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Car Buying

Should You Buy a Car That's Been in an Accident?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro

In the days of CARFAX and Autocheck, it's easier than ever to tell if a vehicle you're considering was in an accident. For many shoppers, CARFAX and Autocheck mean a process that once meant visiting a skilled body shop can now be handled with the click of a button. What if that click reveals some bad news, such as past damage? Should you buy a car that's been in an accident? We have a few suggestions.

How Bad Was the Accident?

The first thing we'd do if we found an "accident car" is figure out how bad the accident was. Sometimes CARFAX will report this information. For example, I recently looked at a pickup for which CARFAX said: "Minor damage; vehicle was driven from the scene." That doesn't bother me so much, since it means the truck was probably only dented or scraped.

A CARFAX report that says "major damage" or notes a car was towed from the crash site is certainly a red flag. However, CARFAX isn't always accurate. Sometimes, a 4-car accident in which three cars sustain major damage can show up as "major damage" on the undamaged car's CARFAX report. Such errors are just a reality of the system. And that's why we recommend having a car inspected if you're even a little concerned about a bad CARFAX report.

Check It Out

If the CARFAX report brings up any red flags or questions, we strongly recommend taking the car to a trusted mechanic or body shop. We certainly suggest this take place through a mechanic or body shop you know and not through the seller.

Most mechanics or body shops can quickly identify a car that's had paintwork. Looking underneath painted panels, many can find evidence of a prior accident. But if a car is a really good deal, that alone isn't reason to panic. After all, thousands of cars are in accidents -- especially minor ones -- every year. Does that mean they should never be considered again?

Who Fixed It?

One major factor is figuring out the quality of the repair. Who fixed it? Was it a "factory" body shop with ties to the automaker? Or was it a cheap repair job done as quickly as possible? Your mechanic should be able to tell you his opinion. But if paint colors don't match or panels don't properly fit, that's a sign it wasn't a thorough fix -- and there could be more issues underneath. We also recommend looking at emblems and badges. A car that was hit in back and lost its emblems may be a sign that the body shop cut corners on the repair.

Title Status

Maybe the biggest thing to consider when you're thinking about buying an accident car is its title status. In many states, a salvage title is issued to a vehicle in which the cost of repairs exceeds its present value. Meanwhile, a rebuilt title is issued when a repaired car has been inspected by the state and meets certain safety criteria.

In both cases, a so-called branded title is a mark that will stay with the car forever. A rebuilt title can never be altered, so the next buyer will know the car has been in an accident. And some insurers won't provide coverage for cars with rebuilt titles, since it's difficult to know their value and condition. As a result, we generally suggest staying away from rebuilt or salvage titles.

Resale Value

One last consideration with accident cars is resale value. If you buy a car knowing it was in an accident, it's likely the next buyer will easily find out the same thing. So while you're paying less up-front for your vehicle, remember you probably won't get as much when you go to sell it -- and keep in mind that your car may be a tough sell.

Equifax and CARFAX both provide services to AutoTrader.com customers

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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Should You Buy a Car That's Been in an Accident?