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

Updated: October 9, 2018

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. 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
2. Carefully inspect a used car for signs of accident or rust repairs yourself. Read below what to look for.
3. Have a used car properly inspected by a knowledgeable mechanic or a used car inspector before signing the deal.

Check the 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 doors are lined up and the paint looks even and smooth.

Car with visible ripples

Here, you can see some unevenness in the reflection. It looks like this fender saw some body repair. See the larger photo.

Car with visible ripples

As we looked closer at the 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 SUV has been repaired. As you can see, the reflection doesn't look smooth. See the larger image. See the area under the gas tank lid and in the corner near the taillight.

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Check how body panels fit together

The door of this Dodge 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 blue car, its rear door is not flush when closed; there was some body repair here

Bumper is loose

Look at this car, the front bumper came off. 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.

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 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 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.

Check the headlights

Fogged up headlight

Do headlight have moisture inside? This often happens when water penetrates into the headlight through a crack or missing bulb cover.

Compare headlights

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

Look at this Honda Civic, the old left-side headlight is original, but the new right-side headlight looks fresh. It even has a different manufacturer markings. After a close inspection we found the right front corner has been hit and the headlight has been replaced.

Watch out for difference in the paint texture

Car body lines

Look at the quality 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 see sanding marks under the paint. This is a clear sign of a body repair. Click on the photo to see the larger image.

Car with visible ripples

The paint texture of this door doesn't look right, there was some body repair here. Feel the paint surface with your hand; the original paint finish should be smooth, the repainted panels may feel a bit rough and uneven.

Check if the color of different panels match

Color looks the same

Another way to spot a body repair is to compare colors of different panels. The trick is to look from different angles. Here everything looks right, but check the photo below.

Mismatched colors

From this angle we can see that the front fender looks a bit darker, which means it has been repainted. Sometimes it's easier to spot mismatched colors by looking from a distance.

Painted door

Here is another example. This car looked fine up close, but see how it looks from a distance from this angle? You are right, that door has a different shade, it has been painted.

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 shows a white paint overspray, which is an indication of a paint job.

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 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. 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

To compare, the nuts holding the hood of this truck haven't been touched since the vehicle has been 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 damage.

Major rust

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

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 a flood damage in a used 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?

The short answer is no, unless it was a 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 difficult to tell if a car has been repaired to the highest standards or was "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. Print our checklist and take with you when shopping for a used car.