The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Used Vehicle – Part 5: Why You Should Get A Pre-Purchase Inspection

5 The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Used Vehicle--Why you should get a pre-purchase inspection

One of the biggest concerns when purchasing a used vehicle is whether you are getting a good deal or not. What if the vehicle turns out to be a lemon? What if I end up having to sink a lot of money into maintenance and repairs soon after the purchase? Is it worth the purchase price?

A pre-purchase inspection will yield confidence in your decision of what to buy. Not only that, as I discussed in part two of this series, knowing what the vehicle needs will help you stay within your budget.

This post is one in a five part series. 

Part 1: What should the overall process look like from start to finish?

Part 2: How much should I expect to spend?

Part 3: What makes and models should I be looking at?

Part 4: Where should I buy a used vehicle?

Part 5: Why should I get a pre-purchase inspection?

Most buyers want practical, economical, and reliable transportation. We realize that there are those whose idea of the perfect vehicle goes beyond that mindset, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I think you will still find helpful advice in these articles. However, the bulk of our clientele are looking for affordable, dependable transportation, so I am writing through that lens.

The process of the pre-purchase inspection

More goes into a pre-purchase inspection than just the inspection itself. Following this process will save you time and money as you walk out the process.  

1. Get the VIN checked

The VIN can tell you a lot about the vehicle you are considering. Each letter and number gives you information, like where and when it was manufactured, engine size and type, its security code and its serial number. Many mechanics have a database, like Identifix, where they can look up the number and get additional information about that particular vehicle. This is different from searching for the vehicle’s accident and damage repair history, like on Carfax. For example, loading a 7th generation (2001-2005) Civic in Identifix will provide Repair-Trac 11820, which warns of head gasket troubles (our own experience with these vehicles confirms this.) Loading an 8th generation (2006-2011) Civic may put “A/C” in the most common searches list, followed by reports of a/c compressor and compressor clutch relay troubles.

While all vehicles will have their own issues, we don’t want to see indicators of major engine or transmission troubles. It is good practice to check for “red flags” via common searches and targeted search terms (like “head gasket”) and to check for manufacturer TSB’s that suggest or identify a major problem.

This kind of information will help you decide if that vehicle is worth considering. If the VIN search comes up without any red flags, and your mechanic thinks it’s a good option,  you can be fairly confident that an inspection is worthwhile.

2. Get the vehicle inspected

Can I get the vehicle inspected prior to purchase?

If you purchase your vehicle through a private party, there should be no problem with them letting your mechanic inspect it prior to purchase. If they are unwilling, reconsider the purchase. Are they hiding something?

If you purchase through a used car dealership, it’s unlikely that they will allow a pre-purchase inspection. I say unlikely, but we have seen exceptions, so definitely ask. While they might inspect all of their vehicles, to what standards are these vehicles being inspected? Besides, wouldn’t you like your mechanic’s word on what maintenance and repairs you should expect over the next year or so? While not all dealers are going to cut corners, remember that their main focus is selling vehicles. Andrew once worked at a large used car dealership and saw some mechanics, like himself, take great care with inspections and repairs, while others did not. Therefore, it’s still wise to have your mechanic inspect the vehicle. 

Many used car dealerships have a return window of at least three to seven days. Before you buy the vehicle, schedule an inspection with your mechanic so you can use that return window if you need it.

Why is a pre-purchase inspection so important?

At our shop, ideally, we recommend what we call a Major Vehicle Inspection prior to purchase. This is a top to bottom, front to back, detailed inspection that takes several hours. This inspection will give you a good baseline of the vehicle’s condition. However, sometimes the seller isn’t willing to let the car be in the shop for a whole day, or there’s a time crunch to get the vehicle looked at within the dealership’s return window. In that case, we might  do a shorter inspection that takes about 1.5 hours where we look for any major issues the vehicle might have. Either way, the inspection helps you get an idea of how much you will need to budget for the first year or so of ownership. 

Most of our clients who go through this process buy the first vehicle they have inspected. Remember, if the clients are walking out the whole process, they have communicated with us about what they are interested in. This may have already narrowed their search to two or three specific options. Then comes the checking of VIN(s). By this point, they may already know that they will want to buy a specific vehicle should the inspection results be positive. 

Inspections can raise red flags. Our client, Alyssa, brought us three vehicles before making her decision. The first vehicle was brought to us without a VIN check. Within a few minutes of the inspection starting, Andrew had run the VIN and immediately saw that we had a problem (potential for engine problems). We consulted with Alyssa, and the inspection was cut short.The second vehicle was a Toyota Corolla, which you will see in part two of this series is our top choice for a used vehicle. It passed the VIN check and most of the inspection, only to have a red flag pop up during an extended road test. The engine had previously been replaced and it was making a bad noise. We recommended our client keep looking and let the owner know what we found. The owner was glad for the information as it helped inform his decision for what he wanted to do with the vehicle. Alyssa then got a great deal on a Honda Accord that passed inspection. She put some money into it after the purchase and the car has served her well.

3. Make A Plan

If you’ve had a more minor pre-purchase inspection, have your mechanic take a more detailed look once the vehicle is yours. This will help you plan for maintenance and repairs needed to put the vehicle in a safe, reliable, and comfortable state. 

Our goal is to help you keep your expenses to a $150-$200 monthly average in keeping your vehicle reliable, safe and comfortable. (We talk more about initial purchase price and long term budgeting for your new vehicle in part two of this blog series.) We believe that someone who stays on top of maintenance and repairs can drive their vehicle 300,000 miles or more while keeping their expenses low. We’ve seen it done. We want to help our clients toward that goal, and it starts with the inspection.

When we inspect a vehicle at our shop, we give our clients a detailed list of the maintenance and repairs the vehicle needs, both now and in the future. They will see priority items that address urgent mechanical and safety issues of the vehicle, maintenance due or coming due, and secondary concerns that will need to be addressed in the future. This list will help you see what kind of time and money you will be investing in the vehicle in the next year or so. It helps you plan out the cost of your vehicle post-purchase. As we discuss in part two, the cost of your vehicle goes beyond purchase price, and the pre-purchase inspection gives you insight into that number.

Not only does a pre-purchase inspection inform you if the vehicle you are looking at buying is a good purchase, the inspection also helps notify you of upcoming costs. A pre-purchase inspection, or at least one done immediately after purchase, can help you make a long term plan for upkeep of the vehicle. 

Key take-aways:

  • If possible, get the VIN checked for any red flags in vehicle design before considering the purchase
  • A pre-purchase inspection will help inform you of ownership costs to keep the vehicle reliable, safe and comfortable
  • If you buy from a used car dealer, schedule the inspection prior to buying the vehicle so that you don’t miss the return window

Don’t miss out on the other posts in this five part series!

Part 1: What should the overall process look like from start to finish?

Part 2: How much should I expect to spend?

Part 3: What makes and models should I be looking at?

Part 4: Where should I buy a used vehicle?

Part 5: Why should I get a pre-purchase inspection?

Marinelli Auto Service is an auto repair shop in Winter Park, Florida. We’ve been serving Central Florida since 2015. We provide maintenance and repairs for a variety of makes and models.

Leave a Reply