Let’s face it: Very few of us are mechanics. So even if you really love cars and spend a lot of time informing yourself about them, buying a used car always comes with a certain amount of risk. Sure, there are checklists floating around on the Internet. But even learning these by heart and preparing yourself can never entirely protect you against defects that are hard too spot for the untrained eye.
Which explains why vehicle inspections are all the rage at the moment. Especially now the used car market has eclipsed the one for new vehicles, more and more buyers are considering having potential cars checked by an expert. On the other hand, the peace of mind offered by an expert verdict comes at a price. Is an inspection really worth £100-150?
Vehicle Inspections: A Question of Common Sense?
According to Marcus Rockey, aka The Used Car Guy, that question should be reversed: Do you seriously want to spend thousands Pounds for something that may not live up to your expectations? On his informative website, he writes:
“Common sense says that if you AVOID buying a used car that is likely to cost you a lot of money in repair bills, a significant amount of money (and time) has been saved! So a small upfront cash investment is both legitimate and necessary for those that feel any kind of uncertainty about buying a used motor. After all, you would never buy a house without having it surveyed first and a car purchase is really not so different.”
Rockey has a point: At least in theory, a vehicle inspection provides you with an objective, well-informed opinion. This can come in handy when assessing the dealer’s promises. It can also make you aware of defects that you would not otherwise have spotted. And if that helps you get the price down during the bargaining stages, it may even pay for itself.
At the same time, you might ask yourself:
Why is an MOT not enough?
When it comes to vehicle inspections, the UK holds a unique position. Every 12 months, we need to have our cars inspected by law. This is significantly more often than in most other European countries. MOT inspections become mandatory as soon as a car is older than three years. So why would you need to pay hard-earned cash to have another one performed when considering buying a used car?
To understand the limitations of an MOT vehicle inspection, let’s take a look at the basics of these tests:
An MOT check up takes roughly 30-45 minutes and sets you back just over £50. In 2014, WhatCar? compiled a top 5 of the most frequent reasons why a car failed an MOT test. Among these were: insufficient screen wash, stickers on the windscreen obscuring your sight of the road and registration plate problems. These are hardly the kind of issues that will keep you from purchasing a vehicle.
As the BBC explains, “an MOT only proves that a car passed certain safety and structural requirements at the time the test was taken. More serious faults which may not have been obvious at the time of the MOT would require a deeper investigation into the vehicle in order to be identified.”
If an MOT is not enough, what, exactly, does a vehicle inspection check?
An MOT is aimed at making sure a car meets government requirements and basic road safety provisions. A vehicle inspection, on the other hand, should provide you with an estimate of a car’s current condition. It seeks to answer questions such as: How long will I be able to drive it safely? Will I have to have expensive parts replaced? What are a car’s strength’s and weaknesses?
Ultimately, it is about one key question: Should you buy the car or not?
The RAC, one of the UK’s two biggest vehicle inspection providers (the AA being the other), has provided a list of the main points its mechanics will check when performing an inspection:
- Engine and gearbox
- Safety equipment
- Interior features
- Bodywork condition
- Signs of accident damage
- Evidence of neglect or poor maintenance
- Full road test
Compared to the rather trivial MOT failure list, these points look a lot more relevant to your buying decision.
The benefits of a vehicle inspection
So, with this knowledge in mind, let’s return to what might make a vehicle inspection beneficial.
Perhaps the main reason is that cars have become exceedingly complicated. As the RAC puts it, modern cars have more computing power than the original NASA moon mission. In essence, it is impossible for a layman to understand them. Only the trained eyes of an expert can weed out seriously problematic defects from the regular wear and tear you’d expect from a used car.
The Used Car Guy explains just how complicated things have become by taking the example of a vehicle’s paint work. To an untrained eye, a perfect paint surface may suggest excellent handling. Not so to the expert, as Marcus Rockey explains:
“A used car should be showing signs of wear and tear, have the odd stone chip, scuff curbed alloy wheel, worn seat lumbar or other age bearing scratches.These flaws demonstrate the car as being the genuine article because the vehicle is showing actual signs of wear. (…) A car that has covered considerable mileage but has paintwork that looks practically brand new, may:
Have repainted panels to cover up stone chips and scratches
Have replacement panels such as doors, wings, bonnets, bumpers and seals as result of a major accident.”
The Limitations of a Vehicle Inspection
Clearly, when performed well, a vehicle inspection can have tremendous benefits. Still, you should be aware that it can not work miracles. Just like any other check-up, a vehicle inspection has its limitations:
- A vehicle inspection can be a useful help in assessing the true value of a car. However, it is not a guarantee that a car will not experience problems later on.
- Unless the mechanics missed a major problem during the inspection, she or he can not be made liable if you buy the car and end up being dissatisfied.
- While some mechanics may miss a few minor issues, others may be overly careful to avoid liability issues. Both situations are less than ideal.
- Even with the more comprehensive vehicle inspection packages, the mechanic will not look at a car for much more than an hour. This is a decent amount of time. However, it can not prevent her or him missing some minor defects.
- Even a comprehensive vehicle inspection will not look at every single detail and document. This means that you will still need to perform some background checks yourself.
It may seem slightly disappointing that even professional vehicle inspections have their disadvantages. But at least being aware of these limitations will help you a lot to make sense of a vehicle inspector’s report.
Getting the most out of a vehicle inspection
So even if it isn’t perfect, you can do a lot to put a vehicle inspection to excellent use. For one, as long as you know that the mechanic may have missed a few problems, you can simply use the report as a second opinion. It certainly helps to have something written and ‘official’ when negotiating with a dealer. Even if they may disagree with or even disprove some of the findings.
Secondly, you should never lose sight of your own judgments, instincts and experiences. There have been several cases, where buyers were extremely disappointed by a used car after buying it based on the opinion of a vehicle inspector. However, a vehicle inspection can not prevent you from buying a ‘bad’ car entirely. It can only reduce the chances of this happening.
Obtaining Additional Information
In terms of complementing the vehicle inspection with research of your own, most experts these days recommend getting a so-called HPI Check. This analysis provides you with the car’s financial and repair history and gives you a better insight into things that might otherwise remain invisible even to a mechanic. An HPI Check can not prevent you from mistakes, either, since not all minor accidents will be included in it – only reported accidents are. But it will provide you with another piece of the puzzle.
Others have suggested that you should also spend some time ‘verifying security details i.e VIN tags, Chassis stamps e.t.c.’ This, too, can prove to be a useful step. But it obviously can not replace the hands-on experience of checking a car and looking underneath the hood.
Perhaps the best alternative to a vehicle inspection is to take a knowledgeable friend with you to the dealer. He or she may not be a professional mechanic either. But they can often draw from experience and, most importantly, they will know what really matters to you and what doesn’t. Sometimes, that is all that matters.