After buying a property, buying a new car is one of the biggest purchases most of us will make. Getting it right is important. Nobody wants to buy a vehicle which is going to go wrong or be unreliable, and one of the best strategies to guard against this is by paying for a formal pre-purchase vehicle inspection. A basic inspection will start at around £99, but you can expect to pay up to as much as £400 if you require a full inspection on a more expensive model of car.
These inspections are about looking at the overall condition of a second-hand vehicle which you are considering buying. The inspections are carried out by a fully trained mechanic, who will point out any major faults which could affect your decision over whether or not to buy the vehicle. In the past, it was relatively easy for anyone with a working knowledge of mechanics to inspect under the bonnet and give an opinion on whether a car was worth the money being asked for it, or not. But modern cars are made with sealed engine units, and are more complex than ever with onboard computers, touchscreen entertainment systems and climate control. Even the most enthusiastic amateur would struggle when confronted with a modern sealed engine unit. It’s usually best to get an independent mechanic to perform the inspection. Although a car dealer may say that their inspection is independent, how can it be when they have a vested interest in selling you vehicle?
The format of a pre-purchase inspection will vary according to who is doing the inspection and the age and model of the vehicle. Large organisations such as the AA will have a standard format of inspection, so when you pay for an inspection from one of their mechanics, you know exactly what you are getting. Many of the larger testing companies will also offer a written report as part of the package deal. If you deal with a local garage or independent inspector, it’s more important than ever to be crystal clear about what you are expecting them to look at in the inspection, and what sort of information you want at the end of it. Not all car inspections are equal, and you need to be sure that you are getting good value for money.
Although a pre-purchase vehicle inspection will vary, as a minimum you should expect the following to be covered:
Many inspection services will offer to send you a written report when the inspection is completed, usually by email. The report will cover any issues the mechanic found in the inspection. Many companies offer a differing level of inspection, depending on your requirements. A very basic inspection might only cover safety essentials such as brakes and steering, and if you want to find out about the condition of the air conditioning, for example, you’ll have to opt for a more premium package. You may not want a written report and be happy with a verbal recommendation from the inspector about whether the car is worth the price or not. This is up to you to agree with the mechanic who is doing the work for you.
Usually, a pre-purchase inspection will take around 90 minutes to complete, but could take longer or be completed more quickly depending on the package you have opted for. You don’t need to be there when the inspection is done, unless you want to be. If you choose to attend, it’s best to leave the mechanic to get on with the work in peace – you are paying for their time, after all. If you are buying from a dealer, it is worth warning them that you are arranging a mechanic for a pre-purchase inspection and arranging a convenient time. Most inspections will also include a road test, where the inspector takes your intended purchase out onto to the road to see how it performs, and try to detect any suspicious knocking or banging sounds.
A vehicle inspection is not the same as a vehicle history report. A mechanic won’t be able to tell you if a vehicle is stolen, has outstanding finance on it or whether it has been written off in the past. This is something you can do yourself, or ask the seller whether they have already carried out a HPI check. HPI, or hire purchase investigation, is an online check which will tell you a bit about the past history of the car and will protect you from scams. There are however some checks you should do yourself in addition to the HPI check which should help you identify any potential problems with the car’s past.
The most important piece of paper you should look at is the V5 form. This is also known as the “log book” and is a multi-coloured form with different sections. Check that the V5 the seller is showing you is the right one for the car – do the make, model, colour and registration match? You should also look for the VIN (vehicle identification number) on the form, and then look for the same number on the car – it’s usually visible at the bottom of the windscreen. If there is a problem with these basic details, walk away from the purchase.
As well as HPI checks, other organisations such as the RAC and AA offer data check services on used cars which help weed out any vehicles which might have a shady past which the owner is trying to conceal. This is more common than you may think, as research suggests that as many as 25% of used cars being offered for sale have a hidden past. They may have previously been an insurance write-off, stolen, or have outstanding finance due. If you buy a car with outstanding finance, it could cost you dearly – you might find yourself without your car, and also liable to settle the finance.
Many of the larger inspection companies will also compile more general data to give you information about the make and model of car you are thinking about buying. This might have information about the most common reasons for failing a MOT test for that particular model, or the most common breakdown faults. This sort of information should help you target your inspection of the car, making sure that any “high-risk” areas are thoroughly covered.
Mileage should be checked too, in order to ensure that the stated mileage is consistent with previous reports and with the condition of the car. Mileage is recorded annually when a car goes through its MOT and it’s easy to look at this information online. Does the mileage rise fairly consistently between checks? Also, does the condition of the car match with its stated mileage? A skilled inspector will be able to look at the wear and tear on a car and estimate its mileage.
It’s well worth investing the money in paying a professional to do a formal car inspection for you, but if you can’t afford the time or money then the only option is to do the inspection yourself. This involves a bit more than just driving the vehicle once around the block, but use this handy checklist to keep you right.