Car Inspection

There are a lot of reasons to inspect a car


Car inspection as part of a preventive maintenance routine

Another reason for car inspection is to keep the vehicle safe and reliable. Every type of service 15K and larger always has a list of inspections that are performed along with the service work. Manufacturers know that if you don’t look, you won’t find problems that might cause a breakdown, or worse yet, an accident.

Your car may break down no matter what you do. Machines sometimes break. However, it’s way more likely for a car to break down if you don’t get a regular car inspection. I’d guess that around 90% of breakdowns can be prevented, at least on Japanese cars. That’s why inspection is important. If we inspect a car, we’ll be able to find the things that can be found and you’ll have an opportunity to fix the issues before they cause a problem. For instance, a battery will crank the engine until one day, it won’t. But there’s no need to wait for that day. A battery load test can find a bad battery up to a year before the car leaves you standing in a parking lot holding a set of jumper cables and waving at people you don’t know.

There was a statistic in a Yamaha service manual I once read — 90% of flat tires happen during the last 10% of tread life. I believe it’s true, although I don’t have a study to cite as proof. Regardless, for me, it’s just not worth getting a flat on the way to work to get and extra 4,000 miles out of a set of car tires. Younger me would have thought that was crazy, but then again, younger me spent a lot of time broken down on the side of the road.

Picture of text in a service manual saying that 90% of tire punctures occur in the last 10% of tread life

Use a car inspection when you don’t have service history

We can inspect a car when you’re not sure about its service history. Sometimes people lose track what they’ve done. People buy cars with no documented service history. Friend let friends use their car while they’re out of the country. Or you never know, one day you may wake up on a beach with nothing in your pockets but a car key, no idea who you are or how you got there, but the Prius in the parking lot beeps when you press the button on the remote. If this ever happens to you, it’s time for a car inspection!

When there’s no service history to go on, a car inspection is the best way to make a game plan. Check all of the oils and fluids. Pull a spark plug out to check wear. Check the air filter. Look for a timing belt replacement sticker. There’s no way to check valve clearance without actually checking valve clearance, but we can look for clues. If the valve cover gasket is seeping, it’s been a while since it has been off.

Pre-purchase inspection

If you’re planning to buy a car, it’s very important to check it out before purchase. There’s an old mechanic’s saying: sometimes free cars are the most expensive. Meaning that no matter how low the selling price is, the cost of repairs may be so high that it’s simply not worth fixing.

When we’re checking out a used car, we’re looking for signs of good maintenance. You don’t want a car that has staining and sludge in the engine, or brown transmission fluid that smells like an electrical fire. It’s also important that the previous owner fixed things as they came up, and didn’t leave a massive laundry list for you to sort through.

It’s also important to check for body repair, especially bad body repair. Salvaged vehicles are always the worst. Don’t consider salvaged vehicles when buying a car. Insurance companies are pretty good at determining when a vehicle can’t be fixed for less than it’s value. When people sell salvaged vehicles, they’re always poorly repaired. We’ve found resistors installed where the air bags should be.

Many times it just takes a glance to see bad body work, but when it’s reasonably good, it can be hard to tell when the car is on the ground. We raise the car on the rack to about the mid-point and look along the side of the car for ripples and changes in the texture of the paint. We check for runs, debris in the paint, voids, and other signs of poor quality repair. This is something we only do with pre-purchase inspections.

What’s included with a car inspection?

A proper vehicle inspection isn’t just a sales tool!

Finding an ethical mechanic is important. “Free” inspections abound at quick lube shops, tire shops, dealerships, and unfortunately, even many independent repair shops. Here’s the thing. You get what you pay for. If somebody is checking your car out for free, it’s sign that they are doing it for their benefit, not yours.

Free inspections often focus on finding work that’s easy and profitable. Brakes, struts, filters, fluids, etc. However, what if there’s something wrong with the car that’s not so profitable, and maybe not even very easy to notice. For instance, lets say one of the small coolant hoses at the back of the cylinder head is swollen. It may burst and the engine may overheat, ruining the engine.

Now, imagine you’re a mechanic working at a chain and you get paid bonuses the parts and labor on any job you flag. You see a leaking strut and a swollen hose. The strut’s available the same day, probably within an hour. The hose is a 2 day special order. The strut is very easy to replace and pays a lot of labor. The hose is buried under the manifold and your forearms are going to be bleeding by the time you’re done with the job. The struts sell for $200 and you’ll get 5%. The hose sells for $6.11.

What I’m saying is that free inspections are fishing expeditions. Mechanics are looking for “gravy” as it’s known in the trade. Tastes good. No chewing necessary. Here’s a classic I found on a Honda dealer’s invoice:

“Perform multi-point inspection which MAY include some of the following items”. They can inspect everything on the list, or nothing on the list. You might get an inspection, you might not.

What’s most likely happen it that they’ll inspect some things, find some profitable repairs to sell, then give you a call. Will your car be road worthy if you have the repairs done? It may be.

Honda dealership invoice saying, multi-point inspection which may include the following items

Pay to inspect your car and get an honest report

A car inspection should be a checklist, whether electronic or paper doesn’t matter. Every item on the list should be checked on every inspection, unless it’s not applicable or would be prohibitively expensive to do so. Pilots don’t just decide to skip the rudder check on their pre-flight checklist (at least I hope they don’t). Mechanics should always check all these items on a well thought-out checklist when doing a vehicle inspection.

What does Art’s check with their car inspection?

Fair question. We still use good old pen and paper. Digital inspections are just as effective and are far better for conveying results to customers with pictures, pre-written explanations, and the ability do share without scanning and emailing. They are also a great sales tool. That said, a checklist works just as well for finding problems with cars. What’s on ours? About 100 items. Here’s picture. Click to view.

Car inspection checklist

Final thoughts

Companies with mechanical assets have preventative maintenance programs in place and regularly inspect their equipment. Trucks, bulldozers, assembly lines, planes, and mining equipment are regularly inspected and maintained. Larger organizations can have departments that do nothing but plan and schedule equipment maintenance.

Individuals with cars don’t have those kind of resources. In fact, many people don’t even know that they need to be doing more than getting an oil change every 5,000 miles. That’s why I wrote this. Getting your car checked out regularly is important. I’m not talking about getting free inspections that come along with getting an oil change or replacing tires, but a professional inspection with your interests at heart. There’s no shame in not knowing what your car needs. You don’t need to know the names of all the parts or when you’re supposed to do what. Find a mechanic you can trust, and ask them.

How to find a good mechanic

How to buy a used car

Unfortunately, not all mechanics are honest

Brake inspection

Why would you pay to diagnose a check engine light?

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