A Pre-Purchase Inspection Could Save You From Buying a Lemon

Before you buy, take that used car to a shop for a look from a trained mechanic.

Texas Department of Public Safety

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Apart from buying a house, a vehicle is often the most expensive purchase most of us will make. While most folks wouldn’t dream of signing the paperwork for a home without an inspection, they don’t think to do the same when purchasing a used car. Perhaps they should. Having a professional inspect and drive your potential vehicle could save you from a lot of expensive headaches down the road. Here’s what you should know about a pre-purchase inspection (PPI).

Why Do I Need a Pre-Purchase Inspection?

Just as an accountant knows the ins and outs of tax preparation, a good mechanic knows exactly what to look and listen for with a car. A technician can find out a lot about a vehicle by putting it on a lift, such as if it has new parts, prior improper repairs, leaks, excessive corrosion, or even evidence of crash damage — all things you’ll want to know before making your decision. They also might have a fair understanding of the vehicle’s “pattern failures,” or common malfunctions that tend to plague that particular model, and what it might cost you to deal with them in the future.

What Is a Pre-Purchase Inspection?

Every shop has its own process, and you should ask what it is when you inquire about a PPI. At a minimum, expect the mechanic to take the car for a short test drive to feel and listen for irregularities when the car accelerates, stops, and traverses bumps. After that, the tech will likely check the fluids, inspect the suspension for any play, examine the brakes, and assess the tire condition. Many shops will even take pictures to include with the writeup that will help you decide if you should purchase or pass on a used car.

How Much Does a Pre-Purchase Inspection Cost?

This will vary by geographical location and by shop, but $100 to $200 is reasonable. When I worked at a repair shop, inspection took about a half hour of labor, including a road test and an inspection on the lift. When you consider the amount it could cost you to fix a car’s various problems, a few Jacksons might be worth the peace of mind.

Do I Need a Pre-Purchase Inspection for a Certified Pre-Owned Car?

A certified pre-owned (CPO) car usually comes with an extended warranty and assurances that it underwent a rigorous inspection. But CPO cars are not all equal. I worked at a shop where someone brought in a two- or three-year-old certified pre-owned car for a PPI. While it looked great on the outside, once we got it on the lift, we could tell right away that the previous owner had driven it on a dirt road its entire life and never washed it. The chemicals used to control dust on dirt roads accelerate corrosion, and the underside of this CPO car looked rustier than that of a vehicle driven in the salt for 15 years. We saved that customer from making a really bad purchase.

Where Can I Get a Pre-Purchase Inspection?

Most automotive repair shops will perform a PPI for a fee, but it’s best to find a local, reputable, and independent one so you could form a relationship for future repairs. Ask your friends, family, neighbors, and people on social media sites such as Nextdoor.com for a recommendation. Finding a mechanic who specializes in the type of car you want is a smart idea. Some shops really know their way around German cars, while others might have expertise in American models. These experts will better know what to look for in a prospective purchase. While a national tire store may perform a PPI, their technicians are often only trained to look at brakes and suspension, so the inspection may not be as thorough as the one performed by a full-service shop.

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Jon Yanca
To say cars have been a lifelong passion for Jon Yanca would be an understatement. Obsession is probably more fitting. He brings over 15 years of automotive-industry experience spanning from top enthusiast publications, to advertising and marketing, to independent auto repair. When Jon is not writing about cars, you'll find him racing on dirt, pavement, and even ice, or with a wrench in hand maintaining his fleet of vehicles.