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How to conduct a pre-purchase car inspection?

Peter Terlato avatar
Peter Terlato
- 6 min read
How to conduct a pre-purchase car inspection?

Purchasing a car is a significant investment, and it's crucial to ensure that you're making a wise choice. A pre-purchase car inspection can be incredibly helpful in making an informed decision.

In Australia, where a car isn’t simply a mode of transportation but a necessity for many households, the process of buying a car should be meticulous. In this guide, we'll walk you through the steps of conducting a pre-purchase car inspection, considering all the important factors and questions that may arise.

Is a pre-purchase car inspection necessary?

A pre-purchase car inspection is a thorough examination of a vehicle by a certified mechanic or automotive expert before you make a purchase.This is important because it can assist you in avoiding potential pitfalls such as hidden issues, mechanical problems, and unexpected repair costs. Additionally, a comprehensive inspection can provide you with valuable negotiation leverage and peace of mind.

Who should you hire to conduct the inspection?

You’ll want to hire a certified mechanic or an automotive expert to conduct your pre-purchase car inspection. Do your research online, read both positive and negative customer reviews, and glean advice from family or friends who may have recently sought similar services. 

Look for professionals with a good reputation and, ideally, experience in inspecting the specific make and model of the vehicle you are interested in. Be sure to verify that the inspector carries liability insurance and holds any necessary licences or certifications required in your state or territory.

They should provide you with a detailed report of their findings and be transparent about any potential conflicts of interest.

Where should the inspection take place?

Ideally, the inspection should occur at a location that allows a thorough assessment. In many cases, this is the seller's location. However, it's also common for the inspection to be performed at a mechanic's workshop or a third-party inspection facility. Ensure that the chosen location is convenient for both you and the seller.

How much does a pre-purchase car inspection cost?

The cost of a pre-purchase car inspection can vary based on factors such as the type of vehicle, location, and the level of detail required. For example, inspecting a standard sedan may be less expensive than assessing a high-end luxury SUV or a vintage collectible car.

Some inspectors offer different grades of analysis, each with varying degrees of thoroughness. A basic inspection might include a visual check and a road test, while a more comprehensive probe might involve a detailed examination of mechanical components, a full diagnostic scan, and a written report.

On average, you can expect to pay anywhere from $100 to $300 or more. Payment is typically made by the buyer. The added cost may be an inconvenience but it’s a small price to pay for the assurance it provides.

How do you schedule an inspection?

Once you've chosen a suitable inspector and a location, coordinate with the seller to set a mutually convenient date and time to carry out the task. It’s helpful to be flexible, but also ensure that you can be present during the inspection. This allows you to ask questions and discuss findings with the inspector in real-time.

What does a pre-purchase inspection cover?

A thorough pre-purchase car inspection should cover a range of critical aspects, including:

Vehicle history

The inspector will check the vehicle's logbook and service history. This is essential for understanding how well the car has been maintained.


The engine, transmission, and other mechanical systems will be examined for signs of wear, leaks, or damage. The vehicle's exterior will be assessed for any signs of damage, rust, or paint issues. They'll also look for consistent panel gaps, which can indicate previous accidents. The interior will be checked for signs of wear and tear. This includes the condition of seats, carpets, dashboard, and the functionality of electronic systems. 

The undercarriage of the car will be scrutinised for any potential issues, including rust, damage, or leaks. The condition of the tyres, including tread depth and alignment, will be inspected. Damaged wheels can also be a concern. The vehicle's suspension and braking systems will be examined to ensure they are in good condition.

All electrical systems, including lights, air conditioning, and audio will be checked to ensure they are in good working order. Compliance with local emissions regulations is essential. An inspector will verify the vehicle’s emissions system's integrity.

Many modern vehicles have onboard diagnostics (OBD) systems. These can be scanned for error codes to identify potential issues.

Test Drive

A road test evaluates the car's handling, performance, and the operation of all systems. The inspector will listen for unusual sounds and observe how the car drives.

What can you expect from the inspection report?

Once the inspection is complete, the inspector will likely provide you with a detailed report that should cover all the areas mentioned above. This report should be comprehensive and easy to understand. It will typically include a written summary and photographs of any identified issues, as well as recommendations for necessary repairs or maintenance.

In addition to these specific findings, the report should provide an overall evaluation of the vehicle's condition. This assessment should give you an idea of whether the car is in excellent, good, fair, or poor condition.

If the inspection reveals any issues, you can use the report as a basis for negotiation with the seller. You might request a price reduction to account for the necessary repairs or ask the seller to fix the problems before finalising the purchase. In this way, the inspection report can be a valuable bargaining tool.

Other considerations

Purchasing a car is a significant financial commitment, and a pre-purchase car inspection can be an important part of the process. It can help to ensure that you're getting a vehicle in good condition and potentially avoid unexpected expenses down the road. Remember to:

  • Choose a qualified inspector with experience in the specific make and model.
  • Set the inspection location and appointment with the seller.
  • Be prepared to cover the inspection costs.
  • Thoroughly review the inspection report.
  • Use the report to negotiate the best deal.

Many state and territory road transport authorities provide online registration checks based on the car's licence plate number. This can supply you with the car's registration expiration date, as well as details about its make and model.

Additionally, if you’re buying a used car it may be worthwhile researching the vehicle on the PPSR (Personal Property Securities Register). PPSR reports provide essential information, such as whether the vehicle is stolen, declared as a write-off, or has any outstanding finance owing, among other details. In order to perform a search you’ll need to pay a small fee and enter the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) or chassis number of the car you’re inquiring about.

By following these steps and asking the right questions, you can make an informed decision when buying a vehicle.

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Product database updated 22 Jun, 2024

This article was reviewed by Personal Finance Editor Alex Ritchie before it was published as part of RateCity's Fact Check process.