A car is expensive. In fact, for some of us, it will be the most expensive item we ever buy in our entire lives. With this in mind, it is scary to see how many used cars are burdened with hidden problems. According to recent estimates, as much as one car out of six could be a lemon.
Little wonder then that many are afraid to take the wrong decision and opting to either buy new, lease a car instead of buying or take out an extended warranty. While all of these will indeed protect you, they will also saddle you with additional costs.
But do you really need to resort to these drastic measures? There seems to be a much easier solution: A pre purchase vehicle inspection can significantly reduce the risk of buying a used car. And it won’t break the bank.
Should you do it, too? In this special, we’ve put together everything you need to know about pre purchase vehicle inspections. Find out more to see if they’re worth the investment.
What is the point of a pre purchase vehicle inspection?
A pre purchase vehicle inspection is carried out by an independent mechanic. i.e. someone who has no affiliations with the seller and can give you an ‘objective’ point of view. Of course, a truly objective perspective does not really exist. And just because a mechanic is independent doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a hidden agenda.
But you get the point: The point of a pre purchase vehicle inspection is to investigate whether the price set for a pre owned car by the seller is fair and realistic – or a rip-off.
Even those who are critical of pre purchase vehicle inspections will sometimes apply for one. The rationale for this is simple: These inspections can provide peace of mind, especially if you’re not an expert yourself. If you can be certain that the car in question doesn’t have any major defects, that information alone can be worth the price.
What does a pre purchase vehicle inspection cost?
Pre purchase vehicle inspections can be carried out by fully independent mechanics or by larger vehicle organisations. There are some benefits to working with independent mechanics, but their prices can vary considerably. On the downside, you won’t be able to ascertain whether or not they are competent – compared to the bigger names, who are using standardised procedures.
So which of the big names is best?
Here’s an overview of what to expect when looking for a pre purchase vehicle inspection in the UK.
The RAC …
… offers three tiers of inspections: Basic (from £99), Comprehensive (from From £189) and Advanced (from From £239). Unless you have serious concerns about the car in question, the basic inspection should work just fine.
The AA …
… works with two levels: Between £142 and £162 for a non-member basic inspection and between £191 and £305 for a non-member comprehensive package. Four wheel drive vehicles are in yet another category of their own.
… is another big provider of pre purchase vehicle inspections. The price of their inspections depends on a variety of factors. So you will need to get a quote using their online calculator. We’ve put it to the test and in most cases, their pricing doesn’t seem to differ all that much from that of the AA.
… is one of many websites currently competing with the established players from the offline world. Their pricing takes into consideration a selection of criteria (mostly engine size, as we take it). For a Kia Picanto, there are four levels, but they’re all very different. There is only a single inspection package, at £145. Then, you can book an inspection for a damaged car, which is an interesting option indeed and will set you back £165.
For the same price, you can also have a post purchase inspection, which can help you identify points to improve. Finally, an expert witness inspection can be useful in case you have a court case involving your car.
As you can see, a pre purchase vehicle inspection can be quite costly. So what are you getting for your money?
What a pre purchase vehicle inspection will look for
On the websites of all inspection providers, you will find a pretty precise overview of what they’re offering. Typically, these tests will look at the car’s exterior, wheels, the engine and everything related to it (such as the fuel compartment), the exhaust system, electrical wiring and the car’s control system, brakes, steering and suspension etc …
Every vehicle inspection test will deal with all of these categories. But some are more comprehensive than others.
Take the RAC vehicle inspection, for example.
Even the basic version will take a close look at the entire car. And yet, only the more advanced inspections will check for paintwork, bonnet hinges, the heating and air conditioning or the adjustment of the steering wheel. And if you’d like to know about the state of the wheel trims, the basic version also won’t do.
Should this worry you?
In general, the fundamental and most essential parts are routinely checked at all levels. Some may even include a road test / test drive. This can be especially useful, as many hidden defects will only show up in action.
So if your budget is tight, don’t worry too much about what you may be missing. Opt for the lowest level and you should be just fine.
What a pre purchase vehicle inspection can’t do
There is quite a bit of confusion around what a vehicle inspection can or can not do. very often, people will complain because they had a vehicle inspection, bought the car and weren’t satisfied with their choice afterwards. This makes it sensible to take a closer look at what, exactly, your money will buy you.
In order to understand what a vehicle inspection can’t do, you need to realise the following:
Not all defects can actually be detected within the scope of an inspection. As a professional mechanic remarked in a forum debate: “Without pulling down the engine its hard to tell what the internals are like. A compression test and check of the oil will give an indication, but still wont indicate a timing chain about to snap, or a head gasket on its way out.”
Which parts break or degrade doesn’t only depend on the state of the vehicle. It is also affected by your driving behaviour. Obviously, an inspector can not take this into consideration as well.
For these reasons alone, a vehicle inspection can not provide you with a purchasing recommendation. All it can do is verify the current state of the car to the best of its knowledge and then show you the weak points. What you do with that information is up to you.
A vehicle inspection which doesn’t come up with any faults does give you a bit more certainty. But it does not mean that you should buy the car. (and vice versa)
Who stands to benefit from a pre purchase vehicle inspection?
If you’re considering a pre purchase vehicle inspection, you may wonder whether it’s really for you. Money is usually tight and perhaps you’re thinking it’s better invested in nice extras.
In principle, an experienced friend or family member could take care of the job for you. In fact, they might even enjoy it! Then again, how many of us can claim to have a car expert in our circle of friends? And consider this: If she makes a mistake, are you willing to forgive her?
A car inspection by a third party is not a necessity by any means. And it’s not guaranteed to pay off. But it can make sense if …
- … you’re not an expert and do not know anyone who is.
- … you know your way around cars, but would like to get a second opinion on a specific car.
- … the car in question is very expensive.
- … the model you’re interested in has a patchy quality record, with some models coming with more problems than others.
- … you’re nervous and just need a bit more peace of mind.
- … you want to haggle with the seller and want to use the results from the inspection to drive the price down (this way, a vehicle inspection can pay for itself).
- … you’re buying from a distance and have no way to physically examine the car in person.
How to get the best possible pre purchase vehicle inspection
With all of the above in mind, what is the best inspection for you personally? Here are a few general guidelines on how to arrive at a sensible decision:
- The more expensive the car is, the more expensive the inspection can and should be. Even if you don’t put too much faith in the outcome, an inspection should be part of your strategy for a very expensive used car, simply as a measure of risk reduction.
- Whenever possible, join the mechanic for the inspection. Some of them actually want you to be there, so they can talk you through the different stages. Others may not want to distract themselves. But just from watching them at work, you can gather valuable information on how to evaluate a car yourself in the future.
- Read our guide for the best vehicle inspection checklists. Internalise the different points these checklists go through to gain a better understanding of what, exactly, the inspection is about.
- Whenever possible, opt for an inspection at a dealership/garage. This won’t always be possible and mobile evaluations are indeed the rule. However, in a garage, the mechanic will be able to take a better look underneath the car. Which can offer revealing clues about its current condition.
Can’t you do all of this yourself?
Perhaps you’ve read through this all and think to yourself: Can’t I do all of this myself?
The answer to that may very well be ‘yes“. Vehicle inspections are not rocket science. You can gain a basic understanding of them quickly just by reading through some guides, talking to mechanics and watching a few youtube videos.
Then again, experience means a lot in this business. Sometimes, the tiny details do matter. Mechanics may sometimes have a hunch something’s wrong and verify it by going through a few tests. Sometimes, defects may hardly be visible at all. But thanks to their experience, mechanics will still know something’s not quite right.
All of this simply won’t be the case if you’ve never done this before. A second pair of eyes and ears can be a tremendous help. If you have the money to pay for it, a pre purchase vehicle inspection is therefore almost always a sensible move.