Should you spend the money for an inspection before buying a used car?

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If you're buying a used car, especially from a private seller, it's important to know if there are any major repairs needed. The best way to find out is by getting a trusted mechanic that knows how to inspect a used car to carefully look it over. This is commonly referred to as a “pre-purchase inspection” or PPI. However, a full car inspection costs between $100 and $250. If you're buying a $2500 car, you might be wondering if it's worth paying up to 10% more for an inspection. Likewise, if you're buying a $30,000 car with only 15k miles you might be wondering if an inspection is necessary at all. In this article, we'll break down a few scenarios and see when buying an inspection makes sense. Spoiler alert: it almost always makes sense to get an inspection when buying a used car.

Why Get an Inspection?

Inspections help you make an informed decision on what is often one of the largest purchases you'll ever make. Remember that a CARFAX only has accident reports that were claimed on insurance, so a clean CARFAX doesn't mean body work hasn't been done. The seller may not even know the full history of their car if they aren't the only owner. A well-trained mechanic will look for bolts on body panels that have been removed or are newer than everything else around them, indicating that body work or other repairs have been performed. They'll also know to look for common part failures specific to the car because they've likely replaced that same part several times in the past.

The mechanic will give you a full report and may even provide a recommendation to buy or not buy the car. It's a valuable second opinion. Additionally, their report and estimates to repair any damages can help you negotiate a better price.

What Should You Consider When Deciding Whether or Not to Get an Inspection?

Test driving a car

Can You Test Drive the Car Yourself?

If the car is located across the country and you plan to ship or fly in and drive it back home, you should always get an inspection. Since you can't see the car in person before you commit to buying it, you'll want someone you trust to check it out for you before going through all the effort and expense of moving the vehicle after purchase.

Does the Car Cost More Than About $2,000?

The thought here is that cars less than $2,000 are very likely to have many needed repairs and you're already expecting that. Otherwise, it makes sense to purchase an inspection. Repairs for a $3,000 car can cost the same as those for a $15,000 car, so just because you're buying an inexpensive car doesn't mean repairs will also be inexpensive. For this reason, you need an inspection to be sure you're not buying a car that needs thousands of dollars in repairs in the next three months.

Are You Buying From a Private Seller?

Dealers are required to recondition cars to at least meet safety requirements (working brake lights, working wipers, etc.). Remember that dealers are still trying to maximize profits, so they're not going to fix everything, but in general you often don't need an inspection when buying from a reputable dealer. There are some shady dealers out there, so don't take this as a hard-and-fast rule.

Private sellers are not required to recondition vehicles before selling them and they may not be aware of needed repairs since they are not professional car dealers. That doesn't mean they're selling poor quality or unsafe cars, it just means there is a wider range of vehicle conditions on the private market. That's why an inspection is very important when buying from a private seller.

How Do You Get an Inspection?

You have two choices when scheduling an inspection:
  • Meet the seller at a repair shop
  • Get a mobile mechanic to meet you and the seller somewhere else
Mobile mechanics will literally come to a parking lot, jack the car up right there, and perform the full inspection. This might be useful if it's inconvenient for you or the seller to meet at a repair shop. Otherwise, we recommend taking the vehicle to a repair shop where the mechanic has access to a full-size vehicle lift and all their diagnostic equipment. Mobile mechanics are typically more expensive since they have to charge for their time and gas to drive to you, so consider if the convenience is worth the extra cost.

To schedule an inspection, locate a shop with good reviews or one that you've used before and schedule a “pre-purchase inspection”. All repair shops will know exactly what that means. If you need help finding a good shop, KeySavvy has teamed up with RepairPal to help our customers find certified shops with fair prices. Coordinate with your seller on the date and time to get this done since the seller will need to bring the car to the shop or other location for a mobile mechanic. In almost all cases, the buyer will pay for this service.

To learn more, check out our 5 Must-Know Tips For First Time Private Party Car Buyers.

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About Andrew Crowell

Andrew is an avid car enthusiast, software engineer, and business leader in the automotive and e-commerce industry. He's owned a couple Mazda Miatas, an E46 M3, a Subaru WRX STI, and a Porsche 911 Turbo.