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Auto Inspection: The Comprehensive Guide To Auto Inspections in 2023

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We’re all looking to make our cars last as long as possible.

But… keeping your car healthy and running well takes hard work.

That means preventative maintenance and checking things out once in a while.

Many also states require regular vehicle safety inspections.

What gets checked out differs from state to state, and there are a few places in the United States that require no inspections.

However, general rules of thumb govern what inspections involve, and we’ll look at some of them below.

What Is an Auto Inspection?

At its most basic, inspection is a service where a professional checks out systems on your car to make sure they’re working as they should.

Depending on your state, you may need to have other aspects of your vehicle inspected.

You may be getting it inspected for your peace of mind before you purchase it.

Inspectors check safety systems, basic functions of the car, and they may do emissions tests.

Inspections, though required by law, are something like the annual physical you’re supposed to get from your doctor.

Yeah, I don’t, either, but still.

Think about it like this: if you haven’t had a haircut in six months, you don’t realize how ridiculously shaggy you look until you see a picture of yourself from five months ago.

You’ve gotten used to the shagginess.

When you see that old picture, you remember what you think you look like and go get a haircut.

There may be some little things about your car that slowly start to wear down, and you don’t realize it because it’s happening gradually.

A vehicle’s inspection report can be that five-month-old photo that reminds you of what needs attention.

Types of Auto Inspections

If you live in California, part of your auto inspection is a smog test— a check to see if your vehicle is living up to the state standards for air quality.

In Oklahoma, you don’t have to have anything inspected. However, most other states have varying degrees of thoroughness to their inspections.

three different types of auto inspections as illustrated by vector graphics

1. State Inspection

Perhaps the most common inspection, the state inspection is a mandated safety check of vehicles.

Depending on the state you live in and its inspection statutes, you will need your car inspected for several things, and the inspector will be up on your state’s requirements.

Some states only require certain vehicles to be inspected.

In Illinois, only so-called second division automobiles–cars and trucks designed for freight or hauling more than just a few passengers– need an inspection.

Any safety inspection will involve checking that the safety systems in the car are working.

This ensures that the car is safe to drive on the road and not a danger to its driver, passengers, or other cars.

A University of Michigan study back in 1985 showed that inspection programs didn’t necessarily translate into long-term savings in vehicle maintenance and longevity, but it could not disprove the safety of periodically examining your car for things that might go wrong with it.

2. Emissions Inspection

When I first started driving in Texas, where I grew up, inspection involved my mechanic honking the horn, checking the brake lights, and giving me my new inspection sticker.

Something tells me those weren’t the most comprehensive examinations my pickup ever had.

Emissions inspections are much more thorough now.

California requires a smog test, and Illinois checks diesel emissions from freight vehicles.

It’s difficult to make a blanket statement about emissions testing requirements nationwide, but in general, inspectors will run on-board diagnostic tests, check for exhaust system leaks, inspect the catalytic converter, and may measure the pollutants coming from your tailpipe.

Again, your mechanic or local inspector will know what your state requires.

If he doesn’t, find someone else.

3. Car Inspection

A mechanic does another type of inspection before you purchase a car.

A dealership will usually provide an inspection report.

Some states require the dealership to provide inspection of new vehicles before delivery.

If you’re buying a used car from a private citizen, you want to have someone check it out for you.

You may know how to kick tires and drive the thing around the block, but that won’t tell you a whole lot.

Your trusted mechanic can tell you if the frame is bent or if there’s a tiny oil leak or anything else you might not have caught because you’re not a mechanic.


Benefits of a Car Inspection

When you’re buying a car, it’s important to get it inspected by a qualified mechanic before finalizing the purchase.

Many people skip this step in order to save money, but it can end up costing you more in the long run.

Here are some benefits of car inspection.

Peace of Mind

One of the main benefits of auto inspection is that it gives you peace of mind.

After all, used cars can be a bit of a gamble.

By getting an inspection, you can feel confident knowing that your car has been checked over by a professional and is in good working condition.

Avoid Hidden Costs

Another benefit of auto inspection is that it can help you avoid hidden costs.

When you buy a car, there are always going to be some repairs and maintenance costs involved.

However, if you purchase a lemon, those costs can quickly add up.

By getting an inspection, you can make sure you’re not buying a car that’s going to end up costing you a fortune in repairs.


Of course, one of the most important benefits of auto inspection is safety.

When you’re driving, you want to know that your car is in good working condition.

By getting an auto inspection, you can help to ensure that your car is safe to drive.

This is especially important if you’re buying a used car.

Get a Fair Price

Another benefit of auto inspection is that it can help you get a fair price.

If you’re buying a used car, the last thing you want to do is overpay.

Getting an inspection, you can be sure you’re not paying too much for your car.

The mechanic will be able to tell you if there are any major problems with the car that could affect its value.

Find the Right Car

Finally, an auto inspection can help you find the right car.

With so many used cars on the market, it can be hard to know which one is right for you.

By getting an inspection, you can get a better idea of what you’re looking for in a car.

This can help you narrow down your search and find the perfect car for your needs.

What is Inspected?

During an auto inspection, the mechanic will take a close look at the different systems in the car.

This includes:

  • The engine
  • Transmission
  • Brakes
  • Tires
  • Suspension
  • Battery
  • Steering
  • Lights
  • Mirrors
  • Radiator and cooling system
  • Body and frame
  • Leaks, damage, or wear and tear

In addition, they’ll take a close look at the exterior and interior of the vehicle, checking for any signs of rust or other damage.

By carefully inspecting all of these components, they can help you make sure you’re getting a quality vehicle that will last for years to come.

What if the Inspection Turns Up Some Damage?

If the damage is minor, such as a small dent or scratch, you may be able to negotiate with the seller to have the repair cost deducted from the sale price.

However, if the damage is more significant, such as an engine problem, it’s probably best to walk away from the deal.

After all, it’s not worth risking your hard-earned money on a car that may not even make it off the lot.

What Does a Vehicle Inspection Look For?

Generally, inspection services are safety checks.

Is this vehicle safe to drive on the road?

To assess that, states often require a 19-point vehicle inspection to judge a vehicle safe and roadworthy.


You know if your headlights are out and how dangerous that can be.

But you may not know one brake light is out or that your reverse lights don’t come on.

Every light on the outside of your car serves a safety purpose, so they need checking.

  • Headlights
  • Taillights (including license plate lights)
  • Brake lights
  • Turn signals (front and back)

Vehicle Control

Safely piloting and stopping your vehicle are the two most important things you have to be able to do, so a 19-point inspection assesses the condition of brakes and the like with a short test drive, in which he’ll check:

  • Foot brakes
  • Emergency brake
  • Steering system

Interior Systems

Climate control may not be critical to operating a vehicle, but damage to those systems can cause problems, so a check of the air conditioner is warranted, as is the speedometer.

High speeds arestatistically unsafe.

Drivers with broken speedometers, well, you get it.

  • Heat and air conditioning
  • Front seat adjustment system
  • Speedometer
  • Seatbelts (different requirements depending on the model year)
  • Door handles and locks

Visibility (Yours and Other Drivers’)

A minor crack in your windshield may not pose a danger.

However, a giant spider web of crazed lines across your field of vision could cause a problem.

Inspectors want to see that a driver can see through the windshield, but you know when yours needs replacing.

The same goes for the other windows in your car, and no inspection is complete without a honk of the horn because you don’t need it often, but when you do, you really do.

  • Windshield and windshield wipers
  • Front, rear, and side windows
  • All rearview mirrors
  • Horn

And Finally

If you’ve got a ding in your door, no one cares.

But if your bumper perpetually rubs your front tire, that’s a safety issue.

Inspection for damage is not hard to do, and you should be able to tell if you’re going to pass that part of the inspection.

They’ll also check your tire treads for wear, and while most people know about the “penny test,” ABC News reported several years ago that the quarter test is better for assessing your tread.

  • Body condition/damage
  • Muffler and exhaust system
  • Condition of tires, including tread depth

Where Do I Get an Inspection?

For the most part, your reputable auto mechanics perform annual safety inspections.

Inspections happen in repair shops, as well as at some dealerships and their service centers.

If you don’t have a regular mechanic, find your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles site here, and from there, you can find a list of inspection stations near you.

How to Prepare for an Auto Inspection

Now that you know the benefits of auto inspection, you’re probably wondering how to prepare for one.

The good news is, it’s not as difficult as you might think.

Here are a few tips to help you get ready for your auto inspection.

Choose the Right Mechanic

First, you’ll need to choose the right mechanic.

You want to make sure you’re taking your car to someone who is qualified and has experience with auto inspection.

Ask around for recommendations from friends, family, or colleagues.

Once you have a few names, you can check online reviews to get an idea of each mechanic’s reputation.

Once you’ve narrowed down your list, call the mechanics and ask about their experience and qualifications.

A good mechanic should be able to provide you with a list of credentials and references.

Gather Paperwork

Before you head to your auto inspection, there’s a little bit of preparation you can do to make the process smoother.

One of the most important things is to gather together all the paperwork you’ll need.

This includes your car registration, proof of insurance, and any repair receipts if you’ve had recent work done.

Having this information on hand will help the inspector to quickly identify your vehicle and avoid any delays.

In addition, it’s a good idea to take some time to familiarize yourself with your car’s manual.

This way, you’ll be able to answer any questions the inspector may have about your car’s maintenance history.

By taking these simple steps, you can ensure that your auto inspection goes smoothly and that you’re prepared for anything.

Be Prepared to Ask Questions

Finally, you should be prepared to ask questions.

After the inspection is complete, the mechanic will go over their findings with you.

Make sure you understand everything they’re telling you.

If you have any questions, don’t be afraid to ask.

It’s also a good idea to ask for a written report of the inspection.

This way, you’ll have a record of what was checked and what, if anything, needs to be repaired.

Frequently Asked Questions

What do I need for my inspection?

The details will vary from state to state, but generally, you’ll need proof of ownership (your registration, for instance), liability insurance coverage, and a photo ID.

How often do I need to have an inspection?

This is another question your mechanic can answer.

Most states require at least annual inspections, although New Jersey requires one every two years.

Laws vary.

What if my vehicle fails inspection?

In most states where inspection is required, you can’t get a registration renewal or transfer ownership of the car.

An expired inspection sticker can also get you a ticket.

If your car fails, the inspector will tell you what the problems were and– more than likely– offer to repair them.

There is no limit to how many times your vehicle can try to pass inspection, and there is no waiting period between a failed inspection and another attempt as there is with driver license tests in some states.

Are inspections just another way for the state to make money?

Technically, most states that require official inspection do funnel the money generated from inspection fees to roads and infrastructure maintenance and the like, and sometimes into other government projects.

However, even if your state didn’t use the money to keep the roads in good repair, you would still benefit from having your car’s safety and roadworthiness assessed by a professional from time to time.

Wrapping Up

Vehicle inspections are often state requirements, but they make good sense even if they are optional.

Taking the time to have a pro make sure everything is working right is just logical.

Our cars have safety features to protect other drivers and us, and our engines have emissions controls to help us be as kind to our environment as possible.

Inspections are vital to ensuring all systems are go.

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