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Pre-Purchase Car Inspections: What You Need to Know Before Buying a Vehicle

What Is a Pre-Purchase Car Inspection (PPI)?

A pre-purchase inspection, also known as a PPI, gives untrained buyers confidence by providing a professional evaluation of a used car before settling on a final deal. During a pre-purchase inspection, a licensed mechanic or automotive technician will check over three critical aspects of the vehicle:

  • The internal components: Heating, cooling, upholstery, etc.
  • The external components: Tires, brakes, engine, etc.
  • The paperwork and legal components: Title, VIN, and vehicle history.

While these inspections cost upfront, they could save you thousands of dollars over the long term by protecting you from purchasing a car with hidden deficiencies that require ongoing, expensive repair work.

A PPI Can Give You Confidence in Your Investment  

Buying a used car can be an exciting, but daunting, experience. It’s important to make sure that you’re getting a reliable vehicle that won’t break down on you in the near future. This is where a pre-purchase inspection comes in.

A pre-purchase inspection is a thorough examination of a vehicle by a qualified mechanic before you make the purchase. It can give you confidence in knowing that the vehicle is safe to drive.

In this article, you’ll get insight on what a pre-purchase inspection is, why it’s important, and what to expect during the process. You’ll have a better understanding of how a pre-purchase inspection can help you make a smart investment in your next vehicle.

The Importance of a Pre-Purchase Inspection

As soon as you hand over the money for a used car, any breakdowns or significant mechanical issues become your problem, unless you have a guaranteed warranty from the dealer. Organizing a PPI can save you months of regret and anguish over a vehicle that later reveals itself as a lemon. 

Imagine you come home only weeks after buying a used car to find out your rear axle seal has been leaking brake fluid all over your undercarriage or that you have a faulty alternator. Issues of this magnitude can cost thousands of dollars to address and keep you from being able to re-sell the car. By getting a PPI, those issues would have been exposed prior to the purchase.

Where Should You Get a Pre-Purchase Car Inspection? 

While the decision is ultimately up to you, experts recommend you get a pre-purchase inspection at a trusted mechanic’s shop or the vehicle’s certified dealership. 

Technicians at the dealership will have more specialized training on your vehicle’s make and access to more original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts. On the other hand, independent mechanics typically have more generalized car knowledge and charge less for your trouble. Your mechanic might also give you better car-buying advice, as dealership technicians get paid by commission and sometimes have a financial incentive to push repairs on customers.

How Much Does a Pre-Purchase Car Inspection Cost, and Who Should Pay for It? 

A basic pre-purchase inspection typically costs between $100 to $200, and you will likely have to pay for it. Best case scenario, you can convince the seller to pay for the PPI—but most sellers will expect you to pony up for any evaluation. 

A basic PPI should entail a rudimentary mechanical and safety inspection and a test drive. Expect to pay hundreds more for a deeper, more labor-intensive dive into the engine and all the car’s working components. These days, most auto shops charge around $75-$125 an hour for labor.

When Should a Pre-Purchase Inspection Be Done?

As the name suggests, a pre-purchase inspection should occur before you officially buy the vehicle. If the seller lives in a different area than you, you should research and contact a reputable mechanic near the seller, and have the seller drop the car off. Ask the mechanic to contact you first with any concerns before booking a trip to see the car yourself.

Proceed with additional caution when shopping around electric cars with more complex engines or used trucks. Truck owners often purchase these vehicles to perform under more demanding conditions, so getting one up on a lift can save you from surprise under-body damages later on.

Is There a Time When You Don’t Need a PPI? 

In some special situations, securing a PPI may not prove necessary. Some used cars carry existing manufacturers’ warranties dating back to their original purchase that would alleviate you from financial responsibility should something go wrong. With that said, these warranties might not cover every possible scenario and could expire before you’d need them.

If you intend to purchase a used car from a trusted friend in your area, you could consider bypassing an inspection. If you do, communicate clearly with this friend about potential issues with the car and try to establish some kind of shared responsibility should anything go wrong immediately following the sale. 

The Components of a Pre-Purchase Inspection 

As stated above, a PPI can be broken down into three categories:

  • The internal components
  • The external components
  • The paperwork and legal components

Make sure whoever you choose to perform your inspection covers all these bases to guarantee complete confidence in your purchase. 

Internal Components

When inspecting the interior, your mechanic should turn the key with the engine off to check that all the engine lights illuminate. After examining the power windows, locks, and lights, they should proceed to the following:

Heating and cooling

Without a functional heating and cooling system, you can plan on having a miserable time driving around during the winter or summer. Repairs of either system typically cost a pretty penny, so ensure the AC and heater controls work on every setting and that the HVAC blower motor functions at all speeds.


Upholstery repair and detailing also carry a hefty price tag, and some smells and stains may prove impossible to eliminate. Check for broken seatbelts or tears in the upholstery. The carpet should appear clean, dry, and free of stains. Sniff around for evidence of cigarette smoke, which can linger for years no matter how you treat it.

Video and audio 

Cars and broadcasting have been linked together for most of the past century, and you’ll likely want the option to cruise with your favorite album or podcast. Give the radio, CD player, Bluetooth, and AUX connections a proper inspection, as well as all the power receptacles, USB ports, and any video capabilities like dashboard GPS and backup cameras.

External Components

Checking all the external components should take up the breadth of the PPI. Everything outside the car and under the hood determines its driving ability and potential longevity. You can still drive a car without a radio, but not without wheels, brakes, or an engine.


All the lights, gauges, and instrument clusters directly in front of the driver make up the vehicle dashboard. With the car running, look over the dashboard for any check engine lights or other warnings. Observe that the gas gauge and other instruments read and function accurately.

Tires and suspension 

You cannot safely drive any car without good tires or proper suspension. Have your mechanic inspect the tires for smooth and even wear (no bumps or bald spots) and for cracks in the tire walls. All the shocks, axles, and struts connecting the tires to the car will also require a proper once-over to ensure your safety.


To keep their moving parts lubricated, functional, and at sustainable temperatures, cars need many fluids: oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, coolant, etc. A proper PPI should account for leaks under the vehicle, note low fluid levels, and check fluids for purity and discolorations.


Your vehicle’s most critical safety feature allows you to slow down or stop on a dime and prevent accidents. Mechanics can assess the quality of your brakes with a quick visual inspection, though typically require a test drive to ensure that the vehicle slows down smoothly. The brake pedal should firmly and evenly resist pressure when putting your foot down to stop.


A car’s engine and its connected parts work in unison to convert fuel into mechanical power. Your engine should start without trouble and idle smoothly, maintain a steady temperature, and accelerate uniformly at any speed. Have your mechanic see that the connected drive belts and hoses still have some run left as well.


Think about the gear shifter and chain system on a bicycle—a car’s transmission functions similarly, albeit on a larger mechanized scale. Essentially, your transmission converts engine power into adjustable momentum. Transmission repairs can break the bank for many people, so arrange a test drive with your mechanic to test for any jerkiness or delayed shifting.


A sound exhaust system should quietly expel harmful fumes away from the engine and cab of your vehicle. Your exhaust should operate quietly, ideally reducing emissions and improving fuel economy. Depending on where you live, your car may need to pass a smog or DEQ test following a sale, increasing the importance of a pre-purchase inspection.

Body of the vehicle 

While you can still drive a car with exterior defects, these substantially lower its value and can cost a lot to fix. You’ll want your hood to fit correctly and your windshield, windows, and mirrors free of cracks and fully functional. Look out for flakey paint, frame damage, or unsightly dents that you can use to haggle a lower price from the seller.

Vehicle lights 

The lights on your vehicle operate primarily to communicate with other cars on the road. Your headlights alert oncoming traffic and drivers attempting to change lanes at night of your presence, and brake lights alert drivers behind you to begin slowing down. Your mechanic should check that all exterior lights shine brightly and reliably to ensure proper safety conditions.

Pour over a used vehicle’s paperwork in detail before finalizing a sale. Nowadays, many companies offer quick online background check you can complete without expert assistance.

The VIN number 

Secure the vehicle identification number (VIN) from the seller as your first order of business when initiating negotiations over a used car. Every vehicle has one of these 17-digit codes that you can use to unearth its title status (clean or salvage) and its entire life story, as we’ll explain below.

Vehicle history report 

By inputting the VIN of your desired vehicle into one of any variety of online databases, you can discover every repair and accident sustained by a car since it first drove off the dealership lot. A detailed vehicle history report should also reveal all the vehicle’s previous owners, safety recalls, and iffy title implications, painting a vivid picture of the car you intend to buy.

What to Do After the Inspection 

A PPI should give you confidence in whatever decision you make surrounding a used car. If your mechanic finds nothing of note and declares the vehicle clean, the seller has the upper hand and will probably hold firm on their price. Regardless, this should leave you more confident in your decision to buy the car, as you’ll know you’re not falling into a trap.

Alternatively, if the mechanic discovers one or more glaring issues with the car, feel free to walk away from the sale. Buying a problematic vehicle—even at a steal—can lead to financial stress and regret. However, if these problems do not feel overly pertinent, you could use them as a bargaining chip to negotiate a lower price.