10 Signs That a Used Car Has Been in an Accident

Like that last plate at a discounted all-you-can-eat buffet, sometimes you’ve just got to know when to walk away. We recently did a piece on the 10 things that will kill a car, and there was a whole section on avoiding cars with bent frames. Not only should you walk away from a car with frame damage, but if you come across a car that’s being sold with one, you should run.

It isn’t hard to make a car look good after an accident. But a quick cosmetic clean up is very different from a proper repair. There are plenty of things you should look for if you’re buying a used car and want to be sure that it hasn’t been in an accident. Fortunately, buyers have more protective tools at their disposal than ever before, and it all starts with the internet.

A totaled Subaru
A totaled Subaru | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Always get a Carfax report before committing to a new-to-you car. This will tell you how many owners it’s had, how many states it’s been registered in, and most importantly, its accident history. But even if a vehicle drives like a dream and the Carfax report comes back squeaky clean, there’s no guarantee that it hasn’t been wrecked, towed, and repaired under the radar.

All it takes is a single car accident in a remote area, a phone call to a friend who owns a body shop, and some hasty body work and paint and you’ve got a wrecked car that neither the cops or Carfax ever knew about. That may sound unrealistic, but it happens a lot more than you might expect.

Don’t get played for a fool. Know what to look for and don’t be afraid to walk away, but you should also be able to know if the damage is relatively superficial; you can use that as leverage when you haggle. Want to become an expert before you buy your next used car? Just follow these 10 simple steps.

1. Paint in strange places

Old school Honda Civic Hatch
Old school Honda Civic Hatch | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Shady sellers do whatever they can to cover up hasty body work, but more often than not, they’ll leave some pretty big tells. First, look for paint that doesn’t quite match the sheen or texture found on the majority of the vehicle. Also pay close attention to door jams, around the cowl of the hood, and near the fender wells, as these are all places that require extra time, money, and energy to paint properly. If you find various colors anywhere on the vehicle, always ask why. If you don’t get the answer you want, just walk away.

2. It isn’t fine if it’s misaligned

A slammed BMW
A slammed BMW | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Door panels, bumpers, trunk lids, and fenders should always line up with the rest of the car, and these gaps should be evenly spaced and proportional to one another. If you run across a mismatched component on a car, pay close attention to that particular area. Note where everything attaches, if the paint matches, and if there are any signs that it may have been damaged or replaced. Automakers spend a lot of time and energy making sure that everything on a car lines up perfectly. If something looks off, there’s probably a reason why.

3. Bondo is a big no-go

Bondo | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Sometimes a bit of body work and filler to prevent things like rust from spreading is a necessary precautionary step, especially on older cars. But when large patches of the stuff are spread across entire quarter panels, it’s more than likely that something major was covered up. Telltale signs for filler are cross-hatching and streaked lines beneath the paint, and down around fender wells, where shoddy craftsmanship tends to show since typical buyers rarely get on all fours in order to inspect a car closely.

Don’t be a sucker. Crouch down and look along the length of a car for any signs of body work, then run your fingers across any suspicious sections. Remember, every portion of an automobile comes perfectly shaped and silky smooth from the factory. If it doesn’t look or feel that way, then something is amiss.

4. You’ve been framed

A wrecked STI
A wrecked STI | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Probably one of the worst things that could ever befall an automobile is the compromise of its frame. Unfortunately, instead of making correct (but costly) repairs, sneaky body specialists will sometimes try to cover up frame damage by forcing it back to the point where it resembles its original shape. While the accident that caused this malady certainly compromises things, yanking a frame back into shape will oftentimes soften it up even more.

Keep your eyes peeled for uneven headlight sconces, bent cross members, crimped areas around the wheel wells, and the frame rails beneath the rear of the vehicle, as these are all areas that tend to readily show damage.

5. The fresh undercoat cover-up

Rubberized undercoating
Rubberized undercoating | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

One of the key steps in repairing a wrecked car is the application of a rubberized undercoat to the underbelly of a vehicle. This sticky spray protects a car from road grime, salt, and any other form of contaminant, and is a lifesaver up north, where cars tend to get rustier than your dad’s sense of humor.

But as great as this stuff is, take caution: If you see a fresh coat applied to the underside of a used car, something may have been recently replaced. Ask the seller point blank if the vehicle has been in a wreck, chances are your keen eye will catch them off guard and hopefully you’ll get a straight answer. If it’s not because of an accident, at least they took the appropriate steps to protect the undercarriage of the car.

6. If it’s cracked, it could be jacked

A cracked windshield
A cracked windshield | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Cracks across the windshield, especially when they spiderweb out from the cowl can be a hint that a car’s been in an accident. Whatever the cause, this issue should be addressed immediately, as it’s something you can get ticketed for. A busted windshield warrants immediate replacement at the seller’s expense. If they won’t lower the sticker price, then walk away — this is a very basic issue that should have been previously taken care of on their end.

7. The missing fastener disaster

Missing fender clips
Missing fender clips | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

A few plastic clips and a screw or two may sound like a silly issue, but it actually could be the telltale sign of something more serious. Having a few screws loose, especially in the fender liners means that some seriously rough road conditions have been encountered, or worse. By worse, we mean it got in an accident and the guys who put the car back together either couldn’t get everything straight, or they missed a few bolts along the way.

Key places to look for missing bolts, clips, and screws is along the inside of the wheel well, anywhere along the frame/edge of the engine bay, and within the door jams, where fenders and doors typically bolt into the frame.

8. Rusty screws offer clues

A rusted bolted
A rusted bolted | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

Much like missing fasteners, rusted screws and bolts can serve as warning signs when buying a used car. When assembling a vehicle, automakers use specialized assembly tools that won’t mar the paint on bolt heads and screws, so if a bolt or screw head looks chewed-up or a bit rusty, take heed.

If you see a series of rusty, damaged bolts holding a portion of a car’s body onto the frame, take a look at other areas around it. Discovering that just one section of a car has rusty bolts probably means that at some point that area has been smacked around. Point it out to the seller and see what they say.

9. Headlamp replacement misplacement

Hazed headlights
Hazed headlights | Micah Wright/Autos Cheat Sheet

At this point, almost all modern headlamp lenses are made of plastic, and while that saves weight, it also means that there are more foggy-eyed vehicles on the roadways today than ever before. If you’re looking at a vehicle and one headlamp looks brand new and the other is yellow and hazed over, beware, because it may be a tell-tale sign of a crash. If you come across a car with unmatched headlights, pop the hood and look to see if there’s any major damage.

10. Title woes

A six-figure car for a fraction of the price? Sorry, but it’s too good to be true.  | Mercedes-Benz

Let’s say that you skip the Carfax, and you fall in love with a car that’s just too good to be true at its price. That’s because it probably is. More than a few amateur mechanics have tried to flip a car that’s been refurbished after a theft, wreck, or flood, and hope that the buyer doesn’t ask any questions. Make sure the title is clear. If you start to get a story about how it’s been lost, misplace, or just happens to have a pesky “Rebuilt” status, it’s time to cut and run.