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.)

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 cars need periodic maintenance to stay safely running on city roads and highways. Many states, therefore, have requirements for an annual (or biennial) car inspection to help prevent highway hazards rather than react after the fact.

Mandates from the government aren't the only reason to have a car 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 to inspect a car don't always come cheap.

So how much does it really cost for a car inspection?

The price of a car inspection

Expect to pay anywhere from $150 to $250 for a standard vehicle inspection, mechanics say.

In some states, only government-operated garages carry out inspections, while in others they are conducted by Department of Transportation (DOT) approved facilities. While minimum prices may be set by the government for auto inspection services, maximums are typically left up to individual garages, which means it's worth shopping around. Most shops have advertisements for "out of state" or "used vehicle" inspections and may display a price or reference only the number of points they cover. But like any mechanical work, it pays to ask questions such as: Are there parts of a vehicle the inspection won't cover; can the shop offer a certificate for the work?

Under the hood car inspection.
A car inspection covers every aspect of your vehicle. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Paul S., Greenville, South Carolina)

Never sign an agreement for work until you're satisfied about what's going to be done, and make sure no extra work is 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 issue a certificate.

What's included in an auto inspection

Many body shops will advertise "point" specials - a 50-, 75- or 100-point car inspection - with each point representing a different facet of the vehicle's operation. Many of the basic points you can check on your own. Some of those basic points include 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 check 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 taillights, headlights and any on-board warning systems. Emissions may also be tested to ensure they comply with local regulations, which is part of the reason an inspection is typically required when crossing state lines.

Who does car inspections?

Finding a great price is one thing, but finding a mechanic who consistently performs top-notch work is another. Most urban areas have hundreds of operating garages, which means you need to do your homework before purchasing any services. Check out trusted review sites like Angie's List for local reviews, 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 a mechanic to inspect your car reasonable rates and professional service with a little research.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of an article originally posted on June 17, 2013.

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Expect to pay from $50 to $250 for a thorough inspection. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Chris E. of Upland, Calif.)

If you're planning to take a road trip or buy a used car, consider getting an auto inspection. Mechanics say it's the best way to determine a car's condition.

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