pre-purchase car inspection

The importance of a pre-purchase inspection

On the Road 5 min read

Desire usually doesn’t promote rational thought. And right now you desire that collector car you saw on the internet. Maybe it’s a muscle car from the 1960s, or the little British roadster you’ve always wanted, or that classic pickup that reminds you of your father’s. Whatever it is, you want it. And you want it now. But before you wire transfer the funds or mail a check, make the smart decision and get a pre-purchase inspection (PPI).

A pre-purchase inspection is a smart move before the purchase of any used car, whether it’s the collectable classic you lusted after back in high school or a family sedan that’s just a few years old. Even if you’ve laid eyes on the car yourself, a professional pre-purchase inspection can ensure that you’re buying the car you think you’re buying or it can reveal a car’s dirty little secrets. It’s a step in the car buying process even seasoned collectors shouldn’t skip.

Where can I get a pre-purchase inspection?

Just asking the seller to make a vehicle available for a pre-purchase inspection can be revealing. If he’s resistant, seems annoyed by the request, or flat out refuses, there may be something wrong with the car, something he’s not telling you. Obviously, if you get the opposite reaction your confidence in the vehicle and the seller would go up.

Although any local mechanic can perform a PPI, and you should only take that route if circumstances dictate. You’re probably better off hiring a dedicated classic car specialist that performs PPIs as a regular service. Better still, hire a professional in the trade that is knowledgeable about the car or genre of vehicle you’re looking to purchase.

If you’re buying a 1969 Camaro Z28, hire someone that knows something about muscle cars and Camaros in particular. Does he know where they rust? Does he know where all the serial numbers should be? Has he driven one before? Does he know what a good one should feel like? If you’re buying a British sports car like Jaguar XK120, or a Japanese classic like a Nissan Skyline R32, muscle car knowledge isn’t very valuable.

To find your guru, turn to the internet. Google is your friend and there’s going to be a dedicated online community for your vehicle of choice. Engage with those fellow enthusiasts. They probably know the answer and they probably want to help. Chances are there’s going to be a friendly fellow enthusiast located in the geographic vicinity of your dream car and they’ll offer some assistance. If they don’t know the answer they know somebody who does.

A pre-purchase inspection is usually paid for the by the buyer and usually costs between $100 and $400. It’s worth it. If the inspection reveals flaws you’re uncomfortable with, better to spend a few hundred dollars now than buy a car you don’t love.

What should a pre-purchase inspection cover?

Every pre-purchase inspection starts with a visual once-over of the car, but that’s not where it should end. A professional inspection on an expensive collector car should take two to three hours. Maybe more.

Everything should be checked out, from the function of its lights and gauges, to alignment of its body panels. It sounds rudimentary, but the inspection should include a checking of the oil and other fluids. Are they fresh? Is there evidence of recent maintenance? How old are the tires? They may look new, but your hired inspector should check their manufactured dates. If you’re planning to drive this car they may need replacement.

All PPIs should also include a thorough inspection of the chassis, suspension and underside. Always have the car put on a lift to look for leaks, worn out parts, and makeshift repairs. Often looking up at a car will reveal secrets you wouldn’t notice from your normal sight lines. Any good vehicle inspector will sniff out rust or evidence of rust repair. Most will bring a magnet, which won’t stick to body filler.

And, of course, any PPI should include a thorough test drive. And we mean a thorough test drive, not just around the block. The drive should include some hard stops to check the brakes and some high-speed driving on a highway to cycle the suspension, as well as some slow city driving to test the vehicle’s cooling system. Don’t abuse the car, but run it hard through the gears. Does the engine rev cleanly? Does it feel as powerful as it should? How does the transmission shift? Can you hear an exhaust leak?

Every aspect of the vehicle should be looked at, including its paperwork. Have the inspector review all of the car’s documentation. And if the seller is claiming it’s a numbers matching example, don’t just take his word for it. Check.

The results of a pre-purchase inspection

Donald Osborne is the owner of Automotive Valuation Services in Palm Springs, California. He has inspected, evaluated and appraised some of the world’s greatest cars and makes regular appearances on “Jay Leno’s Garage.” “Any professional inspection should only come after a detailed conversation with the client to determine their exact needs,” says Osborne. “The most important component in examining any potential purchase is understanding clearly why the client wants to own a particular car or type of car. I, nor any consultant or inspector, can tell someone that a car is ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ A vehicle needing a complete restoration may be perfectly suited for a particular client and one that is freshly restored and has won trophies at multiple international level concours events may be completely wrong for another.”

“No matter what the need,” Osborne adds, “it’s vital that a buyer have as much information as possible in order to make an intelligent, informed decision.”

At the end of the inspection, you should be handed a full multipage report with detailed information of the car from bumper to bumper, from its top to its tires. Many of these checklists are available online. Print one out for reference so you know what to expect. Often they’re broken down into sections for exterior, interior, engine, suspension, etc. And there should always be room for comments and observations from the inspector so you can get his thoughts and insights. A check mark doesn’t mean all that much. This is one of those times you want too much information.

If the inspection reveals some needs you were unaware of, maybe it’s not the car for you. Or maybe it’s a list of things you’re willing to deal with, but only after some cost negotiation with the seller. Talk to the seller. It’s possible he wasn’t pulling a fast one. He honestly may not have known the car needs a new right front ball joint, brake pads, and a valve adjustment. Either way, you now know what you’re actually buying and can make an educated purchase.

On the other hand, if you do choose to walk away, don’t sweat it. There’s always another car to lust after.

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