What is a pre-purchase inspection?

A PPI can reveal a used car’s hidden issues

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    Hyundai, Toyota and Carvana
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    Your average used car listing offers plenty of info. You’ll probably see the make, model, age, mileage and a couple photos. But what about the finer points of the vehicle’s condition? Are there any leaks? Do all the windows, buttons and knobs work? Are the brakes, tires and suspension OK? Are there signs of neglect or abuse? Is it even safe to drive off the lot?

    The surest way to answer these questions is by getting a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). For around $200, you can have an Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)-certified technician thoroughly inspect the car, look for problems and provide a detailed report of their findings. Your PPI results may reveal that you’re getting a great deal — or that the vehicle is a dangerous investment worth avoiding.

    Key insights

    • A pre-purchase inspection is a service many mechanics offer that involves them thoroughly inspecting a used vehicle to help you decide whether you should go through with purchasing it.
    • During a typical PPI, a mechanic will inspect the engine, transmission, drivetrain, suspension, brakes, tires, body panels, center stack, safety systems, electronics and more.
    • You’ll then receive a detailed report with the technician’s notes on areas of concern. A positive report can provide peace of mind that you’re getting a good deal, and a negative report can help you negotiate a lower price or walk away.
    • It’s best to schedule a PPI between your test drive and final purchase appointment. Most sellers won’t let you take a vehicle off-site for a PPI, but many mechanics will perform a PPI at the vehicle’s current location.

    Pre-purchase inspections explained

    A pre-purchase inspection involves hiring an independent, third-party mechanic to inspect a used vehicle’s condition, usually either before you buy it or during the return window after the purchase.

    The purpose of a PPI is to get a detailed assessment of the vehicle’s current condition and any problems — minor or serious — it might be hiding. Your mechanic will check for things like dents and scratches, missing parts, mechanical issues, coolant levels, tire tread wear, electrical issues and much more. They’ll also perform a road test to assess the engine and transmission, listen for noises, check the suspension and ensure safe braking distances.

    By opting for a pre-purchase inspection, consumers can learn of any hidden issues or potential problems that will help them make an informed purchase decision and have peace of mind when all is good.”
    — Eric Hamilton, founder of Whyte Knyte Inspections

    “A vehicle pre-purchase inspection holds immense value for consumers looking to buy a used car,” said Eric Hamilton, founder of Whyte Knyte Inspections. “By opting for a pre-purchase inspection, consumers can learn of any hidden issues or potential problems that will help them make an informed purchase decision and have peace of mind when all is good.”

    In the end, your mechanic will produce a detailed report that should include their general notes plus a grade or check mark for each inspected component.

    Many of the topics they’ll note aren’t apparent from an online listing, such as the stench of cigarettes or low fluid levels, which is why it’s especially smart to get a PPI if you’re buying a car out of state. Other issues might even slip past you during a test drive, like water under the oil filler cap or coolant leaks.

    » LEARN: How to buy a car online

    “Even though the pre-purchase inspection is not a diagnostic tool, it does reveal information not evident by a visual inspection alone,” explained Hamilton.

    That’s why it’s wise to consider scheduling a PPI before committing to any used car purchase. It may cost you $200 or so, but it could save you from buying a car that needs thousands in urgent repairs or worse — a car that’s unsafe to drive off the lot. Even if the inspection report comes back clean, it can provide peace of mind that you’re getting a well-maintained car.

    » MORE: 10 tips for first-time car buyers

    What will they check for in a pre-purchase inspection?

    There is no universal standard for what to check during a pre-purchase inspection. Still, most ASE-certified mechanics will carefully inspect and document the condition of various elements of the car, such as its:

    • Interior, including upholstery, switches, clocks, trip computers, heating, air conditioning, power locks, security system, front and rear defroster and radio/navigation system
    • Exterior, including the paint, seals, glass, mirrors, alignment, moldings, wheels, tires, brakes and lights
    • Mechanical components, including its battery, transmission, engine, coolant, filters, hoses, radiators, brakes and fluids
    • Ride, including listening or feeling for issues with the engine, transmission, wheel bearings, suspension, brakes and safety systems.

    As for the results, it’s typical for a mechanic to call you as soon as they’re done to give you their general thoughts over the phone. You’ll usually get the full written report later that day once your mechanic has a chance to write it up.

    What does a pre-purchase inspection cost?

    A typical pre-purchase inspection will cost you around $200, but expect prices to vary. Some mechanics may charge as little as $150 to inspect a simple, non-luxury vehicle like a Hyundai or Toyota. However, thorough PPI on a luxury/performance vehicle, like a Porsche, may cost $250 or more, especially if you hire a specialist mechanic.

    The other factor that may affect what you pay is whether you can bring the car to the shop or need the mechanic to perform an on-site PPI. The latter service tends to cost more.

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      Bottom line

      At the very least, a $200 pre-purchase inspection can provide assurance and peace of mind that you’re getting a safe, well-treated vehicle you can trust for years to come.

      Other times, a PPI may reveal that a vehicle isn’t as advertised, and the results may give you leeway to negotiate a lower price or free repairs as a condition of purchase. Alternatively, you may see enough red flags to simply walk away, grateful that you avoided a costly mistake.

      A clean bill of health from a pre-purchase inspection doesn’t mean you’re immune to car problems down the road, though. If you want to protect the investment you’ve made in your car, check out our guide to the best extended car warranty companies.

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