What Diagnostic Inspections Can Tell You When You're Buying a Used Car

When buying a used car, it’s important to know exactly what is coming down the line, maintenance-wise. A diagnostic inspection done by a professional auto technician is a smart way to learn all about a used car’s potential repair and maintenance schedule before committing to such a big purchase.

The Importance of a Diagnostic Inspection

When you buy a new car, it’s easy to know the vehicle’s entire history — a one-way trip from the factory to the dealership. Used cars are different; they might have gone through multiple owners, have racked up thousands of miles, or have been repaired after an accident.

Knowing a used car’s history is key to making sure you’re choosing the right vehicle. After all, there might be an upcoming repair or current problem that will cost more than the vehicle’s worth, making it an expensive and temporary solution to your problem.

That’s why you should schedule a diagnostic inspection at a trusted auto repair shop before any money exchanges hands (if the seller is resistant to you doing so, that’s a red flag). A car diagnostic test will allow an expert to look at the most common issues that occur with used cars and give you a timeline of upcoming repairs or current issues that need addressing. These can include:

  • The alternator. The alternator is responsible for storing energy and then using it to power your lights, radio and dashboard. The tech will make sure the parts that are run by the alternator are working properly.
  • The battery. A bad battery is a headache and a safety issue. The tech will inspect the cables and wires for rust or building, and test the charge.
  • The brake system. Over time, brake pads wear down and become less effective. The tech will check the pads, calipers, rotors, brake lines and brake fluid for any issues.
  • Motor and electrical sensors. The sensors communicate with the car’s computer to make sure it’s running properly. The tech will look for any performance issues or sensor failure.
  • The air conditioning system. Air conditioning systems commonly present problems in older cars. The tech will inspect the radiator, filter and coolant system for any leaks or rust.
  • The car’s computer. The computer is the car’s brain and alerts you to needed service or sudden issues. The tech will run a diagnostic test that allows the computer to communicate any codes that mean repairs are needed.

While it’s important to have any used car inspected before buying, it’s especially key for those with higher mileage, since many large repairs start to become urgent around the 75,000- to 100,000-mile mark. These tests can also give you an idea of what type of preventative maintenance is needed on your new purchase so you aren’t blindsided when you take it in for routine work. 

Why Are Used Cars So Expensive These Days?

While the car-buying market has yet to fully recover from its pandemic-induced slump, used car purchases are slowly increasing once again. However, there’s a big difference facing prospective buyers this year — used cars that would have once been much more affordable are now being sold at price points closer to their newer counterparts. Because of this, it’s more important than ever to have your potential car inspected by a professional to make sure it’s worth every penny.

Before 2020, used cars were a safe financial bet for many drivers. They were almost always cheaper than buying a new vehicle from a dealership, and the ease of finding the make and model you liked locally meant the entire process was quick and easy.

Unfortunately, the car industry was one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. A crippling chip shortage meant that automakers weren’t able to make enough new cars to meet demand, creating a dearth of options for would-be buyers. In fact, there was a 54% decline in new car inventory over the summer of 2020, resulting in a spike of used car prices by as much as 40%. Because there are more buyers than products, used cars are about $6,000 more expensive than they would have been in 2019 — and it’s estimated that these prices won’t decrease until 2023 at the earliest.

While many people have pushed off car purchases until things get more affordable, not everyone has that option. If you’ve experienced an accident or breakdown that has left you with a nonfunctioning car, you’ll need to buy a new one regardless of what the market’s like.

That’s why you should always have a used car inspected before you buy. An auto repair technician will run diagnostics and identify any issues that will need addressing before you commit thousands of dollars to a purchase.

What to Do if the Inspection Reveals a Problem

After the inspection, the auto repair technician will give you a list of urgent and recommended service and repairs, along with estimated prices. You’ll be able to weigh the pros and cons of purchasing the car. For example, replacing the spark plugs might not be too costly, but if the serpentine belt needs to be replaced within a few months, it might not be worth it.

Sometimes, sellers will be willing to negotiate the price with these repairs in mind, or will agree to have them fixed themselves before buying. But remember, no matter how many conversations or test drives you’ve taken, you have every right to walk away from a used car if you decide it’s not worth the investment. Don’t settle for a vehicle you’re not completely happy with.

It’s also important to keep in mind that it’s illegal for someone to sell you a so-called “lemon.” Check your state’s lemon laws if you’re in a situation where the dealer or seller purposefully hid the vehicle’s history or tampered with the odometer.

With the price of used cars these days, it’s worth the time to do your due diligence and have the car you’re eyeing inspected by a professional. Make an appointment at a trusted auto shop before committing to a sale, and you’ll ensure you end up one happy customer.

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