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5 Signs a Used Car Has Been in an Accident

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author photo by Aaron Gold October 2016

If you're buying a used car, it's best to avoid one that's had collision damage. Improper crash repair can affect the way a car drives and may even affect the car's ability to protect its occupants in another collision.

We talked to Steve Wellins, a car dealer from New Rochelle, New York. He's been checking out used cars for well over four decades, and he gave us some professional tips and tricks he uses to spot wreck damage.

1. Problems with the paint.

Most collision work involves repainting repaired panels. Good paintwork can be very difficult to detect, but most repaint jobs leave some telltale signs. Make sure the car is clean (a dirty car may be a sign the owner has something to hide!) and look for colors, sheens and finishes that don't quite match up. (Bear in mind that plastic bumpers may be discolored on older cars.) Walk the length of the car and look at the reflections in the bodywork. Waves or changes in luster indicate a panel's been repainted, as does a dull or pebbly finish. Look for paint drips on panel edges and overspray on headlights, taillights, tires, exhaust pipes and non-painted black plastic trim. Open the doors and check the door frames, pillars and weather stripping for overspray, as well.

While you're looking at the paintwork, check the wheels; they should show uniform signs of age and wear (though right-side wheels may have more curb damage). If one or more wheels look newer, that's a sign of replacement, and you'll want to find out why.

2. Inconsistent panel gaps or pillar creases.

Panel gaps, or the spaces between the different body panels on the car, should be fairly uniform. If any parts of the body don't line up properly; if a gap gets wider along its length; if there are differences in width on either side of the panel (i.e., the gap on one side of the trunk lid is larger than the other); or if a panel gap differs significantly on opposite sides of the car (i.e., the gaps between the front doors and the front fenders), it could be a sign the car's had collision damage repaired.

While you're looking at panel gaps, open the doors and have a good look at the pillars connecting the roof to the body of the car. Kinks or creases found on one side but not the other could be a sign of crash damage.

3. Something's not right under the hood (or in the trunk).

This step requires a bit of detective work. As many collisions affect the front end of the car, you'll want to open the hood and look for things that aren't quite right. Do the bolts holding on the fenders match, and does it look like any of their holes have been redrilled? (Don't worry too much about the clips holding on the plastic engine shrouds on some luxury cars; mechanics sometimes fail to replace them after working on the car.) Do the radiator supports look like they've been straightened or damaged? Do the inner body panels bear signs of damage or repair, and are they the same color as the rest of the car? Is there fresh paint or undercoating on the inner bodywork? Are the hood hinges and under-hood bracing the same color as the rest of the body?

Once you've finished your under-hood inspection, open the trunk, remove the carpeting (and, if possible, the fabric panels on the side of the car; they usually come out pretty easily) and check for similar signs of damage. Along with the hinges and trunk lid, pay attention to the bodywork inside the fenders and near the bumper, and look underneath the car where the bumper connects to the body, as these locations could bear evidence of a rear-end collision.

4. Unevenly worn tires.

Uneven tire wear may simply mean the car is out of alignment, but it can also be a sign the car's body has been damaged and straightened. A car that's out of alignment will generally pull to one side; if the car tracks straight and true, but one or more tires shows uneven wear, check to see if the car's been aligned recently (ask for a receipt). If not, the used car could be hiding crash damage. If the steering wheel is off-center, but the car doesn't pull to one side, the body may not be straight.

If possible, wet down the pavement and drive the car straight through the puddle with your hands off the steering wheel, then check the tire tracks. If the front and rear tire tracks don't line up perfectly, that's a good sign the car's suffered collision damage.

5. New parts on the underside.

If possible, get the car up on a mechanic's lift and have a good look underneath. All the parts should show even weathering and wear. If the underside of the car has fresh paint or undercoating; if parts on one side are shinier than their counterparts on the other; or if the overall level of dirt and surface rust doesn't seem consistent with the car's age and mileage, there's a possibility the car's had collision damage repaired.

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.
5 Signs a Used Car Has Been in an Accident - Autotrader