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How to Find Crash Repairs on a Used Car

Lyndon Bell
by Lyndon Bell
February 9, 2011

Arriving to drive the used car that sounded so great on the phone, you find it resplendently posed in a fantastic paint job. Gleaming flawlessly, the car is absolutely beautiful. But, how can you tell if it was painted because it was in an accident?

Avoiding buying a previously crashed car is always an excellent idea. No matter how well the car was repaired cosmetically, crash damage can often manifest itself in electrical or mechanical problems down the road. Additionally, you never know how well the repairs were conducted; many people use inexpensive aftermarket parts to minimize repair costs. And while that's great for them, it could mean a failure for you at some point in the future. Fortunately, careful inspection will generally reveal whether a car has been involved in a serious crash.

Start by asking the seller if the car has ever been in an accident. Sellers are bound by law to tell you if the car has been crashed, but don't be surprised if they don't. Everybody knows crash damage is a turnoff. Frankly, if it's only experienced a minor fender bender or bumper thumper, it's no big deal. But heavy crash damage can be a significant problem. That said: all you can really be sure of is what you find on your own.

Start by examining the lines of the car. Every character line on the body of the car should be perfectly aligned for its entire run. Look carefully where doors and fenders come together, the line on the door should perfectly match the line on the fender. Any line that isn't perfectly straight is a sign of a repair. Factories don't release cars with crooked or misaligned character lines.

Similarly, the gaps around the hood, trunk and doors should be the same width all the way around. If the hood has a narrow gap between the fender on one side of the car and a wider one on the other side, the hood has been removed from the car at some point. The same goes for the doors and the trunk.

Speaking of the doors, examine closely where the hinges attach to the body of the car. These are painted in one continuous pass at the factory. Any scratches on the bolts, or behind them, are pretty solid indicators the doors have been removed from the car. Similarly, the hinges that attach the hood and trunk to the car should be inspected for the same symptoms. Hoods and doors are often removed and/or replaced during bodywork.

Always take a small magnet with you to inspect a used car. Walk around the car attaching the magnet to every body panel and the doors. Most cars are made of steel. The magnet should stick readily, unless damage was repaired using body filler. (Note, this does not apply to Corvettes, certain Audi models and other high performance cars that use aluminum, fiberglass or carbon fiber in their construction. Of course, if you've done your research, you'll know what the car is made of before you go to see it though'”right?)

With the car parked in bright sunlight, focus your attention on the paint. The color should match all over the car, the paint should appear to be the same age all over the car, and it should be precisely applied. Any excess paint on taillights, marker lights or inside fender wells are indications the car has been re-sprayed. Look around the edges of the windows, hood, trunk lid and doors for signs of peeling. Examine the door, hood, and trunk frames for excess paint on the rubber seals, window trim, cable conduits and hoses, for paint where it shouldn't normally be. These are all signs the car has been repainted.

If you're looking at a truck, an SUV or a body-on frame car (again, your research will tell you if this applies to your vehicle) look underneath for scratches, or marks on the frame rails. If it has been straightened after a crash, marks from the device used to straighten the frame may show. By the way, if you find the frame has significant rust on it, pass on the car.

If you find nothing out of the ordinary and decide you're interested in purchasing the car, use its vehicle identification number (VIN) to order a vehicle history report.

This will tell you if the car has ever been involved in an accident that was reported to a DMV. Finally, before you agree to purchase the vehicle, have it inspected by a trusted professional mechanic, familiar with the make and model of the vehicle.


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