The real costs of a car inspection
In some states, inspections are only carried out by government-operated garages, while in others they can be conducted by Department of Transportation (DOT) approved facilities. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Christopher E.)
All vehicles need periodic maintenance to stay safely running on city roads and freeways. Many states, therefore, have requirements for annual (or biennial) car inspections to help prevent highway hazards rather than react after the fact. Mandates from the government aren't the only reason to have a vehicle inspection, however; if you've bought a used vehicle through a dealership or private sale, or if you're moving to a new state, you'll often need a certificate showing it meets local safety standards. But professional mechanic services don't always come cheap - how much does it really cost for a car inspection?
What an inspection covers
Many body shops will advertise "point" specials - a fifty, seventy-five or one hundred point inspection - with each point representing a different facet of the vehicle's operation. Many of the basic points you can check on your own, for example making sure the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the dash of the car matches the one on the driver's door, checking the tires to see if they are low or balding, and looking to see if there are any obvious signs of rust on the car's body. While it's not possible to be as thorough as a mechanic, a solid self-inspection means you won't be caught unaware if there are any serious issues.
Certified mechanics, meanwhile, will take care of checking the rest of your vehicle, starting with its engine. This means checking for oil or transmissions leaks, loose or missing bolts, and looking for wear and tear on any belts. A mechanic will also examine the electrical system including brake and tail lights, headlights and any on-board warning systems. Emissions may also be tested to ensure they comply with local regulations - this is part of the reason an inspection is typically required when you cross state lines.
Finding a fair price
In some states, inspections are only carried out by government-operated garages, while in others they can be conducted by Department of Transportation (DOT) approved facilities. While minimum prices may be set by the government for inspection services, maximums are typically left up to individual garages - this means it can be worth your while to shop around. Most will have advertisements for "out of state" or "used vehicle" inspections, and may display a price, or may only reference the number of points they cover. But like any mechanical work, it pays to ask questions - are there parts of a vehicle the inspection won't cover; can the shop offer a certificate for the work?
Never sign any agreement for work until you're satisfied about what's going to be done, and make sure no extra work will be conducted without your permission. While basic inspection services can uncover more serious problems, these shouldn't be tackled until you've signed off; be aware, however, that if your vehicle doesn't meet the minimum requirements, even a reputable garage won't be able to issue a certificate. Expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $250 for a standard vehicle inspection.
Sourcing out a reputable mechanic
Finding a great price is one thing; finding a mechanic who does consistently top-notch work is something else. Most urban centers have hundreds of operating garages, meaning you need to do your homework before purchasing any services. Check out trusted review sites like Angie's List for local review, and ask friends or family for their recommendations. In some cases, your vehicle's dealership may be the best price for service and quality, while in others you're better off with a family-owned shop. The same rules apply for evaluating either type: How closely does their advertised price for an inspection match the total, and how accurate is their work when compared with your own observations? If the price changes continually, or a mechanic is telling you to replace new tires, find another professional.
Making sure your vehicle is road worthy means having it inspected as mandated by the government, or if you're moving across state lines. While the prices for a car inspection aren't set in stone, you should be able to find reasonable rates and professional service with a little research.