• An on-site inspection brings a professional pair of eyes to the transaction.
  • It might be the only way to examine and test drive a used car when the buyer is hundreds of miles away.
  • Inspections supplement a vehicle history report by evaluating a car's current condition.

On-site used-car inspection services are a convenient, relatively inexpensive way to verify a car's condition before purchase. Buying a used car is a roll of the dice, but with an on-site inspection service you can easily and inexpensively improve your odds against making the wrong choice, and gain some peace of mind in the process.

You've done your research, found the used car of your dreams and negotiated a price. Now what? At this point, you should have obtained a vehicle history report from an online service such as CARFAX.com or AutoCheck.com. Such reports provide history on owners, odometer readings, reported accidents and so forth.

As comprehensive as they are, however, such reports can't evaluate a vehicle's current condition. For this, AutoTrader recommends having the car inspected by a qualified mechanic.

Although it's logical advice and makes perfect sense, all too often we either channel our inner slacker and don't bother, or we simply don't have an established relationship with a mechanic. More often than not, we take the plunge, buy the car, and hope for the best.

For most of us, that's a bad idea. Buying a used car is a business transaction and a risk--often a very big risk.

But it's not rocket science. To successfully manage a household budget and reduce stress, your goal should be to keep financial risk to a minimum. If taking a used car to a mechanic for a thorough inspection isn't feasible, an on-site inspection is a reasonable compromise.

How do you find a vehicle-inspection service?

Some services are national in scope and others are local or regional. In any case, they're easy to find. Simply type "on-site used car inspection" into your Internet search engine and scores come up.

If you want one that's local, add a comma and the name of your city or state.

What do you have to do?

Your responsibility in securing an inspection report is minimal:

  • When you have found the used car you want, alert the seller that you're using an on-site inspection service and that he should expect a call.
  • Contact an inspection service and order the inspection, providing your credit card information and contact information.
  • Wait for the report. The inspection service does everything else, from making arrangements with the seller to getting you the completed report.

Leon Gray owns Virginia-based National Auto Inspection Services (NAIS). In business since 2005, the business performs 800 to 1,000 on-site inspections per year. Gray said, "Once you put your order in, all you have to do is sit back and relax."

What does an on-site inspection report include?

Each on-site inspection service varies in how and what it inspects. Some even offer different degrees of inspection based on cost. Many post sample reports on their Web sites so consumers can see precisely what is and isn't checked. Inspections typically check 100 to 200 different items and systems. Many include photos.

Most inspections consist of at least a test drive with performance evaluation; an analysis of the condition of the exterior and interior; evaluations of major systems; and the testing of mechanical operations such as windows, doors, trunk and so forth.

What are an inspector's qualifications?

Qualifications and the required inspector credentials vary from service to service. Some train their inspectors, while others rely on certified mechanics or professionals from related fields, such as insurance adjusters.

For an applicant to be added to an inspector role at NAIS, a person must have been certified by a vehicle manufacturer or the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), or he must have five years of experience working in a shop and at least two years of experience in the field as an insurance claims adjuster, off-lease inspector or with some other inspection service.

If a service's Web site doesn't spell out how it chooses its inspectors, be sure to ask!

What does it cost?

Depending on the thoroughness of the inspection, expect to pay between $100 and $250. If the car is in some remote area, an extra mileage or travel charge might be added.

With NAIS, for example, a location is local if it's within 50 miles of the assigned inspector. If the distance is farther, a travel fee of $.55 per mile may be charged. "When a mileage fee is required," Gray explained, "the customer is notified and must approve it."

How long does it take?

Although any number of circumstances can affect the timeline, most inspection services advertise a completed report within 48 to 72 hours of placing the order. In addition to the written report, some services provide an oral report as well.

"We do a verbal report, and then send a written version by e-mail," Gray said. "Usually the verbal report is from the vehicle location. I think it's a benefit if the customer can speak directly to the inspector and ask questions."

Are there guarantees?

The ugly truth about buying a used car is that, without taking it apart, there's no way to really know what problems might be lurking beneath the surface. Even after a professional completes a multipoint inspection, bits or parts could wear out or break the next day.

Gray added, "Because we don't own the vehicle, we have no control over what might happen to it between the time the inspector leaves and the buyer takes possession. It's impossible to guarantee it under those conditions."

Does an on-site inspection always make sense?

Buying a used car doesn't represent the same degree of risk for everyone. If you're buying a $1,500 beater to park at the train station every day or a 20-year-old pickup for weekend chores, the $150 to $300 combined cost of a vehicle history report and an on-site inspection probably doesn't make a lot of sense. The risk in such cases is low.

But in other situations, the cost of taking some precaution upfront is smart business. You should probably have a prepurchase inspection if:

  • The car is out of warranty.
  • You can't drive and inspect the car yourself. (In other words, if you're buying the car online and out of state.)
  • The seller is a private party, as opposed to a dealer.
  • The seller is selling it as is.
  • The transaction price is more than $5,000.

"Occasionally vehicles for sale online don't even exist," Gray cautioned. "If the owner can't verify the vehicle himself, he really needs someone on-site to verify it for him."

What it means to you: An on-site inspection isn't foolproof protection from problems down the road, but it will reduce risk, help avoid choosing the wrong car, and provide some peace of mind.


author photo

Russ Heaps began covering the automotive industry in 1986, first overseeing the automotive pages of the Boca Raton News and then the Palm Beach Post in Florida. In 2001 he became managing editor of AMI Auto Week and NOPI Street Performance Compact magazines. Since leaving AMI he has freelanced his auto reviews and industry analysis to the Washington Times, Hispanic magazine, Journal-Register Newspapers, Bankrate.com, MyCarData.com, Interest.com, and others. He resides in Greenville, SC.

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