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Complete Car Inspection:
What is it & What Does it Include?

Making sure your car is safe to drive is essential, and buying a used car means you'll need to get a complete car inspection. If possible, you'll want to have this inspection happen before purchase: a complete car inspection can show you hidden defects and damage that may change the vehicle's actual value. You also may be required to get an inspection to stay compliant with local laws; without it, you may incur fines and penalties.

What is a Car Inspection?

A car inspection is a multi-point examination of your vehicle by an automotive technician that culminates in an assessment of its overall condition and law compliance. These inspections are required in many regions and will cover everything from a vehicle's internal mechanics to its safety and emissions. You may be required to get an inspection of your vehicle completed before you can have it registered or before it receives an official license plate.

The exact requirements relating to car inspections differ from state to state. You'll want to check your local DMV's website to see the guidelines that affect your area. Alternatively, you can go into a physical Department of Motor Vehicles location and talk to a representative there. They will be able to provide you with all the information you need about the legal guidelines associated with car inspections in their jurisdiction.

What is Checked During a Car Inspection?

There are several types of car inspections, each with its own set of criteria. For a mechanical inspection, an automotive technician will check your vehicle's:

  • Suspension and Steering: Your suspension and steering systems are responsible for keeping your vehicle from bouncing over rough terrain and allowing you to steer it during operation. An automotive tech will look for worn-out or damaged parts relating to the suspension and steering to ensure your vehicle can safely drive on the road.

    An inspection will check every part related to these systems, including:

    • Center Link
    • Bushings
    • Tire Rod Ends
    • U-Joint
    • Shocks
    • Struts
    • Ball Joints
  • Tire Alignment and Tread: The condition and function of your tires will be tested, with a professional taking a look at everything from your tire pressure to the depth of tread your tires have left. The correct tire pressure will depend on what type of vehicle you have, as well as the weather in your region. For example, If you live in a colder climate, the pressure in your tires will fall more rapidly.

    The tread and the wear patterns present in your tires will also be tested. If a tech sees that your tires are wearing down unusually or unevenly, that may mean that your alignment is off. This can reduce the fuel efficiency of your vehicle, as well as make tires fail unexpectedly. Tread depth is also important, and a tech will make sure that there is enough left to drive safely—the U.S. The Department of Transportation recommends that tires be replaced if their tread reaches 2/32, though your area may have stricter laws.

  • Exhaust Components: An inspection will also examine your exhaust pipe, manifold, oxygen sensor, tailpipe, and muffler. Any leaks or damage causing some noise will be flagged during an inspection. Issues with your exhaust can cause performance issues for your engine; with an exhaust leak, your engine won't be able to work correctly, and you'll have problems accelerating.

  • Braking System: A complete vehicle inspection will take extra care checking your brakes, measuring the thickness of your brake pads and rotors, as well as the diameter of your brake drums. These inspections also look at your parking brake, brake hoses, brake fluid, and any other systems related to braking (like your ABS.)

    As one of your car's most important safety features, the brake test is essential. Bad brakes can damage your tires, wearing them down quickly and raising the chance they will fail during travel. If the accident is severe enough, this can result in damage to your vehicle, injury, and even death.

  • Auxiliary Systems: The rest of the inspection will cover all other components of your car, including:

    • Lights (turn signals, brake lights, headlights, etc.)
    • Mirrors
    • Horn
    • Ignition
    • Windshield wipers
    • Fluid levels
    • Timing belt
    • Valve covers
    • Spark plugs
    • Hoses

An inspection will also likely test your vehicle's safety and emissions; the requirements for these tests will vary from state to state. In some areas, an annual or biannual safety examination is required, and some states require specific emissions criteria to be met to remain street legal.

Inspections aren't perfect, and some may miss certain defects resulting from past accidents. That's why it's essential also to get a vehicle history report before you purchase a car. These can show you a complete history of accidents and repairs that a vehicle has experienced, so you can identify if a car has any hidden damage.

Car Inspection Frequently Asked Questions

How Often Do I Need to Get My Car Inspected?

The frequency with which you need to get an inspection depends on your state and is usually on an annual or biannual basis. Check your local DMV for more information to see how often you'll need to get your car inspected and whether you also need an emissions test.

What Will Cause My Vehicle to Fail an Inspection?

Any significant damage or wear-and-tear to essential vehicle systems can cause you to fail a mechanical inspection. For a safety inspection, problems with your car's safety features may cause your vehicle to be flagged for inspection failure. Emissions tests can be failed as well; if your vehicle doesn't have working spark plugs, does not get regular oil changes, or has a dirty air filter, all of these can result in failure.

How Much Does a Car Inspection Cost?

The cost for a car inspection varies from state to state, with the fee usually ranging between $10 to several hundred dollars. Check the DMV website related to your area for more information.

What Happens if I Don't Get My Car Inspected?

Failure to get a regular inspection can result in fines or penalties and may even revoke your driver's license. It can also be dangerous to avoid getting regular inspections. If a system on your vehicle is beginning to degrade and you catch it early, you can prevent an accident and save money. If you avoid the inspection, you may only notice the issue once the component fails entirely.