Make sure that used car isn’t a lemon

'OK Used Cars' - U.S. Route 76, Anderson, South Carolina, USA

(MoneyWatch) Internet shopping lets you chase down a used car with the exact color and options you want and research lets you know what you should be paying. But your good used car deal can quickly sour if that car has undetected problems.

Paying for a mechanical inspection to avoid that outcome can be money well spent. But many shoppers do not take that precaution. “No piece of car buying advice is more often ignored than this: Have a mechanic inspect a used car before you buy it,” says Philip Reed, senior consumer advice editor for automotive web site Edmunds.com.

If you are shopping for a used car locally, you may be able to take your target used car for inspection by a mechanic you trust. But if the car is farther away (or if the seller is reluctant to let you take the car for an inspection), mobile inspection services will check out that car wherever it is.

For prices ranging between $129 and $179 depending on how thorough the inspection, these services will check the car over and send you an e-mail report. If you are like most shoppers, you would have trouble spotting any but the most obvious problems even if you saw the car in person.

Here are the kinds of issues that an inspection can find  for you:

  • Frame damage If the frame has been repaired, it means the car has been in a serious accident. If not repaired correctly, such damage can cause the car’s wheels to pull to one side.
  • Flood damage If a car has been flooded, most states require that incident to be listed on a car’s title. But even title reporting services such as CarFax and AutoCheck can be deceived by unscrupulous used car wholesalers who move a car to a new state and get a fresh title. An inspector may be able to spot water marks or other telltale signs.
  • Evidence of repair work An inspector may see signs that body work has been done on the car, indicating it was in an accident which may not have been reported by the seller.

You may be able to find an inspection service from the web site where you are browsing used car listings. For instance, eBay Motors recommends InspectMyRide, a service with 600 inspectors available in all states (although service is limited in Alaska and South Dakota). For its basic inspection costing $129, you get verification that the car’s engine and transmission are in working order and a report on its condition, along with about 20 photos. The more useful $179 premium package gives you a copy of the AutoCheck report, a test drive, a report on engine maintenance and the condition of the audio and video components.

A competing service, Alliance Inspection Management (AIM), has 500 inspectors in all states. Like InspectMyRide, it puts all of its inspectors through a training program. Some are mechanics and others come from related fields such as insurance adjusters. AIM’s basic inspection package for $129 includes a 150-point inspection and test drive. For $149, you get the inspection plus an AutoCheck report.

In case you are wondering whether inspections are worth the money, look at the results of surveys AIM did with its customers. About 20 percent said they used the inspection report to negotiate a lower price. And 10 percent said problems raised by the inspection led them to pass on that used car altogether.

  • Jerry Edgerton On Twitter»

    View all articles by Jerry Edgerton on CBS MoneyWatch»
    Jerry Edgerton, author of Car Shopping Made Easy, has been covering the car beat since Detroit companies dominated the U.S. market. The former car columnist for Money magazine and Washington correspondent for Business Week, Edgerton specializes in finding the best deals on wheels and offering advice on making your car last.

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