Buying used cars: 5 signs a car has been in an accident

Arif · Aug 21, 2020 02:00 PM

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A knight in shining armor is a man who has never had his metal truly tested. Likewise, a pristine looking car is a car that hasn’t been driven much. While the former may be an inspirational phrase, the latter is a sign of a good used car.

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When shopping for a used car, it is normal to see dings, scratches, or the occasional putty. Small damages are good for bargaining, but a used car with major damage is much better avoided. Whether or not to go on with the purchase is entirely up to you. This entry only serves to point things out.

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The question is, how do we check for damage on a used car?

The simple rule to checking for hidden damage is CONSISTENCY. Does the left match the right? Is the paint consistent? Is everything else consistent? That’s really the gist of it.

To simplify things, let’s go through five simple signs that a car has been in an accident. There are obviously more than five signs for this matter, but we will be focusing on what you could easily spot with a simple exterior inspection.

1. Mismatched paint

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The first and easiest thing to spot on a damaged car is mismatched paint. Usually, only the affected areas are resprayed. Spray painting an entire car is expensive, and in most cases, it is cheaper to have the panel replaced entirely.

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At Wapcar, we use a paint meter to check the paint thickness of each body panel to see how consistent it is. Fret not if you don’t have a paint meter, mismatched paint on a damaged car is quite easy to spot under good light. Have a look at these pictures and see if you can spot the difference in paint tone.

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Photo: samarins.com

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Photo: samarins.com

Easy right? Always make it a point to view a used car under good light.

2. Scuffed or new nuts and bolts

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Next, pay attention to the nuts and bolts. Usually, nuts and bolts are painted together with the rest of the car. Look at the picture above and you will see the bolts holding the door in place. Notice that the bolts are scuffed

What does that mean?

Well in this particular case, the door had been replaced.

Why was the door replaced?

Because it was damaged in an accident.

Here’s a different example with one bolt covered in paint marker and another bolt left unpainted:

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Left bolt unpainted, right bolt with paint marker. Photo: camaro6.com

3. “New” Headlights or other parts

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A five-year-old car should have a five-year-old headlight covers, a five-year-old radiator, and a five-year-old grill. If any of these things look “new” to you, the car has most likely been in a frontal collision. Mismatched headlights are an easy giveaway. To reconfirm your suspicions, look out for odd welding marks and creased panels in the front area.

4. Body Filler or Putty 

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Photo: autotrainingcentre.com

If you’ve had your car sent to a body shop, you’ve probably seen body filler, or putty. They are fillings that are used for body repair work. Made of resin and hardener, putty is not metal. To tell whether an area has been repaired with the body filler, you can use a simple magnet. DO NOT SLIDE THE MAGNET AROUND. You will scratch the surface of the car by doing that. Gently check if the magnet sticks to the panel or not.

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Body filler is easier to spot at the wheel arch.

If an area should be made of metal, the magnet should stick. If it doesn't, it's putty. While putty can be tough to spot on flat surfaces of the car (without a magnet), it is usually obvious at the wheel arches. Check all four corners for signs of putty.

5. Misaligned panels

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Lastly, check the panel gaps of the car. Check if the left-side and right-side match. Returning a damaged car to its exact original condition is virtually impossible. If the car has been rear ended, the gaps on the left and right side of the trunk/boot will most likely not match.

Note that when we mention misaligned body panel gaps, we are referring to variations between left-right side. It is very normal for panel gaps to expand and narrow as you run your fingers along the same side. 

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Differences of 0.5 mm to 1.0 mm between the left and right side are common even in brand-new cars (not visible to naked eye). At Wapcar, we check for body panel gaps when we conduct reviews. In accident-damaged vehicles, the difference in left and right gaps are usually visible to the naked eye.

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Notice the difference in panel gap between the left and right photo. Photo: clublexus.com

While you’re at it, check out how well the panels (doors, boot, hood) open and close too. Creaking sounds and hard-to-close doors are telling signs of a previous accident.

Summary

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When shopping for a used car, look out for these five telling signs of a previous accident. You can use small damages to your advantage and negotiate for a better price, but cars with major accident history are much better avoided. 

Stay tuned for more used car buying guides on wapcar.my.

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Arif

Writer

Previously an engineer in an automotive manufacturing company and a highway concessionaire. A part-time research student on biofuels and diesel engines. Obsessed with vehicle electrification and the future of transportation.

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