Car Buying

Buying a Used Car: Is a Mechanical Inspection Necessary?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro December 2013

Most shoppers who consider buying a used car take the same steps. First, they read reviews. Then, they find a car online. After a short test drive and some negotiation, they're usually driving home in the vehicle they want. But should used car shoppers consider a mechanical inspection before they sign the papers? We think so, and we've outlined our reasons below.

Hidden Problems

While a simple test drive is a nice way to get a feel for a car, it's no replacement for a true inspection from a certified mechanic. Dozens of problems, even expensive ones, can be hidden on a test drive and not discovered until much later. That's why we recommend getting an inspection on nearly any used car, though we might be willing to make an exception for certified pre-owned vehicles with manufacturer-backed warranties. Otherwise, the inspection process is vital, even though many shoppers avoid it due to cost or hassle. But inspections may not be as expensive, or as much of a hassle, as you might think.

Worth the Cost

Cost is a major reason shoppers don't consider an inspection. After all, a thorough inspection can be $200 or more, and if no issues are found, many shoppers might view that money as wasted.

But the potential downside can be far worse. Take it from someone who's been there: I recently spent over $300 for a full inspection of an out-of-state used car that looked great in photos. In the shop, however, it was discovered that the car needed more than $4,000 in engine work. In that case, the inspection was certainly worth every penny, even though I didn't end up buying the car. Sure, I lost the money, but I would've spent much more if I had completed the deal without getting the inspection.

Inspection Process: Not a Huge Hassle

Another reason many shoppers don't get cars inspected is that they're concerned about the hassle of doing so. After all, you have to get the car away from the seller for a period of time, pay a mechanic to look at it and then return it to the seller -- all while trying to fit in commuting to work, taking your kids to school and other activities.

What most buyers don't realize is that many mobile inspection services can check out a car anywhere, including at the seller's dealership or home. Better yet, if the potential buyer coordinates the inspection timing with the seller, the buyer doesn't need to be present for the inspection. While a mobile inspection may cost a little more than a traditional mechanic, it saves considerable time and hassle in the process.

The only problem: If you're considering a specialized vehicle, such as a unique luxury or sports car, you may want a specialist mechanic to take a look at it. Such mechanics are rarely mobile, which means you'll have to bring the car to them. But an inspection is even more important for high-end sports cars and luxury vehicles, as they can have especially high repair bills if something isn't right.

Not Perfect

It's important to remember that no inspection is perfect, and that some issues may still crop up after buying a used car. But in our opinion, you can significantly reduce the risk of those issues with an inspection from a trained mechanic. Yes, an inspection will certainly cost a little money, and it might be a slight hassle. But it could save you from an even bigger hassle, and spending more money, in the future.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Buying a Used Car: Is a Mechanical Inspection Necessary? - Autotrader