When buying a used car, you want to be as careful and as prepared as possible. Before any change of hands is made, we highly recommend you get the used car inspected by a knowledgeable and certified professional. But what is the mechanic going to be looking for?
A thorough inspection and test drive of a standard used car by a professional mechanic usually costs between $100-$200 (though rare or luxury cars can be considerably more)—and yes the buyer pays—so it’s good to be prepared and fairly certain that if the inspection comes back clean you are going to buy the used car. If you are on the fence, it’s probably best to hold off on the inspection.
There are some basic things you can look at before deciding to take it to the mechanic. For example, it’s important to check the odometer for signs of “odometer fraud” (the condition of the car should match that of the mileage…a car with only 20,000 miles won’t have a worn steering wheel and seats, for example). Also, it’s a good idea to check the body for signs of extensive work (new paint or touch-up paint, corrosion, etc), the interior and the tires for damage, and under the hood, too.
Also, it’s common practice to test-drive the car, especially before paying hundreds on an inspection. If you aren’t comfortable with how it feels or looks, feel free to walk away and save the money for an inspection on a car you actually want.
Once you are happy with the car as far as you can tell, its time to pay an expert to give it a thorough once-over. The mechanic will be looking for any problems or potential problems with the used car’s aesthetics, mechanical and electrical workings, and it’s all-around safety. The intent of the inspection is to predict or foresee any possible problems the vehicle might have (whether deliberately concealed by the seller or otherwise) to ultimately avoid hidden costs or unsafe conditions after the purchase.
The mechanic will also be checking for signs of “mileage rollback” (odometer fraud). If the car had been serviced in the past (the A/C or transmission, for example) there should be stickers or tags with the car’s mileage at the time of the service placed on wire in the engine. A mechanic will be much more experienced with recognizing and catching odometer fraud than a layperson’s untrained eye.
Even with very little car knowledge, we advise that you check to see that both the air conditioner and heater are currently working (even if you are out-of-season for one or the other), but a mechanic will be able to see if the system has been serviced in the past and also if there are any reasons to believe the systems might fail in the near future. He (or she!) will be able to check the coolant levels to see if there is a possible leak, which could mean hundreds of dollars for you once the coolant runs dry and repairs were needed. It could be a very hot summer or a very cold winter if the system fails a few weeks after you buy the car!
The mechanic will be able to tell, and probably pretty quickly, whether or not the car had been in a severe accident or not. Also, he (or she!) will be able to pinpoint potential problems with any previous bodywork.
He (or she!) will thoroughly check the tire condition, the brakes, the steering, and all the technical stuff under the hood that works even if you have no clue how it works! He (or she!) will make sure the electrical system works and will continue working.
The mechanic should also thoroughly inspect the used car’s transmission, which can be incredibly expensive to repair, especially automatic transmissions. It might be a good idea to specifically ask the mechanic about the transmission, just to hear it from the mouth of an expert.
Feel free to do so before taking the car in for inspection, but the VIN needs to be inspected. It should be visible (with no signs of tampering) and match with the number on the title.
Finally, for many states (like California), you might need the vehicle to pass a smog or emissions test before registering it—and there’s no telling how much it will end up costing you to get the car street legal. It needs to pass any tests based on local regulations before you buy it!