Pre-Purchase Inspection: Why You Need One When Buying a Used Car

Aaron Brzozowski
by Aaron Brzozowski

So you think you’ve found your dream car, or at least your ideal example of your next car. While it may not be the cheapest example on the market, it sure seems to tick all the boxes. It features significantly lower mileage than most other examples. It has all the options you could possibly want: heated seats, automatic climate control, adaptive HID headlights and a branded premium audio system. The vehicle history report comes back as clean as a freshly pressed pair of fine Italian slacks and the vehicle is verified to be free of any liens. You’ve pressed every button you could find and all the electrical gadgets and gizmos seem to be working perfectly. The body appears to be in phenomenal shape, as does the interior. It’s even in your favorite color combination. Oh what a savvy shopper you are. But wait, isn’t there something you’re forgetting? It may seem perfect, but is it actually perfect or is it all a facade? Shouldn’t you get verification that it is indeed the real deal? Of course you should. Here are six reasons why you need a pre-purchase inspection.

Before you splash out on a pre-purchase inspection, it’s a good idea to get a trusted vehicle history report based on your prospective next car’s Vehicle Identification Number, or VIN for short. can inform you of any reported accidents a car was in, whether it was previously stolen or totalled out, available ownership history, mileage and even a history of previous listings so you can track the value of an exact vehicle over time. For savvy shoppers, a report is an absolute must-have and it can tell you whether or not to avoid a vehicle before you spend the time and money getting it looked at.

1: Spending a few hundred dollars can save you tens of thousands of dollars

It’s often said that a car is the second-most expensive thing the average person will buy, only usurped by real estate. You wouldn’t buy a house without an inspection, so why would you buy a car without getting a pro to look at it? Thankfully, a basic pre-purchase car inspection only takes an hour or two, costing between $100 and $200 depending on the vehicle and what shop you take it to. Further inspection of specialty models may require more labour and thus more cost, but for most basic retail models it shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg. Besides, paying $100 to $200 for a pre-purchase inspection cost to find out that a car is in rather poor health is better than discovering expensive headaches after you’ve signed on the dotted line. Also, even simply asking if it’s okay to take a prospective purchase to a qualified technician for inspection can separate the wheat from the chaff. Many disreputable sellers will deny or attempt to obfuscate your request through millions of excuses. A pre-purchase inspection is a great way to call the bluffs of dodgy dealers and sellers with something that they want to hide.

2: Reputable shops can check things that you can’t

While it’s long been recommended to crawl under potential car purchases to assess mechanical condition, simply putting a vehicle on a lift makes it easier to see problems. With an unencumbered view, bushings can be checked, brakes inspected, underbody condition analyzed and leaks investigated. In terms of hidden problems, experienced technicians have diagnostics equipment that simply isn’t available to amateurs. For instance, early 986-chassis Porsche Boxsters and 996-chassis Porsche 911s used an engine with five timing chains and variable valve timing. Over time, the various timing chain guides and camshaft tensioners wear appearing as a deviation in cam timing and potentially causing catastrophic engine damage. A Porsche specialist with a Durametric diagnostics system can accurately test for cam timing deviation, potentially saving many headaches down the road. While not all cars are as fiddly as high-end machinery, in the age of the computerized car, every car may require specialist diagnostic equipment to stay ahead of looming issues.

3: A pre purchase inspection can help you find unreported damage

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While a reputable vehicle history report like you’d get from is great for knowing if a vehicle was involved in a reported collision, it doesn’t inform consumers about any damage that may have been repaired off the record. For that, a keen eye and a detailed look is needed. While many bodyshops avoid paint overspray on visible surfaces through masking, paint overspray on underbody components is surprisingly common. Once a car is on a lift during a pre-purchase car inspection, a technician can inspect for dried paint droplets on plastic undertrays, mufflers, subframes and other hidden areas. In addition, experienced technicians may know which parts were painted at the factory after they were installed on the vehicle, so signs of marring on any of these parts’ fasteners may indicate hidden damage history. If a specialist is properly keen during the inspection process, they may even be able to tell whether a replacement windshield is basically factory-quality or if it’s cheap as chips glass that will pit and haze in a few years of highway driving.

4: Experts are called experts for a reason

Think back to the old mantra about 10,000 hours of training. For the average pre-purchase inspection technician, that’s just five years on the job. Working on cars day-in and day-out, you can only imagine how many patterns they see. They’re often aware of common issues that consumer handbooks and your car guy uncle may miss. A first-generation Infiniti G35 may seem like a pleasant, reliable budget luxury car buy until you hear tales of center stack failure, short bushing life and burning more oil than a rig fire. On the flipside, experts may know of solutions that elude dealers and many forum-goers. Electronic module failure on older cars seems like a scary thing, particularly when new replacement parts may cost thousands of dollars or simply be unavailable. However, knowledgeable experts know of cottage industry operations that rebuild these modules, saving owners a chunk of change and heartache. If you have your heart set on a particular spec of vehicle, solutions like these can be great bargaining tools to shave money off the purchase price.

5: Knowledge is money

For those looking to spend a bit of money getting their newly acquired car into tip-top shape, minor items noted during a pre-purchase inspection can translate into money saved over asking price. For instance, if the brake pads are wearing thin and nearing replacement, proof that they’ll soon need replacement is a fabulous negotiating tool. At best, you’ll be able to haggle the bulk of a prospective job off the price, at worse you’ll likely be able to recoup the cost of the pre-purchase inspection. That’s the real beauty of using a pre-purchase inspection as a negotiating tool; most of the time the inspection could end up being essentially free.

6: The letter of the law

Many jurisdictions require by law that an automobile passes a fitness inspection either periodically or upon purchase. With periodic inspections, inspection shops are supposed to fairly and accurately assess vehicles for fitness. Key words being supposed to. Yes, some car owners enjoy a particularly, let’s say close relationship with their inspection shop and blind eyes may be turned to minor issues. In this instance, a trusted inspection out of caution isn’t a bad way to go. For those in jurisdictions where a certificate of mechanical fitness is required upon registration, getting an inspection at a shop makes the registration process much easier. Faults can be found, diagnosed and addressed, then a certificate of fitness can be issued, all at the same location. It just makes life so much easier when you entrust evaluation, diagnosis, repair and certification to one qualified shop rather than a hodgepodge of businesses and individuals. Plus, it doesn’t just make life easier for you at the time of purchase. Think of how fantastic a single-shop paper trail of receipts will look to prospective buyers when you eventually decide that it’s once again time to trade up.

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Aaron Brzozowski
Aaron Brzozowski

Aaron is a freelance writer, videographer and car enthusiast based out of the Detroit area. He has a special affinity for the Porsche 944 series, and once owned a Volvo 240 sedan with a Weber carb in place of the factory EFI system. His work has appeared on AutoGuide, GM Authority, /Drive, and VW Vortex, among other sites.

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