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Used luxury car pre-purchase inspection article highlights:

  • A pre-purchase inspection lets a trained mechanic go over a used car in detail to identify potential flaws
  • If you go to an independent specialized shop, PPIs typically cost around $100-$200, though they’re often pricier for high-end brands
  • After spending $300 to helping a co-worker avoid spending $28,000 on a used Jaguar XKR that needed about $5000 of repairs, I can confirm that pre-purchase inspections are worth it

Even for those of us who should know better, secondhand luxury cars are particularly tempting possibilities. Sure, you could get a new Honda Civic, or you could roll the dice on a used Mercedes-Benz E-Class. But that’s the thing: you don’t have to gamble when it comes to used cars, whether they’re luxurious or not. Before you put thousands down on a used car, spend a fraction of that on a pre-purchase inspection. As I recently found out, it’s one of the smartest used car buying decisions you can make.

How does a pre-purchase inspection work?

A mechanic performing an inspection on several used cars in a French factory
A mechanic performing an inspection on several used cars | ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Whether you’re buying a used car from a dealership or an auction site, you should always inspect it yourself. Although photographs and videos help a lot, they can’t capture every detail accurately. Also, while CarFax and other vehicle history reports provide vital information, they’re not perfect. And I don’t just mean when it comes to accident reporting. The Carfax won’t necessarily tell you if the owner, say, skimped on brake maintenance.  

However, though you should perform your own used car inspection, there’s only so much you can glean on your own. Yes, you can inspect the tires, paint, and interior, as well as see if the electronics work. But you can’t really crawl underneath the car and see if, for example, the transmission lines are leaking. And with how much technology modern used luxury cars pack, it’s difficult to check everything in the span of a test drive.

That’s where a pre-purchase inspection, aka a PPI, comes in. A pre-purchase inspection involves taking the used car you want to buy to a trusted mechanic that specializes in that make/model. The mechanic then looks over the entire car and might even test-drive it to see what if anything is wrong. And because they specialize in a specific brand or model, they know exactly where to look for potential flaws. Plus, they often have specialized tools that let them access information or get into specific parts more easily.

Once the pre-purchase inspection is complete, the mechanic gives you a formal report about the used car. They’ll tell you what’s good, what’s bad, and how much fixing it might cost. In the end, you’ll know more about the car. And if you still want to buy it, the PPI can be leveraged for negotiating a lower price.

How much does a pre-purchase inspection cost?

Speaking of pricing, the average used car pre-purchase inspection doesn’t cost a ton. Usually, you’re looking at $100-$200, reports. However, used luxury car pre-purchase inspections usually cost more.

How much more depends on the car brand in question as well as local labor rates. But if you contact the mechanic ahead of time about scheduling a PPI, they’ll give you an exact quote. Regardless, it’s significantly less than the car’s purchase price.

Can a dealership with certified pre-owned used cars perform a pre-purchase inspection?

I’ve been saying ‘mechanic’, but you might be wondering if a local dealership can perform a pre-purchase inspection. Alternatively, you might think you can skip the PPI if you buy a certified pre-owned (CPO) car. Well, it’s complicated.

Yes, a dealership can technically perform pre-purchase inspections. After all, it has trained mechanics on staff that specialize in a particular brand or set of brands. And yes, those trained mechanics do subject CPO used cars to multi-point inspections.

However, keep in mind that car dealerships want to sell you cars and repeat service. If, for example, you’re buying a used luxury car in a different state, the local dealership might be reluctant to schedule a pre-purchase inspection. I mean, you’re not buying a car from it, and you likely won’t come back for maintenance.

Furthermore, not all CPO programs are manufacturer-backed. In addition, some dealerships don’t even have their own certification programs but use third-party ones instead. So, your used car might not be as thoroughly inspected as you think. And that’s before warranty claims come into the picture.

That’s why, ideally, you should take cars to trusted independent mechanics. For one, they have no vested interest in the car sale. Secondly, their business model doesn’t care where the cars are coming from, they just fix them. And since you’re paying for their time, they’re happy.

A $300 inspection saved my co-worker $28,000 on a used Jaguar

Despite how useful pre-purchase inspections are, I’d never actually taken a used car to get a PPI. Admittedly, I’ve only bought two used cars in my life, and one was rebuilt by a certified shop. Still, the cobbler’s kids go barefoot and all that. However, that changed a few weeks ago.

For those who don’t know, I recently helped my out-of-state co-worker shop for used Jaguar XKs and XKRs. Since the dealership selling the 2007 XKR was close to a well-reviewed Jaguar Land Rover shop, Imports Unlimited, my co-worker checked if I could take the car over for a pre-purchase inspection. The dealership said OK, and off I went.

The PPI took two hours and cost $300, which is reasonable given Imports Unlimited’s usual clientele. I knew going into the inspection that there were some paint flaws, scratches, and interior wear, which the used luxury car dealership listed in the online ad. And even before I came in, the shop told me that the PPI might uncover some random electrical glitches related to low battery voltage. But they assured me that was normal and just required a battery tender.

The good news is the pre-purchase inspection didn’t uncover anything catastrophically wrong with the XKR. And, full disclosure, this dealership is not shady at all. However, it revealed the paint and body issues went deeper than surface imperfections. In one area, the paint looked like someone had poured some odd chemical on it. And the passenger-side door had a spot of corrosion that, although covered up, might eventually require a full door replacement.

In addition, the mechanic found some sloppily-repaired wheel damage. On the bright side, though, it didn’t impact the ride quality or handling. Also, despite being subject to Chicagoland salt, the underbody had minimal surface rust. However, after years of temperature cycles, some of the transmission fluid and oil cooler lines were starting to seep. Furthermore, the XKR had signs of deferred maintenance: old fluids, worn suspension bushings, and an original (!) drive belt.

Although these problems weren’t deal-breakers per se, the mechanic estimated addressing all of them would cost at least $5000. And keep in mind, at the time, the XKR was listed at just under $28,000. So, after I told my co-worker the news, he decided to pass on the Jag coupe. But he did let the dealership know about the pre-purchase inspection results. This might explain why, as of this writing, the XKR is still for sale at just under $25,000.

Is a PPI worth it?

Even though I wasn’t the one shopping for used luxury cars this time, I will absolutely get a pre-purchase inspection when I do. And I wholeheartedly recommend getting a PPI regardless of what kind of car you’re buying.

Yes, these inspections take some time to schedule, and they do cost a little bit of cash. Also, not everyone is as open to PPIs as the dealership my co-worker and I contacted. But they’re 100% worth it for the peace of mind you receive. And what’s better: spending $28K only to spend $5000 more, or spending $300 and being done with it?

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