How to Inspect a Used Car For Damage

Car accidents happen hundreds of times every day, and sometimes cars are repaired under-the-table without having been reported. Some cars get squashed while others are sold for scrap, but there are also those that can get repaired and put back on the used car market. For this, it’s important know some methods to check a used vehicle to see if it has been in an accident.

The ability to assess past damage can help you determine the real value of a car to further determine whether or not those damages can have an effect on the car in the future, and also, most importantly, it can help you determine whether the car is safe or not. Here are a few simple ways you can inspect a car for past accidents and damages using nothing more than some investigative prowess and couple of your senses.

Method 1 of 1: Use a car report and thoroughly check the vehicle for anything that doesn’t seem right in the paint and the body

Step 1: You should always check the Carfax report first. When you go car shopping at a dealership, they should have an up-to-date report on hand for you to look over. If you’re buying a car privately, the seller may not have a report. Either request one, or get one yourself. This report will show you a complete documented history of the vehicle in question including claims, accident reports, maintenance, lien information, fleet, flood damage, odometer tampering, and more. This report can give you a great idea of what to look for if you go to see the vehicle.

person inspecting vehicle

Step 2: Inspect the paint all around the car. Start by looking for more obvious damages like cracks, dents, and scratches, and then work your way down.

Stand at a distance and check different parts of the car to see if the paint color matches all the way around. If it doesn’t match the car most definitely had some work done.

Get closer to the vehicle and crouch down at an angle to see if the reflection is smooth. If the reflection is uneven or blurry, it was probably repainted. In this situation, also lookout for is peeling clear coat. If there was a sloppy paint job, you might see drip.

Step 3: Take your hand and feel the paint. Is it smooth or rough? Paint from the factory is almost always smooth because it’s done by a machine, and it’s impossible for a person to replicate it.

If you see some textural differences in the paint (usually from sandpaper), you will probably be able to feel them, too. If there are rough spots from paint or body filler (or both), this requires further inspection and questioning.

paint overspray in inner door

Step 4: Check for overspray. If you see and feel rough paint, open the doors and check for overspray. There is never overspray on a new vehicle because the parts are painted before they’re assembled. If you see paint on the plastic trim or wiring, it is possible evidence of body repair.

arrows pointing at bolts under the hood

Step 5: Check under hood. Check under the hood and look at the bolts that connect the hood to the hinges, and the fenders to the body. The bolts should be completely covered in paint, and there should be no marks. If paint is missing, it’s likely that the car was repaired.

close up of bumper not meeting quite flush

Step 6: Check the body panels and see how they fit together. Are they flush with the doors and frame? Are either of the bumpers loose? If anything seems offset, there is a good chance repairs were done. The best thing to do in this scenario is to check the opposite side for differences. If both sides do not match, this is an obvious sign of repairs.

Step 7: Check the windshield, and all the other windows, as well. Are they chipped, cracked, or is there any webbing? How well do the side windows fit into the frame when they’re rolled up? Anything other than a perfect fit could be a sign that there was an accident.

person inspecting side panels of the vehicle

Step 8: Another good inspection is to check the lines of the car. The body lines must be perfectly straight, and the best way to check them is to squat down to inspect them at eye-level. Look for dents or bumps that indicate body work was done, or that dents were hammered out.

car rust under fender

Step 9: Check the car for rust. A little bit of rust on the body is sometimes not a big deal, but once the corrosion process begins, it’s very difficult to stop. Check for areas under the car and around the edges where rust might exist. If you see signs of repair from rust damage it will be obvious and very rough. In some cases, you might even see very thin metal or holes.

  • Warning: Bad rust damage compromises the integrity of the structure, and cars of this nature should always be avoided for safety purposes.

discoloration around car speaker

Step 10: Check to see if the car was flooded. Any flooded vehicle should show up on a vehicle history report, but in the case that an insurance claim wasn’t reported, make sure you know what to look out for.

Even if the car looks good and runs well, open the door and look at the mesh of the speakers, usually toward the bottom of the door. Any discolor might be from dirty water stains. Another way to confirm this is to remove a piece of the center console trim and check behind it. If there is a mark with a clear line, this indicates murky water and obvious flood damage. A car in this state should always be avoided.

In addition to inspecting the car yourself, it's important to have a mechanic look it over for proper function and operational elements that are not visible to the naked eye. Get a pre-purchase inspection, which comes with a full inspection and a list of expected repairs with how much they cost, so you can know the true price and condition of the car you're interested in purchasing.


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Caz

17 years of experience
57 reviews
Caz
17 years of experience
Honda Insight - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Acworth, Georgia
Patient, thorough, professional and takes his time to explain things. This is the second time I have used Caz's services, and he consistently delivers. Look forward to working with him again.
Volvo XC90 - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Alpharetta, Georgia
My husband and I are looking for a reliable used car for our teenage drivers. We had two that we were considering and wanted to have them inspected prior to purchasing. Caz did a thorough inspection of both vehicles and recommended we walk away from both. We really appreciated his transparency and knowledge. We will definitely use Caz again.

Chris

22 years of experience
2001 reviews
Chris
22 years of experience
Porsche Macan - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Irvine, California
Chris you as so knowledgeable and really out my mid at ease with the private seller purchase. Highly recommend to anyone shopping for a car :)
Lexus ES300h - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Temecula, California
Amazing guy.... called and gave me what felt to be his honest and straightforward opinion on my vehicle.... def will book him again in the future for work

Casey

19 years of experience
27 reviews
Casey
19 years of experience
Hyundai Santa Fe - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Katy, Texas
Casey is awesome. Helped me fully understand the health of the used vehicle I was buying for my mother in law. Great service and very knowledgeable for sure. Casey found only one issue we needed to deal with and was able to book the repair just a few days later.

Colby

14 years of experience
21 reviews
Colby
14 years of experience
Ford Ranger - Pre-purchase Car Inspection - Longmont, Colorado
Colby called to notify me he was in route to the inspection--to ease my mind and to ask if there was anything in particular/extra I wanted him to check out. He was going to do a pre-purchase inspection of a 2002 Ford Ranger. He assured me that I hired the right guy since he'd worked for Ford for 13 years. An hour or so later, he called me while he was driving home to discuss his inspection. I could ask him everything I wanted as we dialogued. That was so helpful! And way more personable and real than just reading the report he emailed. The report was thorough and included a test drive. He had recommendations for some work to be immediately done; rotors & brake pads. Then, included the cost for him to do that work should I choose. The price was fair and not crazy expensive. I'm still deliberating on whether to have that done or to wait for my mechanic to do it once I have the truck. Thank you again Colby.

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