Inspection WoesA month ago I took Niki's car into the shop for an inspection. I bought it 9 years ago, it was my first car out of college and only a few years old at the time. It's a 1998 Honda Passport and still runs great to this day. We've had very little trouble out of it and the best part is -- it's paid for!
Niki took one for the team right before we got married and started driving it. We had three cars at the time and only had two drivers. Niki had a VW Jetta which was the most marketable car so we sold hers and kept the Passport. She's not crazy about driving it because of it's age and sweet hunter greenness but she's been promised the next car and we are both happy about not having an additional car payment.
I took the car to get it inspected on March 30th. It failed inspection due to a leaking rack and pinion (power steering system). We knew it was leaking a little because a mechanic pointed it out before but it's very minor and far from a safety issue. It's solely caused by the age of the car.
Niki found a product online called Stop Leak which is guaranteed to stop power steering system leaks. We picked up some from our local Auto Zone and I added it to the reservoir, which was full by the way. A week later I took the car back in for a follow-up inspection. The same mechanic failed it again. I asked to see evidence of the leak and the mechanic took me out to the shop and pointed out areas of concern.
I challenged that what he was seeing could very well be the result of a recent oil leak. He said it was hard to tell and that cleaning the engine may help. This past Sunday I took the car to a local car wash (the ones that have the pressure washer wands), put degreaser all over the engine and under body and pressure washed it. The engine looked great now and all of the oil and residue had been cleaned off.
This morning I took the car back to the same shop that inspected it the first and second time, but there was a different mechanic. He put it up on the lift and soon after came out to tell me that he could not pass it. I asked why and he said there was steering fluid leaking out of the rack and pinion system. I asked him to show me and told him about the additive and cleaning the engine. The areas he pointed out were different than the first mechanic and in my opinion the residual fluid was minimal.
I left the shop frustrated and confused. I didn't feel like the steering system was faulty or needed replacing. I was quoted a price of around $1,000 to fix it. The car is only driven about 5 miles a week, to and from a park-n-ride lot. At the point I'd spent several hours of my time trying to get the car passed without spending a fortune. I'd already paid one shop to begin the inspection and didn't want to start the process over at another shop and have to pay twice. I was at the mercy of one inspection shop.
I started to explore the idea of getting the steering system checked out, sans an inspection. I thought maybe an unbiased opinion on the whole situation would give me a better indication of just how serious it was. I feel sometimes that shops inspect cars just to find more problems with a car, that can eventually lead to more income for them. I called a shop I've used multiple times in Charlotte, Woodie's. They were very friendly and understanding of my situation. I actually felt like they were more on my side. I explained the condition of my car and told him that I thought the leak was minimal. He said it didn't sound too bad and asked if they could have a look at it, no charge.
My time was at hand (I have a million other things to do this week) and a 30 minute drive to and from Charlotte was at hand but I felt like it was the only choice I had. I finally found someone that was willing to consider passing the car. I drove it to the shop, handed over my keys and sat down in the waiting room. About ten minutes later the mechanic came in and said that there was a tiny leak but nothing that would be considered a safety issue -- nothing that wouldn't pass basically. He asked if I wanted him to continue with the inspection. This meant another $30 but it also was a 99% guarantee that the car would pass inspection. I told him to go ahead with the inspection.
Fifteen minutes later he came back and said the car passed and was ready to go. I happily paid the $30 and was on my way.
I can't help but wonder why the car inspection process is so ambiguous. The decision of whether or not your car will pass is completely left up to the discretion of the mechanic. Aside from that inspections seem like a great way for repair shops to upsell you on other products and services, which in my case could have been very costly -- a conflict of interest exists here. In addition, the failure of an inspection is logged in a centralized state-wide system that will be viewed by any shop that attempts to inspect you car. This shines a brighter light on any part of the car that recently failed an inspection, creating unequal scrutiny.
I'd like to see each state add a law that prevents auto service shops from doing inspections. In addition, they should develop a set of standards and a better way to test against those standards to make the entire process more consistent.