6 Of The Worst Car Inspection Mistakes To Avoid

Here at Garage Dreams, our unwavering goal is to help you find, inspect, buy and enjoy your dream classic car. Whether that is a proper vintage classic, or a “neo-classic” from the 1990s/early 2000s (or even more recently) or you just need a set of wheels and anything will do, we are here to help with unbiased and independent advice.

In our ever-growing catalogue of car buyer’s guides we examine specific areas of concern with particular cars – you can check out the database of buyer’s guides here.

However, in this article we are going to share some common car inspection mistakes that buyers make time and time again. Whether you are buying privately or from a dealer, you’ll want to avoid these common pitfalls that can result in you buying a lemon of a car.

NB: The advice in this article doesn’t relate in any respect to negotiating on price, finance, anything like that … this is purely about inspecting the condition of the car and avoiding common pitfalls. We are working on a separate piece on the ins and outs of negotiating a better deal.

Inspecting A Car In The Rain – Or In Poor Lighting

Rain/water on a car’s paintwork can hide blemishes and imperfections in the finish.

It’s always better to inspect a car in dry conditions and – if possible – with good outdoor lighting so that you can get the best possible view of the vehicle’s condition.

It’s fine to do an initial inspection in the rain if there’s no other choice, but make sure you get the opportunity to do a final check over on the body and paintwork in the dry.

Be wary if you pull up to inspect a car and it has just been freshly cleaned but not dried, as there is a chance the seller might be trying to hide imperfections in the paintwork.

Believing What The Vendor Says About Previous Service History/Condition

The world isn’t a particularly fun place to live if you believe everybody is lying to you all of the time.

However, when it comes to buying a used/classic car, it pays to ‘trust, but verify’.

For example, if the owner says that the car has had a cambelt change at a particular mileage/time, what evidence is there to actually show this? A cambelt or timing belt replacement sticker is handy, but is there more evidence such as an itemised invoice or receipt from a mechanic, or photographic evidence of the owner having done it themselves if they are handy with cars?

Basically, whatever the current owner and/or seller is telling you about the condition and service history of the car, do your best to find evidence that independently verifies the claims.

Remember that once you buy the car it becomes your problem, so it pays to be diligent and make attempts to independently verify any claims before you find out the hard way that they weren’t necessarily true!

Allowing The Seller To Pre-Warm The Car

A warmed-up engine can often hide faults, whereas cars can be more prone to showing their true nature when started cold.

While you can’t dictate how a seller uses their property, it’s wise to be wary of cars that have clearly been warmed up to your inspection (unless there is a clearly innocuous reason, e.g. you’ve seen another prospective buyer inspecting and test driving the same car at a dealership).

A properly cold start will allow you to hear how the car sounds, and check for smoke, starting challenges etc.

For example, last year we inspected a Holden Astra VXR. This was a low mileage, NZ-new example and only a few years old. It appeared to be in superb condition in terms of exterior and interior condition. The car had sat on the dealer’s lot for a few weeks (this was verified by the fact that one of the team had biked past the car on a regular basis).

Everything looked promising, until a fully cold start revealed the most astounding plume of smoke from the exhaust, which took several minutes to clear.

The dealer – looking very embarrassed – insisted this was just due to the car having sat and condensation building, which can happen. However, this was such a prodigious quantity (and there were some funny noises from the engine) that it seemed to be a genuine problem. We agreed to come and inspect again later and test drive the car, and upon arrival it had clearly been warmed up and run for some time so as to mitigate any smoking when the vehicle was started again.

Needless to say no purchase was made, which was a shame in some respects as it was a superb car to drive.

Always try to start a car for the first time when it has been sat cold.

Not Checking Outstanding Finance, Accident History Etc

One of the worst car inspection mistakes you can make is not running an independent vehicle history check prior to purchasing.

Depending on where you live, the name for this type of check might vary (as will the tools/platforms for running the check) but the principles and objectives are typically all the same.

Doing a check like this is critical for several reasons:

  • You’ll see if the car has any outstanding finance owing, i.e. whether it has a clear title with no other parties such as banks or finance companies having a claim on it. For example, you don’t want to purchase a car only to find that the owner still owes money on it, as you could find your car repossessed!
  • You’ll see if the car has been written off/salvaged or otherwise been in a notable accident
  • You’ll see if the car has been reported as stolen
  • You can often see a mileage history, recalls and other important information

You probably don’t want to pay for one of these until you are seriously considering buying a particular car, but this should always be part of the process before parting with the cash.

Different jurisdictions will have various services that can provide you with this information. For example, here in New Zealand Carjam is a popular option – you can get some basic information about a car for free by entering its licence plate or VIN number, and then you pay a small fee of around $15 NZD for a vehicle history report that includes information about whether the car has finance owing, has been reported stolen and so on.

American readers might like to try https://www.carsforsale.com/ – which offers a limited number of free reports after you sign up for an account (consider using a throwaway email address as you’ll otherwise be liable to receive lots of promotional emails).

If you want a premium, no-fuss option that works great in the United States, Europe, UK and Australia, then carVertical is a good choice. While they promote heavily via YouTube influencers, the service really is good and you can get a healthy discount by purchasing multiple report credits in one go.

Click here to get a vehicle history check with carVertical, it’s definitely a good investment and a small price to pay for added peace-of-mind.

Not Test Driving Thoroughly

Many prospective car buyers only go for short test drives. You should avoid this mistake and go for a longer test drive if possible.

Don’t just drive around the block; at the very least you should do a test drive that allows for the following:

  • Testing the car at various speeds, from a slow crawl to highway speeds
  • Going through all gears (and/or transmission modes on an auto, as well as testing the kick-down)
  • Trying cruise control if fitted
  • Allowing the HVAC system to get up to proper operating conditions and then thoroughly test its performance
  • Cornering at low and high speeds

If you’re buying off a private individual, then consider offering to pay for some extra fuel in exchange for a longer test drive (if you’re the kind of person who feels a bit guilty about using up somebody else’s fuel)

A longer test drive is going to give you more of an opportunity to check for any faults and issues with the car, some of which won’t be immediately apparent. Some years ago, one of the editors of this site test drove a Volvo S80 T6. The car presented in superb condition and drove very well. However, it wasn’t until about 30 minutes into a thorough test drive that a gearbox shifting issue showed up (it turns out this was a common problem on that era of Volvo, particularly higher power models that still used the same gearbox as more basic and less powerful models). The transmission shifted fine until it was fully warmed up, at which point it turned into a right dog with an expensive problem that was likely to be uneconomical to repair, relative to the car’s value. Had the test drive been a short one, this wouldn’t have been picked up on.

Furthermore, on a short test drive it’s often easy to be “overwhelmed” by the novelty and appeal of a potential new car purchase. On a longer test drive, once some of that novelty has worn off, you’ll get more of a feel for whether or not the car is a good fit for you and what you like driving.

Not Checking Everything Works

Yes, it’s time-consuming and can be a bit boring, but you should take the time to fully inspect and test all “functional” elements of the car.

It’s amazing how many purchasers don’t take the time to test all of the equipment in a car … and it’s even more amazing how Murphy’s Law dictates that the things you don’t test almost certainly won’t work or will be the first to break when you get home with your new purchase.

Test every switch, turn every gadget on and off, make sure all of the settings for everything works, even non-essential items like heated seats.

The best approach here is to start systematically, working through one section of the car and its functions and features, before moving on to the next. For example, you might start with the steering wheel and any functions located on it (perhaps not so relevant on older cars where you just had the wheel and the horn, but definitely more of an issue on modern cars) then test the various functionalities of the instrument stalks, stereo, A/C controls etc working your way methodically through the cabin.

If there’s a particular car you’re looking at, then make sure you consult a specific buyer’s guide – or at least an owner’s blog/forum – to identify any known problem areas in terms of components that have a tendency to break.


  • Sam

    Sam focuses mainly on researching and writing the growing database of Car Facts articles on Garage Dreams, as well as creating interesting list content. He is particularly enthusiastic about JDM cars, although has also owned numerous European vehicles in the past. Currently drives a 3rd generation Suzuki Swift Sport, and a Volkswagen Touareg (mainly kept for taking his border collie out to the hills to go walking)

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