What Is a Pre Purchase Car Inspection?

Buying a used car can be daunting; assuring yourself you're buying a healthy car is easy with a pre purchase car inspection by a qualified mechanic.

Mechanic inspecting carShutterstock

Article QuickTakes:

Buying a used car can be challenging for several reasons. First, if you don't have a lot of experience working on and fixing a particular vehicle, figuring out if the engine, suspension, and electronics are working isn't easily determined by sight. Also, if the car in question is in any way special (like a sports car or a classic), you may be tempted to purchase with your heart instead of your head.

Having a pre purchase car inspection (PPI) and the resulting report done by a qualified, unbiased mechanic can save you:

  • Money on unseen mechanical problems
  • The cost to travel to the used car (if it's any appreciable distance from you)
  • The headaches that can come with a misguided or emotional purchase

We'll give you the basics of what a pre purchase car inspection is, what to expect when you get one done, and how to get one booked.

What is a Pre Purchase Car Inspection?

Just about every privately-purchased used car comes with no warranty, and even those bought from a dealer might only come with a very short warranty (often 30 days). A pre purchase car inspection can provide peace of mind when you're traveling down the used car path. It's also relatively cheap insurance compared to the cost of repairs for an ill-advised used car purchase. Note that you, as the intending buyer, would pay the cost of the inspection.

Most independent repair shops that are Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) Certified and even many car dealerships will perform a pre purchase car inspection if the brand of the car aligns with their own. You can expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $200 for a pre purchase inspection, though the cost could run a little higher for specialty cars like sports cars or classic cars, where a wider knowledge base is required of the mechanic.

Pre Purchase Inspection Report Card

A shop or dealer offering a pre purchase car inspection will provide the potential buyer with a detailed assessment of the car covering cosmetic, mechanical, and safety conditions as well as the condition of the electronics, complete with a portfolio of photos of any visible problem areas. These inspections should be done by a shop or mechanic very familiar with the make and model of the vehicle in question.

In addition to the traditional repair shops and dealers, specialized mobile pre purchase car inspection operations can provide the same service almost anywhere in the U.S. You can search online for "Pre Purchase Inspection" to find larger operations.

Buyer-seller agreement

One of the most critical parts of the equation is agreement between the buyer and seller before proceeding with any transaction. You can make an offer on a private sale, but if you're interested in booking an inspection, make sure to stipulate that your offer "is contingent on passing a pre purchase car inspection by a qualified mechanic of the buyer's choosing." If the seller balks at this prospect, you might consider walking away from the deal. If there's nothing to hide, a seller should probably not have a reason to object.

A basic inspection will largely be visual and should include putting the car up on a hydraulic lift to check for leaks, and broken or worn components. A slightly more involved inspection might include a detailed road test by the mechanic in which steering, suspension, and brakes can be evaluated. A very thorough inspection might also include checking the engine's compression and leak-down rates in each cylinder to determine the condition of the piston rings, valve seals and valve guides, plus a diagnostic test of the engine's electronics and ignition.

Booking an inspection

You can book a pre purchase car inspection in a variety of ways. If you're a member of AAA, they offer resources to find qualified inspectors, and some branches even offer the service themselves. There are some web sites where you can find qualified inspectors too, but a good bet is to canvass your exact area for ASE Certified repair shops. Additionally, if the car in question is special or high-end (like a Porsche or another sports car or luxury model), you can search yelp.com for real feedback on specialty shops that service the brand or model you're thinking of buying. Shops that cater to higher-end cars are almost always ASE Certified and welcome these inspections.

Remember that cars are potentially some of the most complex pieces of machinery you'll own and operate in your lifetime. An expert pre purchase car inspection costs practically nothing compared to the expense of fixing a lemon once you already own it.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
author photo
Jim Resnick
From racing exotic sports cars, to ranking new cars, to peeling back layers of cover up in an exhaust emissions scandal, Jim has chronicled the automotive sector for decades. Jim has also worked inside the corporate headquarters of three carmakers, and therefore understands how the automotive sausage is really made. But Jim’s affinity for vehicles takes a back seat to finding the truth and the cultural implications of modern transportation. He has also lectured at universities to engineering and policy students and faculty on the industry's relationship with legislation in the wake of the diesel exhaust emissions scandal several years ago. Put simply, Jim reports on autos, mobility, tech, car culture, and the traffic jam of topics within.