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. 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?

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 some rust. Rust damage 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.

Watch out for mismatched colors and difference in paint texture

Car body lines

Look closely at the quality of the paint. A fresh paint may have a different texture, or signs of a body repair could be noticeable under the paint. In this photo you can see sanding marks that are painted over, which is the clear sign of a previous body repair. Click on the photo to see the larger image.

Car with visible ripples

In this photo you can see that the paint texture of this door is not very smooth - there was some body repair here. Feel the paint surface with your hand; the original paint finish should be perfectly smooth, while the repainted panel may feel slightly rough and uneven.



See if the color of different panels match

Color looks the same

Another way to spot a previous body repair is to compare colors of different panels and see if they don't match. The trick is to look from different angles. Here everything looks right, but a look from the different angle shows an entirely different picture (see photo below).

Mismatched colors

The front fender is a bit darker, meaning this Toyota has gone through some body repair. Here is another trick: sometimes it's easier to spot mismatched colors by looking from a distance.

Look for paint overspray

Paint overspray

At the factory, the new car body is painted before anything is installed on it. This means that any plastic trim or wiring should not show any signs of paint. Here, however, you can see that the door wiring harness has some white paint sprayed on it, which is an indication of a body repair.

Paint overspray

Here is another example: if you look closely, a small area of this door trim shows signs of a white paint. This car obviously had a recent paint job.

Check the bolts that connect the hood to the hinges

Color looks the same

Here is another tip: open the hood and check the bolts that hold the hood hinges. Here you can clearly see that this bolt has been scratched. This means that the hood was either replaced or readjusted from its original position. There was some body repair here.

Mismatched colors

This is how these bolts should look like originally. As you can see, these bolts have never been touched after the vehicle was painted at the assembly plant.

Watch out for rust

Rust spot

A few small spots like this is not a big deal, but watch out for major rust.

Major rust

This rust spot has already been repaired and now it's rusted again. If the car has major rust spots like this, avoid it. If you suspect a repaired rust spot, try to stick a small magnet; it won't stick if there is too much filler and very little metal.

Avoid previously flooded cars

Flooded cars
New Orleans, La. Photo: Marty Bahamonde/FEMA

You should definitely avoid used cars that have been flooded in the past. A flooded vehicle is more likely to develop various electrical problems and mold in the future.

Signs of a flood damage in a used car

This car looks fairly clean and runs good, but something doesn't look right about this speaker mesh. It looks like a dirty water level mark. Was this car flooded?

Signs of a flood damage in a used car

To confirm we removed the rear trim piece from the center console. There's no questions this car was flooded and you can see the water level marks on the inside of the trim piece. This car should be avoided. A history report can also reveal a previous flood damage. Be suspicious if the history report indicates that the car came from a recent flood zone.