How To Buy A Great Used Car: The Inspection

By on January 7, 2017

There are pros and cons to buying used cars (and bloggers like Bench Rest Gallery have written about buying new vs. used when it comes to cars). And used definitely doesn’t mean anything horrifically bad – a reputable dealer won’t want to sell you a faulty car to the point where you can’t use it. While used cars may already have quite a few miles on the road and you might need to buy a Car Cover to stop any more chips from happening or the paint to fade even more, the price is drastically lower than new cars. This is why, when you’re buying a new car, you want to make sure you go to the right place. If you do, you will be able to find a car that is reliable, has relatively low miles, and is in good condition. But, no matter how nice it looks on the outside, you should get an inspection to make sure it’s in just as good condition under the bonnet. If it doesn’t look great on the outside but everything runs smoothly internally, the top rated auto body shop will be able to make it look brand new once again, making you feel like you’re driving a brand new car!

Most mechanics that perform inspections fall into three categories:

The Shadetree Hobbyist

The Used Car Nazi

The Independent Professional

Shade-tree mechanics are hobbyists on limited budgets. Due to the lack of equipment and experience, they can only take a small dive into figuring out the true condition of your vehicle.

The shade-tree mechanic will look at the car’s basics, take it for a short test drive and call it good (or “not bad”).

Not all shade-tree mechanics can be found at a local residence with an oil stained driveway. These days most shops that do basic auto maintenance such as brakes, tires, and oil changes may offer a basic inspection service.

Basic doesn’t even describe it.

What they will do for an abnormally cheap fee (less than $50) is they will give your car a cursory inspection that will take no more than a half hour. The hood will be opened and closed. The car will be driven a few miles, and the car will almost always be given a lazy thumbs up as ‘Good!’ or ‘Good enough’.

You don’t want that guy.

You also don’t want this guy – The Used Car Nazi. Not even if you see him in an Indiana Jones flick.

The Nazi almost always works for a new car dealership and look out for their bottom line first and foremost. He will attempt to perform every mechanical test known to wrenchkind and then make you financially fearful of buying anything other than (cough! cough!) one of their vehicles.

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Obviously the Nazi is a non-starter. Often times these hyper attentive party members will be rewarded for their unique party loyalty, and are therefore pre-occupied with meeting their service department’s monthly quota of service hours and revenue.

Unless your next car has a prancing horse (Ferrari), bull (Lamborghini), or a big T (Telsa) in front of it, you’re usually far better off with a diligent mechanic.

The diligent mechanic will work through a standard check list and then take the car for a test drive in a variety of operating conditions.

Diligent mechanics are experienced independent professionals with established roots in your community. To find one I strongly recommend visiting an online enthusiast forum for the model that interests you and asking for advisement there. For example, if you Google, ‘Ford Taurus Enthusiast Forum’, you will likely end up here.

I also can’t over-emphasize the importance of personal recommendations. Many small to medium-sized repair shops will post testimonials on their “ego wall.” Read them carefully.

Before the inspection takes place, write down as best you can the list of the concerns you created during the test drive. When you deliver the car for inspection, go over them with the mechanic one-by-one. Make sure you both have a clear understanding of all your potential concerns. This will provide a base line for the inspection to follow.

Some mechanics inspect used cars for a set fee. Others charge an hourly rate. In both cases, the post-list discussion should conclude with a confirmation of the probable inspection cost. Leave some leeway; you don’t want the mechanic to stop their investigations for the sake of a few bucks. (Leave your contact number for this possibility.)

The best way to build a healthy relationship with any mechanic is to simply try not to be one of “those” customers. Just let them get on with their job. Don’t stare at the mechanic while they’re doing the inspection. In fact it’s best to leave the premises entirely. And don’t phone your mechanic two hours later and ask for a status report; wait for their call.

Once the inspection is completed, sit down for a one-on-one debrief with the mechanic who made the inspection (even if you have to come back on another day). I always prefer to speak with the actual mechanic or at least have them in attendance with the “service advisor.”

Let the mechanic speak without interruption. Mentally give yourself two minutes of silence so that everything can be explained first with questions only asked afterwards. Some diligent mechanics will go on for quite some time, like James Morris from James Auto Center, who actually uses a whiteboard to explain details.

Some will simply say “here’s my report.” Either way review the information and let him explain every issue and potential issue to you. After they’re finished, don’t be afraid to say “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.” or “Is this a sign of normal wear or abuse?”

Make your own list of trouble spots from this conversation. Note down the potential cost to repair and whether or not the issue is urgent or eventual.

Once you’re finished the play-by-play, ask a few general questions. I always ask “Did the owner do a good job maintaining this vehicle?” and “Did the owner use good parts or cheap parts?” Either of these inquiries usually invites a deeper insight with the mechanic.

If the used car has survived the inspection process without revealing any critical issues to your diligent mechanic, it’s time for the final negotiation with the owner.


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