Get a Used Car Inspection Before You Buy — or After
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The used car you bought online has already been inspected — by the seller. Now that the car is in the driveway, you’re wondering if you should have it inspected yourself.
The answer is yes.
Online car buying sites such as Carvana, Shift and Vroom ask shoppers to sign on the dotted line without a test drive or in-person viewing. To provide a measure of confidence, they perform extensive inspections and back them up by offering no-questions-asked returns.
But it’s a used car. Perhaps it has more wear and tear than you saw in the online photos. Or a funky smell. Or a lurking mechanical problem the seller missed. You have anywhere from seven to 30 days to find any issues.
"If you're making a significant purchase, I would advise having a third-party inspection of the vehicle within the seven-day return period to confirm the vehicle's condition," says David Rich, technical director for CarMD, which provides information and products to diagnose car problems.
If you're buying locally, a used-car inspection even more important. The vast majority of in-person transactions for used cars are "as is," meaning that the buyer is on the hook for all problems once the sale is final.
3 features that make online car buying appealing
Most online car sellers provide three convenient features that speed up the car buying process and attempt to provide buyers with peace of mind:
A multi-point inspection by the seller.
A limited warranty.
A return policy if the buyer doesn’t like the car.
These features work together: The inspection provides confidence, and — if something was missed — you can probably get it fixed under warranty. And the return policy provides a blanket assurance that you're not stuck with a lemon or even a car you just don’t like.
Specifically, Carvana offers a 150-point inspection, a limited warranty for 100 days or 4,189 miles, and a seven-day return policy. CarMax offers a 24-hour test drive before you plunk down any money, then allows a 30-day return window. Like most other online sites, Vroom offers a free Carfax vehicle history report.
“The goal is to think of all the pain points in used car buying and solve them for the buyer,” says Mark Holthoff, senior editor at Carvana. He adds that the included return policy is something “you would never get from a traditional used car dealer.”
How thorough is the seller's inspection?
Using Carvana as an example, although many included inspections are similar, a mechanic spends over an hour going over the vehicle, including putting it on a lift to inspect the underside for damage or leaks, Holthoff says.
The depth of the tire tread has to be at least 5/32s of an inch, and there has to be more than 4 millimeters of pad left on the brake pads. Holthoff says this condition would provide at least a year of normal driving. Defects such as scratches are called out, photographed and rated on a scale of 1 to 4.
Typically when repairs are made, the details aren't released. However, the company notes flaws it won’t repair.
Doing your own inspection
Many buyers skip having their own inspection done because it’s a hassle and one more fee in a string of car buying expenses, such as sales tax and registration fees.
But a second inspection — by a third party, as Rich stresses — is time and money well spent and just may avoid costs down the line.
Depending on your location, the average cost for a pre-purchase car inspection can run between $132 and $200, according to RepairPal.com. However, Pep Boys, a national auto service provider, offers a 120-point “Peace of Mind” inspection for around $80 that takes about 45 minutes.
An inspection is only as good as the mechanic who performs it and the depth of the examination. As you shop for a good inspection, consider these points:
Will the car be placed on a lift?
Does the mechanic note the condition of the tires and brakes?
Is there a road test?
Will you get a written report that's easily understood?
Can you speak directly with the mechanic who performed the inspection to ask follow-up questions?
Where to get a used-car inspection
Here’s a breakdown of sources for vehicle inspections:
A brand specialist. If possible, find a mechanic who specializes in the make of the car you've purchased. A Yelp or online search will easily find a specialist garage nearby.
Your local mechanic. Your own trusted mechanic can also be a good choice to inspect the car since they'll likely be the one servicing it.
A mobile inspection service. A service such as Lemon Squad can inspect your car at your home or office, but the car won’t be placed on a lift to check for leaks and problems.
National chain stores. Pep Boys and even some tire stores and oil change shops will perform inspections, often at a lower price.
AAA and Auto Club members can search their websites for inspection facilities and even find discounts.
Using the warranty and return policy
If your own inspection finds a problem or you’re unhappy with the condition of the car you bought online, you have several options:
Contact the seller to fix the problem at no cost under the included warranty.
Ask for a refund if, for example, the car comes with more miles than advertised.
If all else fails, ask to return the car within the designated window. But remember, the day your car was delivered typically counts as the first day. So act quickly.