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Fair Go: Can you trust a pre-purchase car inspection?

If you're eating out or getting takeaways at a new place, it's a fair bet you'll look first at the menu before you order. Some of us really like to linger over that step. Deep-fried gherkin in the burger? Yeah, I'll give it a go.

But when you purchase another service – like getting a used car checked over by a mechanic before you decide whether to buy - how many of us would look at the menu first?

Why does it matter? Because there are a range of pre-purchase inspections available in New Zealand and, much like a burger, their ingredients vary. If it's a let-down burger, that's probably no biggie, but a pre-purchase inspection that doesn't live up to expectations poses a bigger problem. That's the let-down Lawrence Levine is feeling after paying for an MTA Assured pre-purchase inspection.

"I thought what it would do is tell me that I have a sound car, that it was safe," Lawrence said.

Lawrence bought a car remotely, as more of us do now. It was in the South Island and he was moving to Northland, from the US. Getting impartial professional advice on a major purchase before you buy is a good idea.

"When I looked online at the MTA website, it appeared that this would tell me things that maybe a seller might not want to tell me," he said.

The hour-long check found a couple of issues, including an oil leak, sub-par AC and worn tyres.

Lawrence and the seller agreed on new terms and three days later, a shipper picked it up, and it sat for five months in the barn at his new home until he moved to New Zealand. But when he took it for a new Warrant of Fitness a month later, the mechanic carrying out the WOF found a problem.

"He chucks it up in the air and walks around and says, 'I'm sorry, this car flatly fails on only one thing - your springs aren't captured.'"

A vital part of the car's handling was so loose, Lawrence could shift it out of place with his finger. He went back to the place that carried out the pre-purchase inspection. They denied responsibility for not spotting the issue, pointing out the elapsed time, the fact it might have happened after the inspection was carried out – and that anyway, this hadn't been a safety inspection.

The MTA said as much when Lawrence tried its mediation service, and when Fair Go asked: a pre-purchase inspection is not a safety inspection.

"The only official safety inspection in New Zealand for a vehicle is a Warrant of Fitness," MTA's Geordie Cassin told Fair Go.

But surely people get a PPI to see if their car is safe, as well as to check if whether it is value for money? Geordie says MTA acknowledges that "any reasonable person taking their vehicle in to one of our members or any other organisation to get a pre-purchase inspection on it would definitely expect a safety element to that."

A look at the sheet Lawrence bought shows the suspension was marked with a check - front and rear - in the two boxes on the form as "Item OK".

Compare that with the pre-purchase inspections offered by the AA and VINZ, which detail the checklist their inspections follow. AA itemises 12 different aspects of suspension. VINZ has only two, but they are two different aspects, not just 'front' and 'back', as MTA puts it.

Geordie says MTA stands by its member and the service provided but will now look at its form – the menu of checks it offers.

"There's no benefit in our members' customers being confused or coming away from it feeling they've had a bad experience. We all want to get it right. We are all concerned about safety," Geordie said.

It's also worth remembering that by law, a car should be sold with a current Warrant of Fitness.

That's no older than 28 days. Put that with a good PPI – one that you are sure covers what matters most to you - and you should be able to buy a car with confidence.

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Lawrence Levine learned the hard way that It’s not as thorough as you might think. Source: Fair Go