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Used car inspection

The ultimate guide to a used car inspection before you buy 

Used cars have a history, and you want to make sure the one you buy is reliable and a good deal. You can do just that by learning how to inspect a used car before buying. Learn about the inspection process, including how to find a mechanic and the type of inspection you need. 

Reasons to get a used car inspection before you buy

Pre-purchase car inspections come with many benefits. An ASE-certified mechanic can perform a vehicle safety check to ensure the car is safe to drive. Your mechanic can also find faulty parts and components and uncover hidden problems with the car. 

A mechanic can also conduct an emissions testing, look for signs of odometer fraud, and more. With a proper inspection, you can avoid scams, lemons, and bad deals and buy a reliable car.

What are the signals that I need a car inspection?

It’s a good idea to get all cars inspected before buying. If you don’t have the budget to inspect every car you consider buying, you’ll want to look for some signs that you might have a problem vehicle on your hands. 

Get a pre-purchase inspection if you notice any of the following warning signs:

  • Car rust
  • Visible new car paint
  • Clicking noise when turning
  • Moaning sounds
  • Possible flood damage
  • Service lights are on

How to inspect a used car before buying – DIY tasks 

You’ll start the car inspection process yourself before going to an ASE-certified mechanic. During your inspection, you might find issues with the car and decide to back out. If not, you’ll take it to a mechanic to verify the condition and find out if there are any hidden problems.  

Preliminary tasks

Verifying the owner and checking the car history report will help you avoid scams and lemons. Plus, you can give the car a once-over to see if it’s worth taking the next step and going to a mechanic. 

Verify the owner

You want to ensure the seller owns the car before buying it. Check the car’s title, ensuring it’s in the seller’s name. If the seller can’t produce the title or the car is listed under another name, don’t go on with the purchase since the vehicle might be stolen. 

After checking the owner, take a second to ensure the car doesn’t have a branded title. This indicates that there’s something wrong with the car. For instance, a salvage title means the insurance company has totaled the car. 

Check the car history report

You can check the car by getting a car history report from Carfax or carVertical. First, you’ll need to get the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN). Then, go to Carfax’s or carVertical’s website, input the VIN, and pay for the report. 

The car history report has a ton of helpful information. You can find out if the car has been in an accident, suffered damage, and has a clear title. The report also includes the financial and legal status of the car, as well as the odometer reading. 

If you decide to move forward after reviewing the report, you’ll also want to take it to the mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection. Your mechanic can use the report to verify repairs were done correctly. 

Tips for inspecting a pre-owned vehicle yourself 

You can learn a lot about a used car by examining it in person. Check the body to see if it has fresh paint that could indicate a major repair. Also, large dents and rust are cause for concern. This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t buy the car, but you’ll need to ask a mechanic about the damage and the cost to fix it. 

Next, check out the tires. If the tread looks uneven, the car might have a problem with the suspension. Also, see if the car sits level when on a flat surface. If not, the suspension system might be damaged.   

After completing the exterior inspection, go inside the car. First, use your nose to see if there are any strange smells that indicate leaks, mold, and other issues. Make sure the lights are working properly, and check all the accessories. 

Professional car inspection process when buying a used car 

If the car passes your inspection, it is time to take it to an ASE-certified mechanic for a detailed inspection. Find out how to find a mechanic and what to look for in a used car inspection.

Find a mechanic for a used car inspection

Used car dealerships and some independent sellers have cars inspected before listing them for sale. This is especially true when shopping for certified pre-owned cars. Still, you want an independent mechanic to inspect the car for hidden damage and other problems. 

You can take the car to your trusted ASE-certified mechanic or another used car dealership that sells that car model. National and regional chains also offer pre-purchase used car inspections.

Most sellers allow potential buyers to have cars inspected at one of these locations. If the seller refuses, you can use a mobile service that will come to the seller. 

Mobile inspections tend to cost more than garage inspections. Also, they’re not as thorough since mobile inspectors don’t have the specialized equipment you’ll find in garages. Still, mobile inspections are better than not getting an inspection at all. 

Create a checklist for a used car inspection 

There isn’t a standard pre-purchase inspection checklist for mechanics to follow. Instead, they offer everything from cursory to detailed inspections. You can create your own pre-inspection checklist for the mechanic to ensure the car is reliable and safe to drive. 

Exterior inspection checklist 

You’ll conduct your own visual inspection of the exterior, but it’s still a good idea for the mechanic to do one. Mechanics can identify areas that are likely to rust or cause other issues. 

Ask your mechanic to go a step further and check out the undercarriage, too. After sliding under the car, the mechanic might discover corrosion on the underside. Metal weakens when rusty and corroded, meaning the car could develop a structural problem. 

Electrical systems inspection checklist

You don’t want to get stuck without air conditioning on a hot summer day, just like you hope your radio doesn’t go out while listening to music. Have the mechanic check the electrical systems for signs that they’re not working as they should or might go out soon. 

Engine inspection checklist

At the very least, the mechanic should check the car’s fluids. You’ll also want to have the engine itself inspected. The mechanic can look for signs of wear and tear that could create a big problem after you put some miles on the car. 

Transmission inspection checklist

Transmission problems can cost you thousands of dollars in repairs, so have the mechanic make sure it’s in good working order. Your mechanic should check to see if the transmission shifts smoothly and doesn’t have lots of wear and tear. 

Brakes inspection checklist

Poorly maintained brakes and rotors are a sign that the owner hasn’t taken care of the car. By checking for signs of damage, your mechanic can let you know if the car has been well-maintained and is safe to drive. 

Suspension inspection checklist

If you buy a car with a damaged suspension system, you’ll have a lot of bumpy rides in the future. Those rides also might be dangerous since a faulty suspension system impacts handling. Your mechanic will make sure your suspension system is up to code when you add this to your checklist for a used car inspection.

Exhaust system inspection checklist

Problems with the exhaust system can hurt the car’s performance. Your mechanic can inspect the system and conduct an emissions testing to check for problems.  

Electronics inspection checklist

Reliability is on your personal checklist when shopping for a used car. If the engine won’t turn on or the battery dies, you’ll be stuck in your driveway instead of out on the roads. An ASE-certified mechanic can inspect all these components to see if they’re likely to give you problems shortly after the purchase. 

Uncovering hidden damage with a pre-owned car inspection 

An ASE-certified mechanic will look for hidden damage during the pre-purchase inspection. If damage is uncovered, the mechanic can check to see if the car was repaired properly and is safe to drive. You don’t necessarily have to walk away if the mechanic finds damage that was repaired, but you can negotiate for a lower price. 

Review the vehicle inspection report 

At the end of the inspection, you’ll receive a report detailing the mechanic’s findings. Discuss the report with the mechanic to determine how to proceed. If the car has some issues but is safe to drive, ask the seller to cover the repairs or accept a lower price. 


Is an auto inspection worth it?

Yes. A used car inspection can uncover damage and defects you might miss when shopping for a vehicle. 

Where can I do a used car inspection?

You can get a pre-owned car inspection from a local ASE-certified mechanic, a car dealership, or a national chain. Mobile inspection companies are also available if you need a mechanic to go to the seller’s location. 

How much do car inspections cost?

Mechanics typically charge $100-$200 for a detailed used car inspection, although the price goes up for classic cars. You also might pay more if you get a mobile inspection instead of an inspection in a garage.

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