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

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 vehicle 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?

Vehicle inspections are an examination conducted by an automotive professional or licensed repair technician. To pass the inspection, your vehicle must meet certain criteria set by both the automotive professional and the state your car is registered in. The technician will inspect numerous components vital to your car's operation, checking them for both proper function and emission compliance. 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.

You'll also 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 vehicle inspections, each with its own set of criteria. For a mechanical inspection, an automotive technician will check your vehicle's:

What is Checked During a Car Inspection?

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.

Is a Vehicle Inspection Required in My State?

Depending on your state, you may not be required to get a car inspection at all. At the time of writing, eighteen states currently require either an annual or biennial vehicle inspection.

States That Require Vehicle Inspections:

  • Delaware (Required every one to two years, depending on vehicle title)
  • District of Columbia (Required every two years)
  • Hawaii (Required annually, or for public service vehicles, every six months)
  • Maine (Required every year, with specific emissions tests in Cumberland County)
  • Louisiana (Required every year, with specific emissions tests in Baton Rouge Metro)
  • Massachusetts (Required annually with the exception of vehicles made before 1996)
  • New Hampshire (Required every year)
  • Missouri (Required every two years, with specific emissions tests in St. Louis)
  • New Jersey (Required every two years, or four years for new vehicles)
  • New York (Required annually, with various emissions requirements for New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, West Chester, and Rockland)
  • North Carolina (Required every year, with emissions testing in 48 of 100 counties)
  • Pennsylvania (Required annually for most vehicles, every six months for certain service vehicles)
  • Texas (Required every year, with emissions tests in Houston, Dallas, Austin, San Antonio, and El Paso)
  • Rhode Island (Required every two years)
  • Utah (Required every two years for the first eight years, then required annually)
  • Vermont (Required every year)
  • Virginia (Required every year, with specific requirements for Northern Virginia)
  • West Virginia (Required every year)

In addition, Maryland requires an inspection only when a car is sold or transferred and Alabama requires a VIN inspection if the vehicle is transferred from another state.

What Do I Need to Get My Car Inspected?

You'll need several important pieces of paperwork to help with identification, including:

  • Valid driver's license or other form of photo ID
  • Proof of payment (either bill of sale or monthly payments statement)
  • Proof of liability insurance

Your specific state or county may require other documents to get a vehicle inspection; to find this information, visit your local DMV either in person or online to get the exact criteria. Make sure you have all your documents ready when you arrive at your inspection. You may also be asked to participate by operating the turn signals, windshield wipers, horns, and lights.

The inspector will then go over the outside of the vehicle before turning to internal features like the seat belts, brakes, and seat adjustment mechanism. Afterwards you will be asked to sign an inspection log legally stating you have liability insurance, and then you'll be provided (depending on your state) with a tag indicating your car has been inspected.

Where Can I Get My Vehicle Inspected?

Your local Department of Licencing (DOL) or Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will determine where you can get your vehicle inspected. These are called Qualified Inspection Stations, and you should be able to find a list of approved stations on the DMV website listed by county. Qualified Inspection Stations can be either businesses dedicated entirely to car inspection or businesses the DMV has deemed qualified (dealerships being a common example.)

Most of these businesses will follow the same procedure, first taking the paperwork you provide and verifying the information. The examination itself will depend on what type of inspection you are getting, whether that be one for safety or one specifically to test your vehicle for emissions. Some stations are far more strict than others, with drivers complaining of even the smallest damage failing their vehicle. Like you should with anything related to your vehicle, shop around a bit and look at reviews to see what station will work best for you.

Vehicle 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.

How To Pass A Car Inspection

There are a series of steps you can take to improve your chances of passing a car inspection. While the exact criteria vary on both a county and state level, some tasks will be beneficial regardless.

  • Oil and Oil Filter: Make sure to get an oil change before an inspection with the correct type of oil your car requires (e.g., 5w-20, 5w-30, 10w-30, etc.)
  • Air Filter: A clean air filter will allow your pistons to function correctly.
  • Tires: If your tires are bald or incredibly worn down, that may fail your vehicle. Make sure to keep track of your tires mileage, replacing them before they get too close to their limit.
  • Lights: Make sure to check all the light systems on your vehicle, including your stop lights, tail lights, headlights, and high beams.
  • Windshield Wipers: Your windshield wipers should be able to travel across your windshield uninterrupted, effectively removing water and debris from the glass. This means they can't be cracked or decaying when you go in for your inspection.
  • Horn: While some forget its importance, the horn is an essential safety device that allows you to alert other drivers prior to a collision. Make sure your horn is functioning before you go into an inspection.
  • Check Engine Light: If possible, go in and find out why your check engine light is on before an inspection. If you are lucky, it's nothing; if your vehicle does require repair, you should do so if it fits within your budget.

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.

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.

How Much Does a Car Inspection Cost?

A safety inspection for a vehicle will cost anywhere from $10 to $60, depending on what state your vehicle is registered in. Emissions tests vary from state to state as well: in Louisiana, for example, a smog check will cost you $18 and be valid for one year.

How Can I Find Qualified Inspection Stations Near Me?

A list of all of the Qualified Inspection Stations in your immediate area can be found on your local DMV's website. After navigating to the vehicle inspection section, most DMV sites will have "Qualified Inspection Stations" listed near the top of their page. From there, you can locate a station by county or parish. Qualified Inspection Stations should also be searched on services like Google or Yelp beforehand so you can look at a list of reviews. Not all inspection services are the same, and some stations may miss important details about your safety inspection. This could result in an accident or, worse, injury if the component they missed becomes defective.

How Can You Tell A Vehicle Has Been Inspected?

Many states and counties have their own individual ways of showing whether a vehicle has valid inspection credentials. Some places, like Louisiana, call these brake tags, while other states, like Massachusetts, call them state inspection stickers. These identifying documents usually involve a colorful laminated piece of paper with both the state listed and the expiration date. Some inspection stickers also include information about the car's make or model, along with a serial number or barcode. The paper usually includes an adhesive that allows you to stick the tag to your license plate; every time you get a new tag, you'll need to place the new one over the old one so a law enforcement officer doesn't mistake it for out of date.

Where Can I Get More Information About My Vehicle?

Whether you are going in to get your vehicle inspected, trying to get a lease on a new vehicle, or purchasing a used one, the best way to get more information about a vehicle is through a vehicle history report. Vehicle history reports are a great way to learn numerous essential facts and figures about your car; much of the information you receive can help you find indicators that predict inspection failure.

These reports can give you important details like:

  • Title Records
  • Junk/Salvage Records
  • Insurer "Total Loss" Records
  • Pricing
  • Sales History
  • Problem Checks
  • Auto Specs
  • Location History
  • NHTSA Crash Test Ratings
  • NHTSA Recalls
  • Awards and Accolades
  • Manufacturer Information