It’s better to be safe than sorry. This holds true for many situations in life. And it’s even more important when it comes to buying a used car. An RAC car check suggests that it can prevent you from making costly mistakes. But is it worth its money?
Are you thinking about buying a used car? Then, at one point or another, the question is going to come up: “Should I get the car checked before committing to it?”
It is a good question. All experts agree that looking at the vehicle alone is never a good idea. You’re always going to miss a detail here or there – even if you’re pretty knowledgeable.
In the UK, a handful of companies offer services to help you make a better decision. The RAC car check is widely considered one of the best, if not the best, among its peers.
In this special, we take a closer look at the RAC car check to investigate if you should invest in it. As you’ll discover, the answer is not quite as clear-cut as you might expect.
What’s the idea behind an RAC car check?
Car checks come in many sizes. Usually, you can choose between different packages. Each of these packages offers a slightly different level of thoroughness.
The basic idea behind these different packages is always the same, however. Here are some of the reasons why car buyers are interested in a car check:
- You want a second opinion and don’t have an expert friend or relative.
- You suspect the car might have some underlying issues.
- It’s a private sale and there is no warranty.
- You simply want to be as certain as possible and are looking for some peace of mind.
Cars are getting more and more complex these days, and technology is becoming more important than mechanics. This makes it hard even for knowledgeable drivers to correctly assess the condition of a used car. An experienced mechanic should be able to do just that. And if push comes to shove, they can even recommend you stay away from buying the car at all.
But wait … what about the MOT?
Before we go any further, you may wonder: Why perform an expensive RAC car check at all, if you can instead simply look at the car’s MOT record?
The basic idea behind this thought is that every car needs an inspection once a year. The DVLA offers a free service which allows you to look up the results from all MOT inspections for every car registered in the UK online. Just enter the license plate of the car and you can see the outcome of all of its previous car checks.
Even better, you can not only see why it failed its MOT. You can also identify the reason why it failed it and the repairs performed on it. This is extremely valuable information that tells you quite a lot about the past of the car you intend to buy.
That said, an MOT is not a replacement for an RAC car check. It is a very basic check and only tests the car’s current roadworthiness. In comparison, even the most basic RAC package checks 218 mechanical and structural points!
Checking a car’s MOT record is a must. It is, however, never enough to guarantee the car will perform well.
Hold on one more time … what about a warranty?
Okay, so just looking at the MOT won’t cut it. But what about taking out a warranty instead? Your car is bound to experience mechanical issues at some point, whether or not you take an RAC car check or not. A warranty certainly seems like a much more natural approach. Especially since you can never fully predict when and where bad luck will hit you.
It’s a great thought – in theory. For starters, you can not take out an extended warranty with all cars. Not all dealers offer it and it is entirely off the table on a private sale. Unfortunately, as it happens, private sales are the one category where an RAC car check makes most sense.
Secondly, an extended warranty is not a cure all:
- A warranty only applies for a limited amount of time. After it expires, you’re on your own again.
- A warranty does not cover everything. There are many things which are not part of the package, which an RAC car check could potentially spot.
- An extended warranty is actually pretty expensive. Looking back, you’ll often find it wasn’t worth it.
- When buying from a dealer, they’ll usually have inspected the car themselves. A dealer hates to deal with in-warranty problems, so they tend to make sure that all major issues are resolved before putting a car up for sale. An RAC car check can help you identify other issues, which may not be covered by a warranty.
In summary, a car check is a service of its own. It is different from an MOT or an (extended) warranty. Let’s now take a look at what you’re getting for your money.
How much do I need to spend on a car check?
As we mentioned, the RAC car check is just one among a few car checks on the UK car market. The biggest competitors today are the AA, Dekra and Click Mechanic. It seems as though the AA is actually using Dekra subcontractors for its services, so these two are going to be pretty similar (albeit not necessarily identical).
Here’s an overview of the different car checks and prices:
- The basic RAC car check will set you back at least £99. Prices vary depending on age, value and model. Then, there is a ‘comprehensive’ package at £189 and the ‘advanced’ package at £239.
- The AA has a very similar system. It offers a basic and a comprehensive vehicle inspection. The former starts at £142, the latter at £191 for non-members (got to love those odd numbers!).
- Dekra also offer two tiers. The first is called ‘peace of mind inspection’ and it starts at £99 for smaller cars. Its ‘comprehensive’ packages begin at £169.
- Click Mechanic is a rather new service that connects you to independent mechanics around the UK. It has three different levels: Basic (from £48.38), standard (from £64.51) and Premium (from £100.80).
What will my money buy me?
The price differences between these competing tests aren’t huge. But they are still substantial. Part of this has to do with what, exactly, the companies are checking.
In terms of the sheer number of points, the RAC car check is the most thorough vehicle inspection available at the moment. It includes 218 mechanical and structural points, which is a truly massive amount.
In comparison, the basic level check by Click Mechanic only covers 72 points. And even its premium package merely verifies 143 points.
Dekra lies somewhere in between these poles. Its peace of mind deal takes a look at 155 points, its more comprehensive offering covers 202 points.
It is important to note, however, that the number of points in itself won’t tell you a lot. For one, these companies can easily split some tests into two or even three different points. So even it seems like some are being more thorough than others, the amount of information stays exactly the same.
It is probably best not to get fooled by the impressive numbers. Do note, however, that the Click Mechanic test really is somewhat less comprehensive than the other ones. This doesn’t mean it’s bad, of course.
What are some of the problems with car checks?
Car checks are a very emotional issue. Many buyers consider buying a check at one point or another. Most eventually shy away from going through with it. Costs are one reason. Another important one is that some are worried the buyer won’t like it.
In our opinion, both of these arguments are not very convincing. If you are serious about buying a car, then spending £100 to make sure it’s fine does not seem excessive. What’s more, if an independent vehicle inspector does find some issues with the car, then you can use this information to haggle the price down. It is not uncommon for an inspection to pay for itself this way.
Sellers rarely reject a car inspection and very few mind you asking.
There are some more relevant concerns, however. Let’s take a look at them in turn.
Reporting too little, reporting too much
There is an inherent danger for car checks to either report too little or too much. Both are not ideal situations to have.
The tendency to report too much is especially prevalent in a premium package and with very old cars. If you’re paying over £200 for a mechanic, then you’d be disappointed if they didn’t find at least something. And with an old car, which has been driven a lot, there is certain to be some wear and tear.
It may seem like the whole idea behind a vehicle inspection is to find out about these issues. But if the list gets too long, it’s hard to separate the really important problems from minor ones. It is a lot harder to haggle using such an expansive list, too.
The other extreme, of course, is mechanics missing out on really important faults and reporting too little. If you’re buying an RAC car check, it will cover 218 points in just 2 hours. That’s a lot and makes it very easy to miss out on some things.
Face the critics
You’ll find critical voices on all car checks. Perhaps the one which has been met with the most hostility is the AA car check. Not only is it performed by a different company (Dekra). But it seems that customer care after the test has been suboptimal to say the least.
All of the examples you’ll find on forums essentially deal with the same situation:
Someone has a vehicle inspection done. The mechanic declares the car to be a good buy. The driver buys the vehicle. Then, she experiences one or multiple issues with it and blames the inspection company for not spotting them. Upon contacting customer service, they reject responsibility.
This can indeed be a case of a car check gone wrong. It doesn’t have to be, though. Some have somewhat justifiably, argued that vehicle inspection tests can not really spot potential serious long-term problems anyway. Whether or not this is true is open to debate. What is certain, however, is that it is very hard to gauge, exactly, how long certain parts will still work. Also, this isn’t only a question of the condition the vehicle is in. It also depends on your style of driving, how much you’ll be using the car and the type of surface you’re driving on.
Limited prognostic power
If you’re getting a car check, you’ll have to accept that its power to accurately assess potential future problems is limited. And even if a mechanic did miss something, it is highly unlikely you’ll be able to prove it. This applies for any kind of test, including the RAC car check.
And don’t forget: The reverse is also true. A mechanic may advise you against buying a car for a number of reasons. You’ll be glad you did the test in that case. There is no way of proving he was correct in his assessment – only very few people will register a complaint in this case.
Does that invalidate the entire concept of car checks? Not necessarily.
When does an RAC car check make sense?
A car check may not be perfect. But it’s not as though it doesn’t have its uses. There are many happy customers who have put an RAC car check to their advantage. As one mechanic wrote in a comment:
“An experienced engineer such as myself can accurately highlight faults with gearboxes, engines, suspension etc without having to strip the vehicle down to confirm. At the same time we can also put a buyer at ease that a problem that they have identified is in keeping with a certain type of car and not a reason to walk away (…) Would you as a potential buyer know the extent of the damage to the vehicle if you were knowledgeable enough to know it had been painted? Would you walk away from a bargain thinking that it had been in a major accident when it had just had minor cosmetic work? (…) I could run through another twenty or so scenarios but you may get bored!”
Three best-case scenarios
Here are three of the most convincing situations when an RAC vehicle inspection really does make sense:
- If you don’t have a knowledgeable friend or relative: Nothing can beat having a car expert for a friend. She can take her time, will gladly answer all of your questions and cares only for your well being. Unfortunately, not all of us have access to this privilege.
- If you have no idea and the car you’re buying is average: If you need to choose between buying a car blind or having at least a basic RAC car check, the latter is always to be preferred.
- If you are buying private (not from a dealer): Car dealers perform their own checks and have their vehicles repaired prior to selling them. They are by law obligated to offer a minimum warranty. And you have quite substantial rights as a consumer if you are truly duped. Almost none of this applies in a private transaction.
How much is peace of mind worth?
If we haven’t really discussed independent mechanics here, then there’s a good reason for that: Although there are convincing arguments why they might be preferable to, say, an RAC car check, there are bound to be bigger differences in terms of their competency. You’ll have to judge their merit on a case by case basis.
So does an RAC car check make sense? We’ve given you some indication about the limits and benefits of such a test. But ultimately, it will depend on how much peace of mind is worth to you. If a vehicle inspection makes you feel better about one of the biggest investments you’ll make in your life, then even £200 doesn’t seem like too much.