Misaligned body panels are a good indicator of damage.

Misaligned Body Panel
Credit: Tommy Daspit tommydaspit.com

Has this car been wrecked?

Are you considering buying a used car and are concerned that it may have played a starring role in an automotive cage match?

While you may think that everything looks great, the paint is shiny, everything looks like it is where it is supposed to be. Those 22” chrome wheels look so sweet! However, before you commit your hard earned bucks, find out if it has ever been wrecked. Why?

  • Lower resale value - If the car has been in an accident, even a minor one, it will have a lower value than one that has not. Even if you don’t notice, the next person after you might and if you paid too much then you will get a double whammy when you trade or sell it down the road.
  • Potential problems - There are many body shops that have highly skilled technicians that take pride in their work. There are many who use high quality parts and the best tools. Unfortunately there are many that don’t. They use inferior aftermarket and/or used parts. Sometimes they lack the skill, ability, or resources to work on cars that are more and more advanced all the time. In my career I have seen many cars come in with strange malfunctions and breakdowns that were directly related to poor workmanship or parts from a collision repair. I have seen bolts left off, incorrect parts used, and things not working as the should. Sometimes these problems don’t present themselves until later when you have little to no recourse. If you are the unfortunate owner you could be left holding the bag for big repair bills. Here is a real life example: A man brought in the nice, modern, luxury car that he had recently purchased used. Nearly every warning light was on, the brakes behaved strangely, and was nearly undrivable. The car had been in a rear end collision and not properly put back together. The rear suspension was leaking and the computer controlled braking system was badly malfunctioning. Total cost to get everything working right was nearly $7,000.00. If he had known that it had been previously wrecked he could have avoided that fate.
  • Looks - A repaired car may look great from a distance but on closer inspection: body panel alignment, paint defects, and color matching can become noticeable. Sometimes things just don’t hold up as well for very long.
  • Safety - A car that has had structural damage or had airbags deploy, or has inferior parts just isn't as safe. It is impossible to know how well they will do in a second accident.

How do I know if a car has been beaten up?

  1. You can ask the owner. Most people will answer honestly if asked directly. However, in the case of a dealership, they may have little to no history on the car. Many pre-owned cars at dealerships come from auctions and they have no personal connection with the previous owner. There is always the risk of the unscrupulous in either case.
  2. Check the online reports. There are a couple of popular used car history sites that can often tell you if there has been a reported accident or branded title. There are two words of caution here. One, they aren’t always 100% correct. I have seen cars erroneously listed as accident free. Two, they don’t necessarily tell you how severe the accident was if it is listed. There is a major difference in a parking lot fender bender and a broadside that deployed six airbags.
  3. Learn what to look for and check the car over yourself. Here are the techniques to become an automotive detective:
  4. Look for the stickers. When a brand new car is being assembled at the factory a sticker with the cars VIN (vehicle identification number) is placed on each body panel. Open every car door and you should see it on the door jam. There will be one on the underside of the hood and the trunk lid. Many will be visible on the front and rear bumpers but not always. Replacement body panels don’t have these stickers. So if you see a body part without the sticker, the hood for example, you will know that it is not original.
  5. Feel the paint. Original factory paint will be smooth to the touch anywhere you feel it. Paint applied by a body shop, especially a lower quality one, will feel rough. It is especially easy to feel where panels are attached to the body. Open the hood and run your fingers along the front panel where it is bolted to the body. If it feels like sandpaper then the paint is not original.
  6. Look for color mismatches. All of the paint color should be the same shade. This even applies to the area under the hood and inside the trunk. If it doesn’t look quite right then it probably isn't. In an extreme case I opened the hood on a white car and the engine bay was blue!
  7. Look for defects in the paint. It is really hard to get a body shop paint booth as clean as a new car factory. There will often be little specs of dust or tiny air bubbles in the paint. On really bad paint jobs you will actually see runs and can feel bumps in the surface.
  8. Run your hand along the gaps where panels come together. Everything should feel level going from one panel to another. If things are misaligned and uneven, it’s a good sign that things have been straightened out or replaced.
  9. Gaze at the glass. It is not uncommon for a windshield to be replaced a time or two in a cars life. However, it is exceedingly rare for the back or side windows to be replaced. Factory installed glass will have the manufactures logo stamped on the glass, aftermarket glass will not.
  10. Check to make sure everything works. Very often I see cars that the windshield washers don’t work because they weren’t hooked up or were installed improperly after body work. This is true of headlights, turn signals, and wipers as well.
  11. Look for safety malfunction lights. If the SRS (supplemental restrain system), ABS (anti lock brake system), or VSC (vehicle stability control) malfunction lights are on, then pass. Those systems are usually nonfunctional when those are illuminated.
  12. Lastly, test drive it! If it doesn’t handle, brake, or sound right, it could mean that there are suspension or brake problems. It never ceases to amaze me how many people will buy a car never having test driven it. Don’t skip this step!

If nothing else, take it to a reputable independent repair shop. Many have a pre-purchase inspection service. They will look the car over and let you know if there are any concerns. If the owner or dealer isn't willing to have the car checked over by an independent shop then it’s probably a good sign to move on.

Look for VIN stickers on body panels to see if they are original.

Door Jam VIN sticker
Credit: Tommy Daspit tommydaspit.com