A vehicle inspection is essential when buying a used car. Whether you’re mechanically minded to perform it yourself, or if you opt for a pre-purchase car inspection, the end goal is identical – to judge the condition, history, and state of the second-hand vehicle. It’s the best way to ensure the used car is in tip-top condition, giving you buyer confidence and potential information to negotiate a better deal.

But what is a vehicle inspection and what does it involve? Worry not, we’ll go through everything you need to know on the subject, giving you a vehicle inspection checklist of sorts.

What’s a vehicle inspection?

A vehicle inspection is where you check the car over in detail to see if there are any faults and to make sure it’s structurally sound. It’s like giving a health check to a preowned vehicle you’re interested in buying. As long as the one selling the used car agrees, you can perform an independent vehicle inspection yourself if you have the mechanical know how. If you don’t have such knowledge, not to worry, you could get a trained engineer to perform the vehicle inspection on your behalf – again, as long as the car seller agrees.

Reputable companies like the AA and RAC offer pre-purchase vehicle inspections at reasonable prices. The AA vehicle inspection and the RAC car inspection both have different options too, providing basic and more comprehensive checks. That way, you can choose the right option to suit the car, your needs, and your budget.

Why should you do a vehicle inspection?

When buying a used car, a vehicle inspection could save you time and money in the long run. By thoroughly checking the health of the car, you’ll build a detailed picture of its history, condition, and quality before you buy. You’ll also find out if it’s damaged or if there are any faults, allowing you to walk away or use the information in negotiating a better car price.

A pre-purchase car inspection is usually thorough too. Whether you opt for a basic inspection with a 155-point check or a more detailed one that checks 307 points on the car, you’ll be getting useful info to aid you in your decision. What car inspections look for typically include checks of the following:

  • The body exterior and the engine compartment
  • The steering, the clutch, and the transmission
  • Electrical controls
  • Front and rear suspension
  • The exhaust system and fuel system
  • Wheels and tyres and brakes

Car checks often involve a road test too, performed by the technician. These can be anywhere from 3 miles up to 20 miles, allowing the engineer to get a clear picture of the vehicle and if there are any underlying issues.

Do I need a vehicle inspection? Why should I get a pre-purchase inspection?

You don’t have to do a vehicle inspection, or pay for one. However, if you don’t perform such checks, you won’t know the condition of the used car or if it has any existing problems – which could cost you more money in the long run and put your safety at risk. That’s why we always say car inspections are an essential part of the used car buying process.

Whether you need to buy a pre-purchase inspection is a different question. That all depends how confident you are doing an inspection yourself, how good your general car knowledge is, what your budget is, and how reliable the seller is too.

On the plus side, pre-purchase car inspections are relatively cheap, and professional technicians know what they’re looking for. A pre-purchase inspection will perform physical checks on your behalf to see if the car’s a good investment, looking over its condition, maintenance, and safety. It could certainly save you time and money in the long run. After all, the last thing you want to do is pay £1000s for a second-hand car that breaks down a month later.

Car inspection pros

Performing a car check – whether independently or via a pre-purchase vehicle inspection – has several pros. We’ve mentioned many of them, but it never hurts to put them all in one easy-to-read place. With a car inspection, you can:

  • Spot damage, potential problems, and assess the car’s safety
  • Gain peace of mind that the car you’re buying is roadworthy
  • Use information (such as any damage) to negotiate car price
  • Build a clearer picture of the car’s overall condition
  • Check whether the vehicle has been well looked after
  • See whether the car will make a good long-term investment

With a pre-purchase car inspection, you get all of the above and an expert technician who’s trained to perform such checks to a high standard. It’s very handy if you lack the confidence or mechanical knowledge to do an inspection yourself.

Vehicle inspection cons

If you’re performing the checks yourself, the only con is you need some mechanical knowledge of what to look for (which we’ll arm you with shortly). If you go for a pre-purchase vehicle inspection, there are other points to be aware of:

  • Some companies don’t cover certain car types (such as 4x4s and convertibles)
  • They do not cover everything or every aspect of the car (for example, the service history)
  • You’ll have to read the finer details to see what’s included in the check
  • Some companies charge more for larger engine sizes (be sure to check in advance)
  • Some inspections won’t examine cars over a certain age
  • Companies can refuse to inspect or issue a report (e.g., if the car doesn’t have an MOT)

Photo by Artem Podrez from Pexels

How long does a car inspection take?

How long a car inspection takes depends on how thorough you are or what package you choose with a pre-purchase inspection. Typically, a basic pre-purchase inspection will take roughly 1-2 hours, whilst a more extensive point check will take around 3-4 hours. If you’re performing the inspection yourself, you can use the above times as guidelines for your own checks.

How much does a car inspection cost?

Depending on the company you choose, a car inspection can range from £50 to £250. Whilst that might seem like a big price bracket, the cost usually reflects the different levels of inspection – from those that do 72-point checks, up to the more comprehensive (and therefore costly) 307-point checks.

Having these different levels is great for used car buyers. It allows you to choose the right vehicle inspection for the job. For example, you may be inclined to do a more detailed check for a Honda Civic with 50,000 miles on the clock, compared to a newer model. Alternatively, if you’re wanting a used Renault Clio as a cheap run-around, you might want a basic check to keep overall costs low. Either way, vehicle inspections are worth every pound spent.

How to do a used vehicle inspection in 5 steps

Want to perform a car inspection yourself, but not sure where to start? We’ll equip you with expert knowledge on what to look for, all wrapped up in five easy steps to make it easier to remember.

STEP 1. Exterior of the car

First of all, take a walk around the car’s exterior and look for general wear and tear. You’ll want to pay close attention to the:

  • Condition of the body – including the panels and roof, looking for large gaps or misaligned panels, which are both signs of shoddy repair or poor factory assembly. Look for mismatched paint jobs, scrapes, dents, and damage. Check the rubber seals on all doors, the hood, and the trunk too. Also, look for rust spots, particularly in the wheel wells and under the car’s body. You want to inspect the glass for cracks as well, which will only worsen over time. If you see any chips, make a note, as you can also use those to haggle a better car price.
  • Frame – pop the hood and inspect the frame. This is the part which connects the front fenders, holding the top of the radiator. It should be bolted in place either side, and never welded. If the bolts are scratched up, it could be a sign of realignment or replacement following a collision. You want to avoid buying a vehicle that has indications of frame damage, as it causes significant car depreciation and it’ll likely be very costly in the long term.
  • Suspension – test the shock absorbers at each corner of the car by firmly pushing it down. If healthy, the car should rebound once and not bop up and down. You’ll want to circle the vehicle and make sure it’s level as well.
  • Tyres –Tug the top of each front tyre. If you hear clinking or ticking it can be a sign the bearings or suspension joints have gone. Tyres also tell a lot about the driver, heavy wear on the outside shoulders is a symptom of aggressive driving. Likewise, uneven wear along the circumference can be a sign of steering, brake, or suspension issues. Also, make sure the tread meets the legal standards of 1.6mm and don’t forget to check the spare tyre too.
  • Lights and lenses – ensure they’re not missing, cracked, or fogged with moisture. Also, check every light is working, including fog lights, brake lights, lo-beam, high-beam, and so on.
  • Exhaust systems – inspect the exhaust for any greasy, oily muck, which is a bad sign a component in the engine has failed or worn out. Also, do a cold start and see if there’s any thick white, grey, or light blue smoke being emitted: these are signs of possible faults with various parts connected to the oil and coolant.

STEP 2. Inside the car

Get in the car and see how comfy every seat is and whether it has enough space for you and your needs. Then you’ll want to check the following:

  • Interior condition – look for scrapes, scratches, dents, upholstery wear and tear, and any other damage. Check the pedals: if the rubber’s worn or brand new it typically indicates heavy use.
  • Air conditioning – turn the air conditioning on and make sure it works and do the same for the heating.
  • Mileage – check the odometer and make sure the mileage matches the age… and while you’re here, take a peek at our informative Car Age vs Mileage guide for more info on the subject.
  • Warning lights – turn the ignition (without starting the engine) and make sure the warning lights all briefly light up before you start the engine… then check no warning lights are still illuminated.
  • Odour – mouldy and musty smells can be a sign of water leak problems. Inspect the floor mats for wet spots.
  • Extra functions – check the windows open, the headlamps and windscreen wipers work, interior lights work, and test all other electronics (sat nav, infotainment, stereo, parking sensors, reversing camera, and so on).

STEP 3. Under the hood

Before you take the car for a test drive, check under the hood while the engine is still cool. If you spot dust and dirt, don’t worry that’s perfectly normal. However, you do want to inspect the following:

  • The Engine – look for leaks and corrosion, like a gasket leak which can be spotted by dark brown oil stains on the engine block. Also, inspect the belts for cracks, drying out, and any fraying.
  • Timing belt – pay particular attention to the timing belt, it’s the most expensive and important one to replace in the engine. Make sure it’s in good condition, without any cracks or visible damage. Mileage is a factor here too, as the lifespan of a timing belt is usually 60,000-100,000 miles.
  • Oil – check for splashes of oil on the road under the engine compartment and inspect the dipstick. If there are water droplets, the oil is foamy and grey, or there are metal bits when you wipe the dipstick on a cloth, be alert as these can all be signs of expensive problems, like a blown head gasket or a cracked engine block. Oil should look dark brown/black or honey coloured if recently changed.
  • Transmission – inspect the transmission dipstick, it should be coated in pink or red fluid and smell slightly sweet and tart. If it smells or looks burnt, this is a sign the system is overheating, causing corrosive activity. The transmission fluid should also be full too.
  • Radiator and battery – check the radiator for cracks and make sure the hoses are firm, yet supple. Look for greenish residue on the outside of the radiator too, which is a sign of pinhole leaks. If the battery has a built-in charge indicator, test it to make sure it’s in the green – if it’s yellow or black that can be a sign it’s dying.
  • Coolant –peak into the coolant reservoir by the radiator, if it’s milky or rusty it can be a sign the engine is in serious trouble with an issue, such as a blown head gasket. Coolant should be orange or greenish in colour.

STEP 4. Do a test drive

Nothing beats getting a feel for a used car than giving it a test drive. It’s such an important part of the buying process that we have a whole guide on test drives, giving you everything you need to know on the subject. We also have a list of things you need to check on a used car test drive too. And here’s what you should inspect, whilst testing the car as well:

  • Driveability – first of all, you’ll want to make sure the car meets your driving expectations and standards.
  • Vary the speed – drive at different speeds to see if the gears run smooth, without sticking or grinding, and that the car doesn’t shake, vibrate, or shimmy at the front end.
  • Steering – check the steering, and/or the car, doesn’t drift or pull in any direction
  • Body shaking – the car body shouldn’t shake at low speeds, if it does, it could be a sign of costly problems related to the steering and/or suspension.
  • Brake checks –look out for pedal vibration, strange noises, squeaking, and pulsating (gripping, letting go, gripping), which could be a sign it needs new pads or the rotors resurfaced.
  • Turning circle – see how the car corners and do a 90-degree turn, again listening for any odd sounds, clunking, or body shaking.

STEP 5. Make a final decision

Once you’ve done all your checks and have had some time to think about the car, you’ll eventually need to make a final decision. Before you act, do the following:

  • Check service history – to make sure the car has been well maintained, with a record of services and maintenance receipts.
  • Vehicle history check – if you haven’t already done so, do a Car history check to avoid potential Car scams and to build a clear picture of the car’s past and its state of care.
  • Stolen car check – likewise, if you’ve not done this, do it now, it’s totally free and you can find out how to do it and why it’s important with our Stolen car check guide.
  • Take someone who knows about cars – if you’re not sure whether the car you’re looking to buy is a good deal or not, take someone who knows about cars to get a second opinion, or pay for a pre-purchase vehicle inspection.
  • Get ready to haggle – if you’re going to buy the car be ready to strike a deal with our tips for negotiating car price.
  • Be prepared to walk away – remember, you can always walk away from the sale too: don’t feel pressured into buying or rushed, you’re the one making the investment so agree to it on your terms.

Vehicle inspections are essential when buying a used car. If you have the mechanical knowledge, you can do them yourself. If you don’t, you can use our expert tips on how to perform a car inspection just like a checklist. Alternatively, you can buy a pre-purchase vehicle inspection and have a professional technician do the checks on your behalf.

Either way, car inspections build a detailed history of the used vehicle, ensuring it’s safe, well-maintained, free of damage and faults, and worthy of your investment. Simply put, car inspections can save you time, money, and hassle in the long run.