is also dependent on some other factors. Some of these are the car’s age, model, maker, and its overall condition – from the noticeable defects on the paint and body, to the problems in the engine and other mechanical parts of the car.

Age is one of the most common and critical factors to be considered when conducting the inspection. One way you can do to learn the car’s age is by reading the mileage. Typically, a good used car will have at least 12,000 – 24,000 miles on the odometer. 

The model and the make of the car is another price factor of the inspection because of some cars having more complicated components and parts. For example, if you buy an older luxury car or a sports car like a Chevrolet Chevelle, the inspection will be more thorough and meticulous.

mechanic repairman inspecting car closeup

Warranties and Certified Pre-Owned Vehicles

Getting an inspection is one of the best assurances you can get when buying a used vehicle. However, if you want to avoid the hassle of going through the process of getting a vehicle inspection, you can look up for Certified Pre-Owned or CPO vehicles that can potentially be better investments when buying your next car.

CPO vehicles are previously owned automobiles that ran at least 60,000 to 80,000 miles, certified and inspected by dealers following the car manufacturer’s requirements. These cars are usually no older than five to seven years and the overall condition will depend on the specifications required by the manufacturer.

If you decide to buy a CPO vehicle, you’ll be made sure that the car has been through meticulous inspections and prior repairs before it is put up on sale. To better understand the car’s history, the mechanic should be able to provide you with a Vehicle History Report. 

Companies like Carfax and Autocheck offer comprehensive Vehicle Reports that cover everything dealers and buyers need to know about the condition of the car for prices ranging from $25 – $50 and even up to $100 depending on the package and inclusions of the report you need.

If you don’t want to spend more on CPO vehicles, most dealers offer used cars usually with no basic warranties and are sold under the term “As Is”. If you decide to buy a car without any certification and warranty, then a vehicle inspection will be vital as part of the process of your purchase.

The Pre-Purchase Car Inspection Process

The pre-purchase car inspection is done to technically and precisely evaluate the car’s overall mechanical and cosmetic condition through a series of procedures and tests. Any mechanic knowledgeable in conducting vehicle inspections can do the tests.

If you are looking for a way to avoid the costs of getting a used car inspection, there are ways you can do this by yourself. 

However, it is highly recommended to seek services from highly trained and ASE certified mechanics to give your car a more detailed pre-purchase inspection and a thorough inspection report.

In the report, the ASE mechanic will indicate if there are any modifications made on the body and the engine, or if the car has been in an accident or flood. The mechanic will then give you recommendations if the vehicle requires any maintenance and repairs and he/she will also tell you if the car is worth the price or if it is worth to be purchased at all.

man repairing car

How the Used Car Inspection is Done?

Generally, there are five categories that most ASE mechanics check when doing the pre-purchase inspection. These categories are the tires, the exterior, the interior, the engine, and the steering and suspension.

  • Inspecting the Tires

There’s more to the condition of the tires than just the rubber exterior. Aside from the depth of the tire tread and its appearance, the mechanic can find out if there are any problems with the alignment(around $40 to $100 to service) and suspension of the vehicle by checking the tires and their components.

Every tire has a DOT number and a tread wear indicator that show the tire information and age. If the tires are too old or worn out, the mechanic recommends a replacement to ensure the tires run smoothly especially on wet roads and slippery surfaces. Having fresh and high-quality tires can also help with the evenness of the car suspension.

  • The Exterior

The exterior of the car will be inspected from top to bottom; from the roof down to the frame/chassis of the vehicle. When examining the underbody and the frame, the mechanics will check for any dangling parts that are about to fall off. Also, one of the most crucial parts of the external inspection is checking the underbody for any rusts or corrosions.

Rusts can be due to the car being exposed to flooding and can also mean that it spent most of its time in the coasts near saltwater or in cold places. If the mechanic finds out there are rusts in the car, he/she will most likely recommend that you stay away from buying it due to the risks and expenses you are about to face.

The frame should be intact with no bents and damages. If there are any issues observed on the frame of the car, it can be a clear sign that the vehicle was involved in an accident. If the damage is severe, the mechanic may advise you to find another car to purchase.

The outer body, on the other hand, will be checked for any imperfections such as dents, dings, and fading and discoloring of the paint. Minor scratches and paint bubbling might seem a minor thing, but it can result in costly body repairs that will leave you scratching your head and your money wasted.

From the outside, the mechanic will scan through all the glass parts of the vehicle. The headlights, signal lights, as well as the windshield, side mirrors, and windows will be inspected for their physical appearance and their functionality as well.

  • The Interior

When inspecting the interior of the car, the mechanic will make sure that everything works on the inside from the seemingly superficial issues like rear view mirrors, the car seat covers, to the more important things like light indicators on the dashboard.

One of the first things the mechanic will inspect is the car’s A/C. If the air conditioning and the heater are not working well, it can mean that the HVAC needs cleaning or repair. When the mechanic finds out the problem, it can be another problem for you in finding an A/C technician, along with the additional costs of repair or putting Freon into the HVAC system.

Also, other wirings and electronics installed in the car, such as the radio, power windows, rearview dash cameras, and other components are inspected for their functionality. Just like how you would want to feel at home in your house, the mechanic will make sure that all aspects of the interior of the car, the car seat, the floor, mirrors, the roofs (if applicable), etc. are all working and looking great.

  • The Engine and Transmission

Probably the most critical part of the inspection; the engine is considered to be the heart of the vehicle and inspecting it will take more time and meticulousness than any other points of the used car inspection.

But before going into the engine itself, the mechanic will make sure that the hood is intact, and opens and closes properly. Just like the frame and the underbody of the vehicle, the mechanics will make sure there are no corrosions and holes on the hood.

Engine Fluids. The mechanic will do a visual inspection of the engine. The engine may be run full of oils and fluids, it should be visually clean and free from corrosions, and other unwanted sights such as dirt, grease, and grime build up. Also, there should be no leaking oils and fluids at the bottom as this could mean bad connections or degraded engine gaskets.

Every car on sale, whether used or brand new, should be in running condition the moment you purchase it. During the inspection, the mechanics will make sure that all the engine oil, power steering fluid, coolant, and brake fluid levels are full. You will also want to see that the oils are clear in color and they’re on the right levels.

Engine Belts – All of the belts on the engine should be clean and free from cracks and wear and tear. If the belts’ brand names are faded, it’s a sign that you need to replace the belt with a new one.

Every engine belt such as the timing belt, serpentine belt, and the V-belt or drive belt serves a critical role in the car’s performance and overall operability. If one of your belts snap, not only that the engine won’t work; it can get damaged as well – resulting in additional costs in the long run.

Engine Sound – Finally, the mechanic will let the engine run on idle. The sounds the mechanic will be looking out for are the rough rumbling, metal to metal clanking, and pinging sounds. Any unusual engine sounds may indicate problems with the exhaust, ignition, and filters.

  • Steering and Suspension

During the test drive, the mechanic will make sure that the car’s steering and suspension are aligned and working well. The test drive will be done, not only on village streets but also on the freeway to determine if the car runs smoothly on lower and higher speeds.

Before taking the car for a spin, the mechanic will make sure that the steering wheel turns equally on both turns – meaning that if you make three turns when turning right, you should also make three turns when steering to the left.

If they’re not the same, then the steering wheel is unbalanced. Also, you will notice that the car leans slightly on either to the left or onto the right even if the steering wheel is positioned in the middle when it is unbalanced.

Everything should be tight and comfortable. When driving, the mechanic will have you drive through busy streets where there are a lot of turns to make sure that the steering turns comfortably and easily while the car is moving. When driving over speed bumps, the suspension should handle the pressure perfectly as well.

  • Other Observations While Test Driving

Brakes – It is vital to make sure that the brakes are fully functional before driving the vehicle. The pads will be checked for grip, and the rotors for unevenness, wear or rust, to save you from spending as high as $2,726.97 for brake pad and rotor replacement

Tires – While on the road, the mechanic will listen to any unusual sounds of the tires. The tires may have been initially visually inspected but some problems can only be detected through the noises and the feel of the car while driving. There will be additional costs for tire balancing and wheel alignment. 

Gear selector – The mechanic will make sure that the shifter moves comfortable and goes along smoothly when stepping down on the clutch and there should be no grinding noise while changing gears (especially for standard cars).

Exhaust – There should be no leak from the exhaust while the car is being driven or else it’d cost you. Leaky exhaust can also be a result of a failing catalytic converter. The noise of the exhaust should not be too loud as well.

Windows – The windows should be tightly sealed when closed to avoid noise and air pollution inside the car. They should also open and close smoothly

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Factors Affecting the Cost of the Pre-Purchase Car Inspection

As previously mentioned, the range of prices of the pre-purchase car inspection can vary depending on the package you are getting for your car. Each auto shop offers different package deals generally categorized as the standard, comprehensive and commercial inspection.

The standard inspection is the most common and does not involve too many processes. This inspection is usually done at the shop (depending on the warranty or agreement between you and the dealer) where you’re buying the car, where their mechanics will do checking of the exterior, interior, and under the hood of the vehicle, and can also include a test drive.

The comprehensive inspection includes more elaborate checks on the vehicle’s engine, frame and a more in-depth visual observation and mechanical testing of the car’s overall performance. The mechanic conducting the inspection will be more intricate in listening to any unusual sound produced by the vehicle during the test drive as well. 

Finally, the commercial inspection is a type of vehicle inspection done on RVs, trucks, and other commercial vehicles. This type is much more costly than others due to the fact that commercial vehicles have more components than the standard four-wheel sedan.

Importance of Pre-Purchase Car Inspection

To someone buying a car that has no knowledge and experience in car mechanics, the process can be confusing, risky, and even costly in the long run. Although the dealer or the individual selling the car guarantee its quality, it is best to ask for a pre-purchase car inspection just before you complete the purchase.

Although there may be no law that requires a third party pre-purchase used car inspection, it is one of the most recommended steps especially when buying a used vehicle. 

When buying a vehicle from private individuals, the decision whether to have the car inspected or not will depend on your agreement. Although the seller may be a car enthusiast or a mechanic himself/herself, he/she cannot “certify” that the car is good to go, unless he/she has a shop that can provide a pre-purchase car inspection report. Otherwise, it is best to go to a third party mechanic to get an unbiased and accurate report and opinion.

Repair Cost Consideration

The cost of repair is absolutely one main reason why you have to have a pre-purchase auto inspection. 

For example, finding out that the brand new car you recently bought has a major defect – say a bad transmission. Depending on the car make, the condition of the repair, and the location, transmission repairs generally cost between $6,350 and $6,975. That’s a huge price to pay that you can avoid by having a pre-purchase auto inspection for a very significantly low price.

When Should You Get a Pre-Purchase Car Inspection?

The moment you decide to buy a car, you should be able to schedule a pre-purchase inspection just before you finish the deal with the seller or the car dealer. Most sellers, especially private individuals will accompany you and even let you drive the vehicle to the mechanic where you scheduled your vehicle inspection.  Otherwise, if the seller hesitates, it should be a red flag.

Although this process comes at a cost, it’s your insurance you should be willing to pay so you are sure that you’re getting a quality and safe car that is worth the budget.

Also, please note that if the mechanic has access to an OBD-II diagnostic scanner, it is likely that you may also have a report on the car’s mechanical health generated by this system. The only limitation to understand is that unless the mechanic spends significant money for subscriptions to the OBD-II software updates from the major manufacturers that the scans will be very generic. And, while today’s generic scans still provide far more information than those of even a decade ago, they are still not as good as those scans provided by factory software.

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Author Bio

Marc Stern

Marc Stern

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