Making sure a car is in good condition is an important part of the buying process. If you only give a vehicle a quick once over before buying, it opens you up to a lot of risk and potential expense down the track.
Before going to a car inspection, you should not only read up on the common problems and issues that occur on the specific model you are going to look at (check out buyer’s guides such as our ones), but you should also make sure you have a range of tools that will help make the inspection process more thorough and easier.
To help you decide what tools to take to a car inspection, we have rounded up some of the best tools and products to take when going to inspect a vehicle.
The Best Tools & Products for a Car Inspection
Flashlight – Coquimbo Rechargeable LED Work Light
One of the most important tools in your arsenal for a car inspection is a quality flashlight. While you can use your phone’s light to brighten up dark areas, a quality USB rechargeable LED flashlight such as Coquimbo’s one is an excellent tool to have. This is because it is not only more powerful, but it can also rotate up to 270 degrees for those hard-to-reach areas (back of the engine bay, behind the wheels, etc.).
Another benefit of the Coquimbo Work Light is that it features two main modes, with the first being a powerful white floodlight that brightens a large area. The second is the LED dome light on the top that has less spread, but more distance. Along with the two main modes, the Work Light also features two colour modes, white and red (white will be your go to for car inspections).
Coquimbo have manufactured the Work Light from durable anti-slip rubber and aluminium, giving the flashlight a quality feel. They have also given the light a magnetic base, so you can stick it somewhere if you need to use both hands to inspect something.
In the package you will get not one, but two rechargeable Work Lights and two Micro USB cables. The overall size of the light is not much bigger than a standard smartphone, so it will easily fit in your pocket, the glovebox of your car, or in a small bag. Coquimbo’s light can also be used to carry out maintenance, so it is a great tool to keep in your vehicle.
- Two Work Light and two Micro USB cables in package
- Two light modes: floodlight and dome
- Rotatable up to 270 degrees
- Magnetic base & compact size
- Durable aluminium and rubber construction
- Brand – Coquimbo
- Dimensions – size small is 203 x 34 x 25 mm (8 x 1.33 x 0.99 inches) and large is 272 x 45 x 33 mm (10.7 x 1.77 x 1.3 inches)
- Product weight – 70g (2.46 ounces)
- Part number – 2-8107
Mirror – Optional Life Telescoping LED Mirror
A good quality telescoping mirror is going to be one of the most important tools in your arsenal for a car inspection. A mirror such a Optional Life’s LED Mirror will let you see areas of a car that you wouldn’t normally be able to view with the naked eye such as the backside of the wheels and engine bay.
Optional Life’s product features a 63 x 43 mm (2.5 x 1.7 inches) rectangular mirror with a telescopic handle that in its collapsed position is 191 mm (7.5 inches) long. When extended, the Mirror LED reaches to just over 860 mm (34 inches), more than enough for almost all car inspection purposes.
As the name suggests, this telescopic mirror also features LED lights that help brighten up any hard-to-see or hard-to-reach areas. These lights are powered by two CR2032 batteries and the entire mirror assembly can be rotated a full 360 degrees for a complete viewing experience.
This product comes highly recommend and will make a great addition to your car inspection tool kit. The only real issue that some buyers have complained about is that the LED lights can sometimes make it hard to see what the mirror is reflecting.
- 63 x 43 mm (2.5 x 1.7 inches) rectangular mirror
- 191 mm (7.5 inches) collapsed length, 860 mm (34 inches) extended
- LED lights to brighten up dark areas
- Full 360 degree rotation
- Brand – Optional Life
- Package Dimensions – 376 x 80 x 12.7 mm (14.8 x 3.5 x 0.5 inches)
- Product weight – 91g (3.21 ounces)
- Part number – D4QMUVI
Coating Thickness Gauge – ERAY Paint Coating Thickness Gauge
A paint thickness gauge is a tool that measures the thickness of a coating without damaging or leaving a mark on it. Here are a few reasons why you should bring along a thickness gauge to an inspection:
- To check for any past accident damage – discrepancies in the thickness of a car’s paint could indicate that the vehicle has been repaired/resprayed due to accident damage.
- To check for rust repairs – if you find an area where the thickness is different or the gauge doesn’t work at all it may indicate a past or present rust problem.
One of the best of these tools you can buy is ERAY’s Paint Coating Thickness Gauge. It features a measuring range from 0 to 2000um(78.7mils) and it comes with an easy to read LCD screen.
ERAY’s gauge has 4 profile groups with a total of 80 readings per group. Each group can have its own alarm settings, special limits and even its own calibration. If you decide to save your data, the gauge can store 320 readings before it needs to be cleared. The data stored in the gauge can then be transferred to a PC for analysis. ERAY’s software is compatible with Windows SVR 2000/2003/2008 and Windows XP/Vista/7/8/10(32&64 Bits).
One of the best features of this gauge is the ability to set an upper and lower limit. When you go beyond these limits, an alarm will be displayed on the LCD screen.
ERAY’s Paint Coating Thickness Gauge is one of the most popular and well-reviewed LCD screen coating gauge thickness tools on the market. It will be perfect for any car inspection where you need to check for rust, repairs or other bodywork problems. The gauge comes with an excellent 24-month free replacement guarantee, so you know ERAY stands by their product.
- Accurate measuring range from 0 to 2000um(78.7mils)
- Easy read LCD screen
- Upper and lower limit alarm system
- 24-month replacement guarantee
- Brand: ERAY
- Weight:90g (3.2 ounces)
- Item number:SR-A770
OBD2 Scanner – INNOVA 3100j OBD2 Diagnostic Tool
An OBD2 scanner is an extremely useful tool for most vehicles produced in the last 20 years. It can help you determine the condition of a vehicle and whether or not it is suffering from any problems in just a few short minutes. The OBD2 standard first became mandatory in the United States in 1996 and in Europe in 2001.
Japanese vehicles are slightly different with models produced for export to the United States, Europe, Australia/New Zealand etc. having the functionality from the years listed above. Japanese vehicles destined for the domestic market were not required to have the OBD2 system until 2008.
One of the best of these OBD2 scanners is the Innova 3100j. It has well over 2,000 reviews with nearly a five-star rating, making it one of the best reviewed scanners on the market.
The great thing about Innova’s OBD2 scanner is how easy it is to use, even for those less mechanically inclined. It can easily detect whatever is causing a check engine light warning, making it perfect for time limited car inspections.
Another benefit of the 3100j is its extremely sturdy build. Unlike other scanners on the market that look and feel flimsy, this scanner feels like it can withstand some beating. This means it should last many years and many car inspections, so it is a great investment in your car purchasing tool kit.
The Innova 3100j also has a companion app that you can download in Google’s Playstore or at the Apple Store. Innova also readily updates their products including the 3100j, so the scanner will be made aware of new error codes that were previously undiscovered. These updates are completely free of charge.
If you are looking at a more modern vehicle, we definitely recommend that you get an OBD2 scanner. Being able to quickly determine whether or not a vehicle is suffering from an issue, whether major or minor could save you an enormous amount of money.
An OBD2 scanner will not work on older vehicles, so this tool does not need to be part of your inspection kit if you are looking at a car built in the seventies or eighties for example. The OBD1 standard was used on some cars prior to the introduction of OBD2 in 1996, but the standard was fairly loose and the results are quite poor, so we do not recommend getting an OBD1 scanner.
Key Features of the Innova 3100j:
- Quickly reveal the cause of Check Engine Light (CEL) warnings on most cars built in the last 20 years
- Read and erase ABS & SRS light trouble codes on most OBD2 vehicles
- Customer support in English and Spanish
- App in Android and iOS, along with free update support
- Brand – Innova
- Power – 3 x AA batteries (included)
- Item Number – 3100j
- Product Dimensions – 254 x 203 x 38 mm (10 x 8 x 1.5 inches)
Paper Towels/Kitchen Roll
It is always a great idea to bring some paper towels, tissues or even toilet paper with you when you go to a car inspection. They can be used to wipe away oil on the dipstick, clean areas of the car to reveal what is underneath, clean your hands when they get dirty and more.
Modern smartphones are an excellent tool to have during a car inspection. You can quickly look up any problems you may encounter during an inspection or a test drive, and you can note down these issues to check what may be the cause later.
Additionally, you can use your phone to check the VIN on a “VIN checkup” website or service to see if the car is what it is being advertised as or if has been in an accident/written off. VIN checkup services range in quality and information depending on where you live and what car you are inspecting, so your mileage may vary with this.
Another great tool on a modern smartphone is the camera. Use it to take any photos of areas of interest or concern. For those who are not mechanically inclined, you can then get somebody who has a bit more knowledge to have a look at the photos to see what they think.
Tools for More Advanced Inspections
The tools and products above should be good for most car inspections, but if you want to do a really thorough job you should think about adding the following to your inspection kit.
Bottle Jack – Pro-Lift Hydraulic Bottle Jack
To get a really good look at the underside of a vehicle you are going to need to jack it up. Jacking a vehicle up will also allow you to give the wheels and other components a bit of a wiggle to see what their condition is like. However, keep in mind that not all owners/sellers will be happy to let you jack up their car as if you do it wrong you may cause damage to the vehicle (it is still worth asking if you can do it though).
A good option for a relatively portable, inexpensive jack is Pro-Lift’s hydraulic range of bottle jacks. These bottle jacks come in a range of different sizes, but we would recommend you go with something like the 2 ton or 4 ton capacity versions. Higher capacity models are available, but they are simply not needed for most vehicles and they will have higher minimum heights, so won’t be usable on a wider range of cars.
The 2 ton version has a lifting range of 181 to 346 mm (7-1/8 to 13-5/8 inches) and weighs in at around 3.2 kg (7 lbs). The 4 ton model has a slightly higher minimum lifting range of 203 mm (8 inches) with a maximum height of 346 mm (15-3/8 inches) and a weight of 4.1 kg (9 lbs).
Pro-Lift’s bottle jacks are some of the highest reviewed on Amazon, with nearly a five-star rating and over 300 reviews. The main issue with a bottle jack such as these ones from Pro-Lift is that they will not fit under all cars, so keep that in mind if you are mainly interested in sports cars or other vehicles that are low to the ground.
- Easy & simple to use
- Portable for lifting capacity
- Relatively low minimum lifting height for lower capacity models
- Brand – Pro-Lift
- Lifting capacity – starts from 2 tons (1.8 tonnes)
- Weight – starts from 3.2 kg (7 lbs).
Floor Jack – Pro-Lift 2 Ton Low Profile Floor Jack
If you don’t mind carrying a bit more weight, a low-profile floor jack is the best way to quickly and easily lift a vehicle. Floor jacks tend to be more stable than bottle jacks like the one above and they are significantly better than a cheap scissor jack.
Unfortunately, most floor jacks are simply way to heavy to be usable on the go, however, there are a few lighter options. Pro-Lift’s F767 Low Profile Jack is one of these lighter options with a weight around the 13.6 kg (30 lb) mark. Obviously, this is still significantly more than the bottle jack above and any scissor jack, but it is much more portable than most other floor jacks and can easily be kept in your car for inspections.
The Pro-Lift Low Profile Floor Jack has a lifting range of 89 to 356 mm (3-1/2 to 14 inches). This means you can use it on a much wider variety of vehicles, including low to the ground sports cars.
Pro-Lift have manufactured their floor jack from heavy duty steel, and they have included built-in safety valves for overload protection.
Overall, the Pro-Lift F767 Low Profile Jack has very good reviews with a 4.5-star rating over nearly 3,000 reviews. Some buyers have complained about the jack losing pressure and slowly going down. However, this seems to be a relatively small number of buyers and Pro-Lift does offer a 90 day warranty with the purchase of the jack.
- Relatively portable for a floor jack
- Low minimum lift height, so it is suitable for a wide range of vehicles
- Brand – Pro-Lift
- Lifting capacity – 2 tons (1.8 tonnes)
- Lifting Range – 89 to 356 mm (3-1/2 to 14 inches)
- Weight – 6 kg (30 lb)
Jack Stands – Big Red Torin 3 Ton Capacity Aluminium Jack Stands
It is always best practice to use jacks stands in conjunction with a jack when lifting up a vehicle. Simply relying on the jack itself is dangerous and could even prove to be fatal if you are under a car when it drops.
If you plan to include a jack as part of your used car inspection kit, we recommend that you purchase some lightweight jack stands such as Big Red’s ones. The Torin Aluminium Jack Stands have a 3 ton (2.72 tonne) capacity and at around 4.6 kg (10.2 lbs) in weight they are quite a bit lighter than many of the other offerings on the market.
Big Red have constructed these jack stands out of high-grade aluminium and they feature removable locking support pins that provide added security and stability. There are six locking positions and the adjustable height ranges from 274 to 397 mm (10-3/4 to 15-5/8 inches).
The Big Red Torin Aluminium Jack Stands come highly recommended with nearly a 5-star rating and well over 500 reviews. The stands also meet ASME safety standards and come with a 1 year manufacturer warranty, so they will be able to last many car inspections.
- Lightweight when compared to other options at only 4.6 kg (10.2 lbs)
- 3 ton (2.72 tonne) lifting capacity covers most cars on the road
- Solid high-grade aluminium construction with locking support pins.
- Brand – Big Red
- Lifting capacity – 3 tons (2.72 tonnes)
- Lifting Range – 274 to 397 mm (10-3/4 to 15-5/8 inches)
- Weight – 6 kg (10.2 lbs)
Compression Tester – OTC Compression Tester Kit
The last main tool we recommend for more advanced car inspections is a compression tester. As the name suggests, a compression tester will let you know the compression of a car’s engine. If the compression readings are widely different between the cylinders it indicates that there is a problem with the engine.
Additionally, readings that are far too low or too high can indicate a problem as well, however, the main thing to watch out for is the difference between the cylinders. A good rule-of-thumb is that all cylinders should be within at least 10% of each, with tighter readings being better.
One of the best compression testers for gasoline/petrol powered engines is OTC’s 5606 Compression Tester Kit. It features a quality, dual scale 2-1/2 inch diameter gauge that reads 0 – 300 psi and 0 – 2100 kPa. The gauge is encased in a rugged protective outer boot with a chrome bezel.
The kit comes with the following attachments and hoses that will make it perfect for almost any compression testing job:
- 12-inch flex 14mm standard
- 12-inch flex 14mm long reach
- 10mm, 12mm, and 18mm thread adapters – adapters work on both flat and tapered seat plugs
- Extra long 25 inch flex hose gauge assembly
- Rugged blow-molded hard case that will keep the gauge and its attachments protected and safe
OTC’s Compression Tester Kit has nearly a 5-star rating with over 500 reviews. It will be perfect for almost any used gasoline/petrol powered car inspection where you need to be really thorough.
- Professional grade quality gauge with zero adjust feature
- Good range of adapters that will work on both flat and tapered seat plugs
- Corrosion resistant nickel plated finish
- Dual scale gauge reads 0-300 psi and 0-2100 kPa.
- Brand – OTC
- Part number – 5606
- Dimensions – 380 x 250 x 93 mm (14.95 x 9.85 x 3.65 inches)
- Measuring range – 0-300 psi and 0-2100 kPa
Car Inspection Tool & Product Buying Guide & Information
Why Do I Need Tools for a Car Inspection?
While you can inspect a vehicle without any tools, it will be much harder to do a thorough job. Failure to properly inspect any used car prior to purchase opens you up to a lot more risk and you may wind up with some unforeseen costs due to problems with the car that could have been found at inspection.
For instance, by using a mirror to see the underside of a vehicle you may be able to spot areas where rust is forming/has formed or areas/components that have been damaged due to an accident. Fixing these sorts of problems can be very expensive, so you want to know what you are getting into before making a purchase.
Another reason to bring some tools with you to an inspection is to show that you mean business. If you look prepared the owner/seller is probably less likely to hide a problem from you and as a result you may be able to get a better deal or avoid a bad car all together.
Finding issues on a vehicle and then using them to bargain with a seller is one of the best ways to get a discount, even if the car is in excellent condition. The correct tool kit will help you find these issues.
Which Tools Are Absolutely Necessary?
While no tools are 100% necessary for a car inspection, we would always recommend that you bring at least the following four:
- Telescopic mirror
- Flashlight/torch (can use your phone, but a dedicated light will be better)
- Phone (to check VIN, buyers guides, etc.)
- Paper towels (to wipe away oil, dirt, etc.)
We also strongly suggest that you take a coating gauge thickness tool and an OBD2 scanner. Another option is to replace the coating gauge thickness tool with a magnet that can be used to check that the steel body panels and parts of a car, are, in fact steel.
Lifting a car up on jacks and doing a compression test is probably out of the question for the average used car buyer, but if you do want to do a really thorough inspection, we suggest that you invest in these tools.
What Other Things Should I Do Before an Inspection?
Along with getting your inspection tool kit all sorted, we recommend that you read up on the specific car you are going to look at. Search for a buyer’s guide on the car (we have a growing list here on garagedreams.net you should check out) and familiarise yourself with the different versions that were/are available.
A good quality buyer’s guide will be able to tell you about any specific problems that a car suffers from. You can then go directly to these problem areas when you inspect the vehicle and see if the one you are looking at is suffering or showing sign of any issues.