We talk a lot about buying used vehicles here on this blog and are big proponents of getting out there and buying vehicles yourself from other private parties so long as you are prepared. There are pitfalls that you can stumble into if you don’t pay attention, but follow our guides - used car buying checklist - and you should be right as rain.
In this edition we talk about the option of mobile pre purchase car inspections. There are a few major convenience boosts to going mobile, and they may well outweigh the benefits, but you should be aware of what you are sacrificing for the service.
What is a mobile pre purchase car inspection?
This is a service that involves commissioning a mechanic from a shop somewhere to go directly to the location of the used car you would like to buy and inspecting it there. The goal of the service is to essentially be able to provide a full pre-purchase inspection (PPI) without making the seller of the vehicle drop off the car at a shop.
Specifically, a PPI is a key part of the used car buying process in which you enlist a qualified mechanic to do a thorough review of the vehicle you’re considering buying. The purpose is to ensure that somehow who knows what to look for is inspecting the vehicle rather than you and your friend doing a once over. While some people like to think they can check a vehicle themselves, it’s completely reasonable to surrender that job to a professional. They have much more experience doing so and can point out things quickly and confidently. Years of experience is incredibly valuable and they can often go directly to specific pain points that the make / model has and check to get the best bang for your buck. The resulting report should provide a thorough review of the vehicle and provide information on any upcoming repairs that may be needed.
Unless you're ready to get your hands dirty and really dive into the vehicle you are buying by watching a few tips and tricks videos like the one below, you should probably rely on a PPI. I include it here because I actually still suggest you watch it anyways! Always good to have some basic understanding to rely on outside of the inspection. This will help keep you from having to send every car you see to the mechanic! Thank me later...
Benefit of mobile PPI’s
At its core, the concept seems like a great idea! It’s easier to coordinate because the seller just has to be in one spot for a while, you can get it done faster because you don’t need to have it dropped at a shop, and it’s cheaper for the seller.
When I was selling my car back in Arizona, I was more than happy to oblige people who wanted to get a full ppi done on the car. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always easy. I had to find a way at one point to drop the car off near work, uber to the office, uber back to the shop, then drive back to the office. Thankfully my job is pretty laid back and no one was going to say anything about my absence, but not everyone is so lucky. Typically you can’t just hop out of work whenever to sell your car so the inspection may get pushed back to the weekend. Then if one doesn’t work, suddenly it’s the next weekend.
I think you get the point. The convenience factor of a mobile pre purchase car inspection is pretty clear. The drawbacks, however, are less so.
Pitfalls of using a mobile inspection service
1. Don’t have full access to shop
One of the major benefits of getting a PPI at a mechanic is that they are supposed to be your eyes and ears where you would not or could not look. Sure, the exterior condition report will be helpful. They may pick out that there was some inconsistent paint that indicates a panel repair somewhere, but that will likely also show up in a CarFax.
The one spot impossible for the average person to look is underneath the vehicle. Unfortunately, though, the mobile inspection services will not be able to give you that insight. Most of the driving issues come from underneath - duh - so it’s a pretty significant loss to have the car inspected without this crucial detail. Granted, the road test where they take it for a quick drive will likely still point out any major issues. Anything less severe or just starting to wear will be harder to catch. This can be ok if you’re buying a relatively new car and aren’t overly worried about structural / suspension / transmission damage.
The one bright spot here is that exterior and engine checks can often point out issues that extend below the car. It’s not often a car somehow just gets a huge rock to hit the transmission but not affect the rest of the vehicle. As such, issues in the engine bay or outside may indicate troubles below as well. Best to keep that in mind when looking at anything that has repaired body panels. That could mean the accident also affected the frame or internals.
2. It is hard to find specialty mechanics for high end vehicles
Another one of my big suggestions when considering a pre purchase inspection is to choose the shop carefully. If you want to get your basic Kia, Ford, Honda, etc checked then you can go pretty much anywhere. If you are looking to get a 2002 Bmw M3 slicktop checked out, you need to go to the right people.
In fact, my friend just did this a few months ago and the shop definitely knew what they were doing. There were literally 5 other Bmws of similar vintage already there being worked on. Perfect. You know these gents have a very clear grasp of all the custom Bmw parts and the unique issues they can create.
With a mobile car inspection, however, they often do not separate out into specialty groups. Typically they will break down the service into different levels (high-end, basic, classic), but not into manufacturer groups like European, Asian, American. So even with the high-end you essentially elect a more thorough inspection, but you have no control over who that person is or what cars they know best. This can be a huge loss for performance vehicles that require pretty specific tribal knowledge to really evaluate the quality of a car.
3. Won’t run engine diagnostics tests
Lastly, the mobile options will have a harder time running full diagnostics on the cars without all the equipment they would have at the shop. I’m sure they come with an OBD2 reader to spit out any error codes, but that’s about it. For the performance vehicle side, you’ll often want them to take a deeper look into the engine computer and grab some additional info like rev logs. That’s likely not an option if you go mobile.
For me personally, these aspects of the service put huge dampener on my willingness to try it. If I am investing in a nice car for me to use for a few years, I’ll likely also invest the time and effort to get it inspected at an actual shop. The purpose of a PPI is to be as sure as possible that you understand the quality of the vehicle, and a mobile used car inspection adds back a few question marks.
If you’re already pretty confident about a car and just want some added piece of mind, or are selling your car and want some basic info to present, this might still be a great option.
Are mobile used car inspections more expensive?
Actually, the mobile inspections seem to be pretty competitively priced with in-shop options. The rates range from about $170 - $230 (from basic to exotic) as compared to $100-$180 for solid in house inspections. The difference really comes in the issues mentioned above with the mobile option. Rather than paying the mechanic to travel to the car, the in house option puts the entire fee towards shop time investigating the car more thoroughly.
Best mobile car inspection services
If you are keen on finding a service to go check out your car or someone else’s, there are some great options that will coordinate things for you and then send the report within a few days. Again, these can be incredibly convenient options if that’s what you’re looking for!
Lemonsquad will almost certainly pop up when you search about car inspections and is a nationwide service. They are a full fledged service and have good reviews from previous customers. Their pricing starts at $169 for the basic car and goes to $229 for an exotic.
Pomcar is a nationwide service that will provide pre purchase inspections on demand. They aren’t the cheapest starting price at $180 for their starter plan, but the high-end option at $195 is less than others.
3. Your Mechanic
Your mechanic will come to you for a nice $99, making it a pretty cheap option.
Another option - buy where the inspections are already done
A weird aspect of buying a car privately is that you are stuck with the responsibility of paying for and coordinating getting the car to the mechanic. This is not only annoying, but causes a lot of friction in the whole process. Dealers have leaned in on this issue and declared private car buying too risky to be worth it, to their obvious benefit.
Additionally, it is possible the same car has to get multiple inspections if the first buyers decide to pass. That’s a complete waste of time, energy, and money. It makes much more sense for each car to just get one inspection before listing and then have buyers take advantage of that. Topmarq does just that by ensuring all listings go through a thorough 3rd party inspection (sellers can’t alter or influence data), and then posts the results for prospective buyers to look at.
If you're in the market (buying or selling) and need to polish off some of the specifics, check out our Car Talk: Transactions section. Whether you use Topmarq or not, you should make sure you're fully equipped to safely and easily handle your transaction. You can also see my used car buying flipboard for helpful info.