How to inspect a car body when buying a used car

Updated: December 2, 2013

Restored after accident Hundreds of car accidents happen every day, yet how often do you see a used car advertised as "Restored After Accident?"
Do all damaged cars get scrapped? What happens to them?
Yes, some cars are written off and squashed or stripped for parts, but others are restored and brought back to the used car market.
Is it possible to restore a damaged car so well that it will be difficult to spot any signs of an accident?
Yes, any car can be restored even after a very serious collision so that it would be very difficult to notice any difference. So, how can you check if a used car has been previously involved in an accident? This is a three-step process:

1. Check the used car history records. Most accidents are reported and the used car history report may show you that the "clean" used car you were about to buy had been damaged in a serious accident before. Many "bad" used cars can be filtered out from your list this way. Read how to check used car history
2. Carefully inspect a used car for signs of previous accidents or corrosion yourself. Is it difficult to spot signs of previous accidents? It's not easy, but if you know what to look for, you might be able to catch some telltale signs - we wrote this guide to help you. Read and see photos below.
3. Have the used car properly inspected by a knowledgeable mechanic or used car inspector.

• Should you buy a car that has been in an accident?
• Rust damage
• Reflection can tell a lot
• Check how different panels fit together
• Compare opposite sides of the car
• Watch out for mismatched colors and difference in paint texture
• Look for paint overspray
• See if any of the body panels have been moved
• Watch out for rust
• Check for signs of flood damage
• Have a car properly inspected

Should you buy a car that has been in an accident?

The short answer is no, unless it was some minor fender-bender. We don't want to say that a damaged car cannot be restored to a like-new condition; there are plenty of collision repair shops that do an excellent job. The problem is that for an average buyer it's very difficult to determine if a car has been repaired to the highest standards or was just quickly "patched up" for a fast sale. This means that buying a car that has been restored after an accident is taking a chance. Were repairs done properly or rust spots will appear after a year or two? Was the wheel alignment done right or will the car "eat" tires? Will the air conditioner still work after a few months? Will the paint peel away or fade?

Rust

Rust is another issue with used cars, especially in the areas where salt is used in winter months. Unless a car has been properly rust proofed, any 5-6 year old and older car or truck from the 'rust belt' will show at least some rust. In some cars, you will see just a few spots here and there; in others, you might see rusted through floors, body panels or brake components. Rust spots can be repaired temporarily but once the corrosion process is started, it's very difficult to stop. If a car had major rust spots repaired, the rust will re-appear later. Therefore, similarly, to previous accidents, major rust is something to avoid in a used car.

Reflection can tell a lot

Car body lines

The easiest way to quickly spot signs of a body repair or a paint job is to look at the reflection. This car, for example, looks line new. The lines are straight and the paint surface is very smooth.

Car with visible ripples

Here, you can see some unevenness in the reflection. It looks like there was there was some body repair on the rear left fender. Click on the image to see the larger photo.

Car with visible ripples

A closer look at the rear fender reveals this: a peeling off clearcoat. It's another sign of a paint job.

Paint texture shows signs of a body repair

The rear corner of this SUV has been repaired. As you can see, the reflection looks not very smooth. Click to see the larger image. Pay closer attention to to area under the gas tank lid and in the corner near the tail light. You can see some unevenness there too.

Check how body panels fit together

The door of this Dodge is not flush

See how different body panels fit together. For example, the doors, when closed should be perfectly flush with other panels. The same for the hood, trunk lid and other panels. Look at this blue car, its rear door is not flush when closed; there was some body repair.

Bumper is loose

Look at this car, the front bumper came loose and if you look closely, the bumper has a slightly different color too. It looks like there was a body repair to this corner. If you notice something like this, the area should be inspected more closely.

Compare opposite sides

Same gap on the right side

Here is a trick: if something doesn't look right, compare it to another side. For example, this used Pontiac Vibe was offered for sale at a new car dealership. A salesperson told us that they just got this car. While checking it closely, we found that the gap between the front fender and the door looks wide on the right side.

Gap on the left side

Checking the left side showed a totally different picture; the gap was almost non-existent as you can see in these photos. After further inspection we found that this car has been sideswiped, so its entire front end has shifted to one side. When we pointed this to the used car manager, he apologized and took the car off sale. Turns out they haven't noticed this problem when they got this car from a wholesale auction.

Left front corner

We checked this black Toyota at another dealership. The salesperson was honest and mentioned that the vehicle has been restored after an accident; the car was priced low. We opened the hood and it was easy to see. Compare these two photos; can you spot which side of this car has been damaged? This is the left front fender.

Right front corner

This is the right front fender. This corner appears to have been hit, look at the area around those two bolts holding the fender.