Should you hire a mechanic to check out a used car before buying?

Yes, having a used car inspected by a qualified mechanic before you purchase it can help you make an informed decision about the car. It's important to take into account the condition of a used vehicle, how well its previous owners maintained it, and more. Seek out a mechanic familiar with the make and model you're considering, and confirm with the seller that they'll allow you to have the car fully inspected.

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Why you should 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."

When looking to hire a mechanic to look at a used car, call ahead to ask about familiarity with the car’s make and model. A mechanic's experience with a specific type of vehicle can alert you to potential future problems. When you find one who specializes in the car's make, ask for cost information and availability. Most shops charge a moderate flat fee between $100 and $200.

How to look at a used car like a mechanic

Approach the purchase of a used vehicle with a critical eye. Analyze the interior and exterior of the vehicle 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. Make sure 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. Make sure the vehicle gets up in temperature so that it won't have any overheating issues. Be sure to 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 it's possible for dealer repair shops to 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.

Used car mechanic inspection checklist

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

  • Lower mileage
  • A clean motor vehicle record
  • Number of owners (preferably only one previous owner)
  • Service records
  • Safety ratings of that particular vehicle
  • Recall information
  • 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

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 red 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. Learn more about factors that impact car insurance rates and what to look for when buying a used car.

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