What is a Pre-Purchase Inspection?
A pre-purchase inspection is a service you have an independent mechanic perform on a car you are seriously considering purchasing. The mechanic will look through the car carefully, covering much of what we covered in the Used Car Inspection Checklist with an expert eye, and much more that wasn't covered there. You'll receive a written report that details what was inspected, what condition each item was in, and what service is recommended for the vehicle.
Why is a Pre-Purchase Inspection Important?
A mechanic will see things that you won't. They'll look deeper into systems where critical failures may occur. They know what commonly wears out on which vehicles. While our checklist covered many items, it didn't cover even more, such as brake pads, transmission mounts, and other things that are a bit technical and probably greasy to check. If there are looming expensive repairs, you need to know that before you purchase the vehicle. It doesn't mean you need to walk away from the vehicle. You may love it even though it needs an expensive transmission rebuild, for example. You just need to know before you decide to buy it and agree on a price. You need to account for that repair in the value of the vehicle and in your budget.
What Does a Pre-Purchase Inspection Cost?
Like anything, it depends. There is no industry definition of what's included and not included in a pre-purchase inspection. It may involve just a visual inspection, or it may involve road testing the vehicle as well. That's between you and your mechanic. In most cases the cost will range from about $100 to $200. More complex or exotic vehicles can be higher. That may sound like a lot, but it's money well spent. It gives you knowledge, and that's key when negotiating a price. That $100 may save you $500 or $1,000 on the purchase price. Or it may save you from buying a car on the verge of falling apart.
What If I Can't Take the Car to the Shop?
In some cases, the seller will be reluctant to let you take the car to a shop. It is still their car, and they may be concerned about ending up on the hook for expenses, or about unseen people working on their car. Ask the seller if they can accompany the car to the shop, even drive it there themselves. You can meet them there.
Sometimes, it just won't be possible. There are still a couple of options. First, there are plenty of mobile mechanics out there. A mobile mechanic can meet you at the seller's home or place of business to do the inspection right there. That should overcome objections from a private party seller, because it's not logistically different than potential buyers coming to see the car.
If you're buying from a dealer, it may be more of a challenge to convince them to let you take the car for an independent pre-purchase inspection. They will counter that they have already inspected the vehicle and assure you that everything's fine. The problem is that their goals are different than your goals. If they spend even an extra 30 minutes working on every car they sell, it adds up to be a big cost for them. They need to sell the car as quickly as possible. Their goals are to sell the car quickly, while getting the highest price and spending as little as they can. It's not evil, it's just business.
Your goal is to know the true cost-to-you of this vehicle. This means not just the price, but repairs it will need, the time it will take to get it fixed, the inconvenience of being without a car, the possibility of being stranded by a breakdown, and so on. You need to know it's within your budget and your appetite for car repairs.
If you're buying from a dealer and you can't take the vehicle to a mechanic, bring a mechanic with you to the dealership. Again, this can be a mobile mechanic as discussed above for private party sellers. Or it might be a mechanic from a shop who agrees to meet you at the dealership at an appointed time.
How Do I Find a Mechanic for a Pre-Purchase Inspection?
Your best option, if you don't have a relationship with a mechanic you trust, is from referrals. Ask friends and co-workers if they can recommend a shop or a mechanic. They'll be quick to tell you either way, people are usually pretty passionate one way or the other about their last auto repair.
Other indications of a mechanic's reputation can be found in online reviews. Try Google and Yelp, as well as other sites. Find a few candidates with good reputations, even if it means going a few more miles out of your way.
The one thing we at Clever Customer look for is a series of AAA shop awards. The Automobile Association of America (AAA) awards “Top Shop” and other awards. The criteria that shops have to meet for the AAA awards are actually quite stringent. It's not something that shops can fake or pay for. Our experience has been that these shops are the real deal. If there hasn't been an award in years, it's possible that management may have changed, and maybe practices as well. Or maybe they just got edged out, few awards are issued.
What Do I Do With the Results?
What you should get when the pre-purchase inspection is complete is a written report. The report should list every problem the mechanic found with the vehicle. It should prioritize the repairs, either by severity or by a schedule they recommended the repairs be done on. Finally, it should have written estimates of the cost of those repairs.
Go back to the market value of the car, the blue-book price. Deduct the cost of any serious repairs from that value. You'll need to know that number when you enter into final negotiations with the seller. Every potential repair on the list is a potential negotiation point for you. These are real costs you may incur if you buy the vehicle.