How to spot signs of accident repair, rust or paint job when buying a used car

Updated: January 09, 2019

Accident car 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 scrapped or stripped for parts, but others are restored and re-sold on the used car market.
Is it possible to restore a damaged car so well that it would be difficult to spot signs of an accident?
Yes, any car can be restored even after a very serious collision. When the job is done right, it might be very hard to notice any difference. How can you check if a used car has been in an accident? This is a three-step process:

1. Carefully inspect a used car for signs of accident or rust repairs yourself. See below what signs to watch out for.
2. Check the used car history records. Most accidents are reported and the used car history report may show that the used car you were about to buy had been involved in a serious crash. Many "lemons" can be avoided this way. Read how to check used car history

3. Have a used car properly inspected by a knowledgeable mechanic or a used car inspector before signing the deal.

Check if the panels are lined up, look at the side reflection

Car body lines

The easiest way to spot signs of body repairs or paint job is to look at the reflection. This car, for example, looks like new. The lines are straight, the fender and doors are lined up and the paint looks consistent and smooth. Click on the photo to see a larger image.

Car with visible ripples

Here, you can see some unevenness in the reflection on the rear fender. It looks like this fender saw some body repair.

Clearcoat peeling off

As we looked closer at this rear fender, we found this: the clearcoat is peeling off. It's a sure sign of a paint job.

Paint texture shows signs of a body repair

The rear corner of this truck has been repaired. As you can see, the reflection doesn't look smooth. Click on the photo, see the area under the gas tank lid and in the corner near the taillight.

Advertisement - Continue reading below

Check if the color of different panels match

Mismatched colors

Another way to quickly spot a body repair is to compare colors of different panels. The trick is to look from the distance and from different angles. Here everything looks OK, but check the next photo.

Painted door

Can you spot mismatched colors now? You are right, that door has a different shade, it has been painted.

Re-painted bumper

Look at this car, does the front bumper look a little darker to you from this angle? It's because it has been repainted.

Check how body panels fit together

The door is not flush

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

Bumper is loose

The front bumper came loose in this car. If you look closer, the bumper color is different too. It looks like there was a body repair in this corner. If you notice something like this, the area should be inspected closely.

Check how the hood, trunk lid and all the doors close

The door is not lined up

In this car, we noticed that the front passenger door was not closing as smooth as the other doors. If you look where the arrows point in the photo, you can notice that the front door is misaligned. It's not lining up with the rear door when closed. After a closer inspection we found that this car has been involved in the front end accident.

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 Pontiac Vibe was offered for sale at a new car dealership. A salesperson told us that they just got this car. While checking, 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 different picture; the gap is almost non-existent as you can see. 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 in a minor accident, the price was low too. We opened the hood and it was easy to see. Compare these two photos; can you spot which side 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. If you look closely (click on the photo), you can see the paint quality is poor too.

Check the headlights

Moisture inside the headlight

Do any of the headlights or taillights have a moisture inside? This often happens when water penetrates into the headlight through a crack or a missing bulb cover. Has this corner been hit? Inspect it carefully. This headlight will need to be replaced, and it's not cheap.

Mismatched headlights

Compare both headlights (and taillights). If one headlight looks old and the other looks new, it's possible that the new headlight has been installed recently. Was it during an accident repair?

Look at this Honda Civic. The left headlight is old (original), but the right headlight looks new. It even has a different manufacturer marking. After a close inspection we found that the right front corner has been hit, although the damage was minor.

Watch out for difference in the paint texture

Sanding marks under the paint

Look at the quality and texture of the paint. A fresh paint may have a different texture. Signs of sanding during a body repair are also often visible through the paint. In this photo you can clearly see sanding marks under the paint. This is a clear sign of a body repair. Click on the photo to see the larger image.

Pain texture looks not original

The paint texture of this door doesn't look right, you can see this in the reflection. There was some body repair here. Feel the paint surface with your hand. The original paint finish should be smooth, while the repainted panels may feel a bit rough and uneven, like an orange peel.

Look for paint overspray

Paint overspray

At the car assembly plant, the body is painted before anything is installed on it. This means that any plastic trim or wiring should not be painted over. Here you can see that the door wiring harness boot shows a white paint overspray, which is an indication of a paint job.

Look for peeling paint

Peeling paint

A peeling-off paint is another indicator of a poorly-done paint job. Often you can see a paint peeling off of one of the bumpers.

Check the bolts that hold the hood

Color looks the same

Here is another tip: when you open the hood, check the bolts that hold it. Do they look like they have never been touched? Here you can clearly see that this bolt has been tampered with. This means that the hood was either replaced or readjusted from its original position.

Nuts holding the hood

To compare, look at this car, the nuts that hold the hood look like they haven't been touched. This hood is original.

Many cars have a sticker attached to the hood. This car in the photo has an original sticker. If the sticker is missing or looks like it was re-attached, it's possible that the hood has been replaced.

Check the frame if it's a pickup truck

Frame in a pickup truck

The frame is what holds the truck together. Is it badly rusted? Does it shows sings of wielding or other repair? Take a photo or video with your phone if it's not visible. The frame in this truck looks OK. How does the truck bed look from underneath? We have seen many pickup truck where a bedliner was there to cover rusted through holes in the bed.

Avoid previously flooded cars

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

Avoid used cars that have been flooded. A flooded vehicle is more likely to develop various electrical problems and mold in the future.

Signs of flood damage in a car

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

Signs of a flood damage in a used car

We removed the rear trim piece from the center console to confirm. There's no questions this car has been flooded. 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.

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

Fender bender accident

The short answer is no, unless it was a minor fender-bender like in this photo or this photo. 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 difficult to tell if a car has been repaired to the highest standards or was "patched up" for a quick sale.

This means that buying a car that has been restored after a serious accident is taking a chance. Were repairs done properly or the 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?

Is it OK to buy a car that has rust damage?

Rust damage on the rear fender

Rust is a major issue in used cars, especially the ones that have been driven where salt is used on the roads in winter months. Unless a car has been properly rust proofed, any 7-10 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. The metal used in modern cars is better, but rust problems have not been eliminated.

Rusty car

If a car had major rust spots repaired, the rust will re-appear later. More importantly, if the body shows rust on the outside, the underneath components are probably in a much worse shape. Check, for example, these brake lines, or this subframe. Both are a safety concern. Therefore, similarly, to previous accidents, major rust is something to be avoided in a used car.

Rust on the door

Where does the rust usually start? You are more likely to find rust at the bottom edges of the doors and around the wheel wells. In this car, it's just starting, but in a few years this door will look bad if not treated.

Major rust spot

This rust spot has already been repaired and now the rust shows again. If you suspect a repaired rust spot, try sticking a small magnet; it won't stick if there is too much filler over the metal.

Rusted transmission cooler lines

These transmission cooler lines are badly rusted, but you won't see them from the outside. In this car, they are tucked under the undershield, below the radiator. These rusty lines can burst when scraping the curb while parking, on when driving over bumps, leaving you stranded. That's another reason why we recommend having a used car inspected by your mechanic before buying it. Read more what else to watch out for in a used car: how to inspect a used car, guide with photos.