Pre-Purchase Inspection Part 1

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By Courtney Evans  1wrench

Pre-purchase Inspection

Pre-purchase Inspection

You say it’s time to add a new filly to the stable. Whether that filly is a needed second car, a new ride for the budding driver in the household, or that hot little convertible to feed your midlife crisis, if its a used vehicle you seek, they all require a pre-purchase inspection (PPI). You see, every used car or motorcycle has a unique story to tell. That story could be a fairytale, a drama, comedy, an epic tale, or nightmare. Your job is to find out which type of story will be told and a pre-purchase inspection will help you do that.
What we’ll do is split the process into two-parts, Level 1 and Level 2.  Level 1 takes you through the initial inspection.  During this process you’ll learn about the owner and the vehicle based on what you can see, smell, hear, feel, and read. If the car passes Level 1 and you wish to know more, you should then move to Level 2.  You could make a decision to purchase based on your Level 1 findings, however, Level 2 is more thorough and will reveal a much more complete story.  A PPI taken to Level 2 will take more time and certainly some money if you take it to a reputable mechanic.  You could perform the PPI at Level 2 yourself and save.  A pre-purchase inspection taken to Level 2 is a very thorough process and involves much more than your typical test drive.

The Stage
Let’s set the stage from the beginning. Once you have found a vehicle that has piqued your interest, you need to consider the situation and conditions in which it is being sold. Is it a private owner or is it a dealer that is selling the vehicle? If it is a private owner, you can tell a lot about the condition of the vehicle by learning about the condition of the owner.

How does the owner talk about the car?  Are they genuinely sad about having to sell the car?  Was their ad true to what they are actually selling? For example, were they advertising a V-6 when the car actually has an in-line 6 engine configuration? How much do they really know about the car?  Does he/she have service records from when they first acquired it? If the owner only has a few of the receipts or none at all, it doesn’t mean that the car is bad. It means that you need to scrutinize more and take a little bit of extra care in your analysis.

If it is being sold by a dealer, a little bit of extra caution is required. You should not expect the dealer to have the service records as these are typically removed as a matter of course. Does the dealer specialize in your chosen marque i.e. Ford, Honda, or BMW? If they do, then this is a plus. Keep in mind that used car dealers have a “certain” reputation.  While all used car dealers aren’t unscrupulous, that reputation isn’t necessarily unwarranted.

Level 1
Pre-Inspection and Drive
Obviously you want to check the paint and body.  Look for dents and deep scratches.  The bumpers should be intact.  There should be no cracks in any of the windows.  Wiper arms and blades should be in good shape.  The tires should be in good condition.

Now, start the engine.  Was the engine starting labored?  Did the engine turn-over slowly?  A slow turn-over indicates that the battery could be on its way out.  If the car has not been driven in quite some time, this may be normal because the battery has not been regularly charged by the alternator.  Does it turn-over quickly but does not fire up?  This indicates either a fuel or ignition (spark) issue.  Again, if the car has not been driven, you can give a little leeway here.

Once the vehicle has been started, check the exhaust pipe for smoke.  Smoke is a telltale sign that the engine might be burning oil. This oil could be entering the via the piston rings or through the valves. Once the engine is at operating temperature, shut down the engine and let’s check the oil. Pull the dipstick and examine the color and consistency of the oil. The oil should be golden brown in color, not black. Run some oil in between your fingers. There should be no grit or metallic bits in the oil. Gritty oil indicates internal engine wear and improper maintenance.  Check the power steering and automatic transmission fluids (if applicable).  It should be red, clear, and should not spell burnt.

Examine underneath the vehicle and look for fluid leaks.  Check the operation of all lights and signals.  Have an assistant or the owner press the brake pedal to check the brake lights.  Don’t forget to check the horn!

It’s now time to take it for a test drive. Once inside the car, examine all of the instruments and controls for proper operation. Make sure that you check the air conditioning; both cooling and heating. Make notes of all failures and malfunctions. If the car has a manual transmission, the clutch engagement should be smooth and you shouldn’t have to fight with it to get into either first or reverse gear. If it has an automatic transmission, once you depress the brake pedal, you should be able to easily put it into gear.

Once your driving, listen for any unusual noises or rattles. Acceleration should be smooth and deliberate. There should be no hesitation or stuttering. Exhaust noise should be quiet and muted. Loud exhaust noises indicate a hole somewhere in the exhaust system. Make several stops. The brake pedal feel should not be spongy. It should not have excess vibration and the brakes should not grab. Steering the vehicle should be easy and the steering wheel should not vibrate, especially at speed. If it does, a steering or suspension component may be failing. Front tires that are out of balance will also cause this issue.  All vehicle operations should be smooth and deliberate.  The minimum test drive distance should be 4 to 6 miles.

Once you’ve driven the car, leave the engine running. Check again for fluid leaks and smoke from the exhaust.  Open the hood. Look for smoke and listen for hissing.  There should be none.  Now, turn the key to the off position.  The engine should stop immediately.  If any of the above does not hold true, further investigation is required.

Now if the owner has service records, let’s examine them. Look for major service repair receipts. Also look for standard maintenance items such as fluid changes, brake repairs, coolant flushes, tires, body work, and belt changes.  If the receipts show parts purchases but no labor charges, the owner may be a DIY mechanic and performs his/her own maintenance.  If this is the type of owner the car has, you’re in good company.  If you are familiar with the make and model of the vehicle, make sure that known, common issues have been addressed.  Try to put together a picture of the vehicle’s history based on time, mileage, and repairs.

A valuable tool that you can use to help you create this picture is a Carfax. A Carfax not only shows the car’s accident history, but it will also show some maintenance history. If no red flags have been raised thus far, investing in a Carfax is money well spent.  I used this service for my last 3 vehicle purchases with great results.  For more info, visit .  Now that you’re equipped with more info about the vehicle, use that knowledge in your price negotiations if you haven’t decided to take a pass on this particular car, truck, or motorcycle.

Here’s the recap
1.  Ask the owner questions about the car
2.  Examine the outside of the vehicle, tires included
3.  Start engine and listen
4.  Check for smoke
5.  Examine fluids
6.  Check A/C and Heat
7.  Check all controls and buttons
8.  Drive vehicle, listen and feel (radio off)
9.  After drive, look for leaks, and listen
10.  Examine repair records and decide to purchase, pass,  or move on to a Level 2 PPI

Again, a pre-purchase inspection taken only to Level 1 will reveal a lot and is as far as most people take it when deciding on whether or not to purchase a car, truck, or motorcycle.  In the next issue, we’ll complete a PPI taken to Level 2.  If it passes that, by all means buy it…if the price it right!  Stay tuned…



1 Comment:

  • By Pre-Purchase Inspection at Level 2 18 Sep 2013

    [...] reveal any obvious issues or problems.  For more info on the Level 1 PPI, see last weeks issue here.  The Level 1 PPI is what is performed by most people, however, it is not as thorough as Level [...]

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