What is a used car inspection?

A used vehicle inspection, also called a pre-purchase inspection performed by a local mechanic, is a detailed assessment of a used car's condition from a mechanical, appearance, and safety perspective. When buying a used car, having a used car inspection checklist can help ensure that big mechanical issues don't surprise you after you've bought it. Your local auto mechanic would perform this inspection following a checklist of potential problem areas and documenting specific issues that might make you reconsider buying the car.

6 min to read

Why should you consider taking a used car to a mechanic?

One of the most informative steps you can take before purchasing is to have an independent mechanic check out a used car. According to Nicole Miskelley, PMR Auto & Diesel Repair manager, "Most reputable dealerships allow this, but some may have a salesperson ride along for safety. Doing this can allow for someone outside of the dealership to take a once-over on it and note any damage or potential repairs the dealer repair shop might have missed."

How to find a mechanic to inspect a used car

When looking for where to take a used car for inspection, you can hire an auto mechanic close to the used car dealership. If you're dealing with a private party, ask them to follow you to the mechanic's shop if they seem concerned. Ensure that the mechanic will produce a written report.

How much is a used car inspection?

According to Consumer Reports, you might expect to pay between $100-150 for a mechanic to inspect the vehicle you're considering. That fee should include a report detailing the vehicle's condition, any problems the mechanic uncovered, and an estimate of how much it might cost to repair the problems.

How to find the right mechanic

You can search online for a local mechanic who does pre-purchase inspections. Services such as AiM Certify offer 150-point inspection reports, and in some locations, they can send an inspector to the used car dealership. PepBoys and Firestone do used car inspections.

Benefits of getting a used vehicle inspection

One of the most significant benefits of getting a used car inspected before you buy it is if the inspection report uncovers a major issue or defect, you may be able to use that information to negotiate the price of the used vehicle .

Used car mechanic inspection checklist

When asked about the most important things to watch for when shopping for a used car, Julie Bausch Lent, managing editor of Car Talk, says buyers should keep an eye out for the following:

  • Good mileage for the car's age
  • A clean motor vehicle record
  • Number of owners (preferably only one previous owner)
  • Service records
  • Safety ratings of that particular vehicle can be found at IIHS, and NHTSA
  • Check for safety recalls at NHTSA
  • Rust or damage in the undercarriage, especially if salt is used on the roads in winter
  • The tread life of the current set of tires on the vehicle
  • The market value of the vehicle
  • Whether the vehicle is still under warranty

What is covered in a used car inspection?

A used vehicle inspection checklist might also include:

  • Vehicle history report: Do a search on websites like CarFax, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), or AutoCheck, where you can type in the VIN and check for past accidents, service records, and previous ownership.
  • Title status: You can check the vehicle's title status to ensure that it's not stolen and has a clean title (no liens, not salvaged or rebuilt) by visiting your state's motor vehicles department website and finding the vehicle history section. Enter the vehicle's VIN to view the title data.
  • Trouble codes: Check for diagnostic trouble codes (DTCs) on the car's computer memory that may indicate mechanical or electrical problems.

Exterior condition

  • Body Condition: Look for rust, dents, scratches, and the proper alignment of body panels.
  • Paint: Look for mismatched paint colors, which may indicate repairs after an accident.
  • Glass: Inspect for cracks or chips in the windshield and windows.
  • Lights: Ensure all are intact and functioning properly.

Interior vehicle inspection

  • Upholstery: Check for tears, stains, and overall condition of seats.
  • Dashboard controls: Test to ensure all gauges, lights, and indicators work correctly.
  • Air conditioning and heater: Run them to ensure they work properly.
  • Audio system: Check radio, CD player, and speakers.
  • Power features: Test windows, locks, sunroof, and seats for functionality.
  • Odors: Be aware of moldy or musty smells, which could indicate water damage.

Under the hood

  • Engine: Check for leaks, odd noises, and the condition of belts and hoses.
  • Battery: Check for corrosion and ensure it holds a charge.
  • Radiator: Look for leaks or corrosion.
  • Emissions: Ensure the vehicle has passed the required emissions tests.

How to inspect a used car yourself

Approach the purchase of a used vehicle with a critical eye. Analyze the interior and exterior of the car like a mechanic rather than as a prospective buyer. "Before taking off on a test drive, check [the vehicle] over for any fluid leaks," says Miskelley. "Most dealerships clean the engine compartment, but you may find the fluid is low in a particular system." She then suggests taking the following steps:

  1. Examine the oil dipstick and check the level and condition of the oil. Burnt oil or oil with signs of coolant can be a sign of major issues down the road.

  2. Use a penny to gauge tire condition and tread depth. If you put the penny upside down, it should cover part of Lincoln's head. If his head is fully exposed, the vehicle needs new tires.

  3. Check tread depth across the entire tire to see if it wears unevenly. Uneven wear on tires can indicate suspension or alignment problems.

  4. Check the vehicle belts for signs of wear.

Test drive with a mechanic's critical eye

Miskelley also suggests taking advantage of the test drive to really get to know the vehicle. "Put the car through its paces. Ensure it easily drives onto the interstate, make sure you like how it brakes, and feel if the transmission is up to par with your driving. Listen for any creaks, pops, or roaring in the suspension, or squeals in the brakes. Verify that the vehicle gets up in temperature so that it won't have any overheating issues. Turn on the radio, A/C, and heat, and roll down the windows as well. After a good drive, check the vehicle engine bay once again for leaks."

Most dealerships are honest and won't attempt to sell you a broken vehicle, but dealer repair shops can miss potential problems. When you're in the market for a used vehicle, approach it with a critical eye. Look beyond obvious issues for signs of underlying problems.

Learn more about buying a used car from a private seller, and get helpful used car buying tips.

Will buying a used car affect my car insurance rate?

An important consideration most people overlook when purchasing a vehicle is how it might affect their insurance. "This can be an added cost that people don't factor in until it's too late," says Bausch. "A Lexus will be more expensive to insure, as they're more expensive to repair." If you purchase a high-value vehicle, even a used one, your insurance rates will likely be higher than a lower-value car if you carry Comp and Collison coverages. Learn more about factors that impact car insurance rates and what to look for when buying a used car.

Get the right coverage for your used car with Progressive

Current Progressive customers

You can log in or call phone-number to check on your coverages.

New Progressive customers

Quote auto insurance online or call phone-number to insure your car.

Quote car insurance online or give us a call

Learn more about car insurance policies.