Buying a car is often the second largest purchase people make, so it’s something you definitely want to get right. While buying a car private instead of from a dealer can be a bit daunting at first, it really doesn’t have to be a difficult process. All it takes is a bit more discretion and attention to the paperwork and vehicle inspection aspect.
One thing many people take for granted at the dealer is that they assume the cars are all fully inspected and that a dealer wouldn’t sell a flawed used car. This, however, is often not the case and you should very much still do a pre-purchase car inspection for a car that you buy from a dealer. They will likely have checked out the car in the service department, but they are in the business of selling cars and will do so even with some issues.
So, it’s best practice to make sure you get an inspection whenever you a purchasing a used vehicle, regardless of where you buy it.
- What is a pre-purchase inspection?
- What are the benefits of a PPI?
- Where can I get a PPI?
- What do PPIs normally cover?
- How much should it cost, and who pays?
A car inspection is a key part of the used car buying process in which you enlist a qualified mechanic to do a complete 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 vs. just you armed with what you read on the internet. 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. They also will be able to lift the vehicle to inspect the most important parts - the undercarriage and the suspension / brakes / wheels. This will also allow the mechanic to check for any structural or frame damage.
The report should provide a thorough review of the car and provide information on any upcoming repairs that may be needed.
A pre-purchase auto inspection should be used pretty much any time you buy a used vehicle to provide confidence to the buyer that the car is in good shape, and/or any necessary repairs are called out. The PPI is a mechanism of due diligence that takes some of the risk out of buying something that has been used by other unknown parties.
While vastly underused, the inspection can allow the buyer to gain leverage during negotiations, have a better understanding of the vehicle value, and be more confident that it’s not a lemon.
Considering the average used car sales prices these days hovers around $20,000, it seems very appropriate to spend the $100-$300 necessary to ensure that the car you’re buying is really what you want.
There are lots of different options available to you when considering a ppi. They can be split into 3 main categories, and you should consider the pros/cons of each before choosing.
A basic vehicle inspection can be done at almost any certified mechanic and will be one of the cheapest options. These are best suited for generic, high volume vehicles where the mechanics are likely to have seen a lot of them. Think Honda accord, Mazda 3, etc.
These cars don’t need a special inspection shop because pretty much anyone who deals with cars will have seen a ton of them. As soon as you start looking into more unique or German vehicles, you should likely find a specialty shop.
There are even inspection services that will come to you via a mobile PPI. These companies send a mechanic representative out to do a review of the car, often involving a quick road test, to ensure the status of the vehicle. While this may be one of the easier methods, especially if you are buying a car remotely and need someone to go out to the car, it’s not the most thorough or cheapest.
That’s because they don’t have a full shop with them to really get into the nitty gritty. For cheaper cars, this probably isn’t an issue. If you are buying a high-end vehicle, you will likely want to opt for taking it to a specialty shop.
Specialty Inspection Shop
Specialty shops are those that focus most of their work on a select group of car manufacturers. This could be imports (mostly german and japanese), jdm (japanese), european, american muscle, etc. Generally if you are buying a unique or performance vehicle, you should take it to a shop that works specifically on those.
A euro shop will not know all the potential problems to look for on your Ford Shelby GT500, and likewise the American focused shops won’t understand the details of a Bmw M5. This option will be the priciest, but certainly worth it to avoid any problems later.
While there is no standard for an inspection, there are some things you should expect. That’s a basic review of the exterior, interior, engine, undercarriage, and a road test. Anything less than this won’t give you a full understanding of the car. Of course, you can go much further in depth and get engine readings and code histories, but that will cost you more and is probably only needed on high-end purchases.
Here are a few example reports you can take a look at:
Historically, the buyer has always paid for the PPI. The basic inspection can run from $100-$180, which is once over of all the main vehicle components. The base lemon squad option cost $169, and they will come to the vehicle. An example report is here. The inspection for an exotic (or high performance vehicle, goes up to $229). If you are really getting into the nitty gritty, a full service inspection on a luxury car can get up to $500 for the mechanic to take their time and get a truly granular understanding of the car’s history.
While it has always been the case that the buyer handles the PPI, it’s a bit of a backward process. Why should you have to pay to check out all the cars you consider buying? It seems reasonable that when a seller listed the car, that part was done in advance for all potential buyers to review.
That’s the approach taken at Topmarq, and it ensures that buyers get full transparency from the very beginning and don’t have to go through the hassle of arranging anything themselves. If you’re interested in selling your car this way, check out the submission page.
Whether you buy private, from a dealer, or through Topmarq, please do the prudent thing and invest a few hundred bucks to make sure your $20,000 purchase doesn’t come with a surprise $5,000 repair a few months later!
Real life examples
This forum thread on Vintage mustang talks about the necessity of PPI's for classics. Crallscars says:
What you are asking for is called a PPI, Pre-Purchase Inspection. This is coming from a 68 GT500 Shelby owner, considering the value of a Shelby and it's age, the countless counterfeits and shade tree service and previous normal wear and tear maintenance that would greatly effect the value of the car, unless you are extremely knowledgeable, having someone who knows the car is a good idea.
Especially when you are looking for high end vehicles, classic or not, having a professional is always nice. He continues with
When I bought mine, I spoke to several in the SCCA and looked up a lot on the internet that gave me a wealth of information. The first car I looked at had the entire front end replaces, meaning there were a lot of serial numbers from donor cars involved, then there is a question of what other body work done and quantity of bondo hidden under a shiny paint job. A non- factory radio is no biggie, bit a non original engine block, intake manifold, console gauges can be worth several thousand, a left front fender can be worth mid five figures.
As you can see not doing sufficient due diligence in advance can lead to significant costs post-purchase.