Identify Previous Car Damage Before You Buy

Shopping for a used car involves a keen eye and a heavy dose of inquisitiveness. Before you buy a used vehicle, here are a few things to ensure you're getting your money's worth.

Ask questions about previous damage or maintenance.

Ask the seller if the car has ever been in an accident or flood. Get details on the extent of damage if the vehicle has been involved in a previous incident. Also ask for the vehicle's maintenance record to verify what service work has been done.

If the vehicle has been in the body shop before, inspect the repaired areas to see the quality of the workmanship. Signs of previous repairs include:

  • Mismatched VIN numbers on the vehicle title, dashboard, driver door panel, hood or trunk
  • Mismatched paint on exterior body parts, or paint over spray on interior parts like door edges and the engine compartment
  • Missing bolts or uneven welding in major areas, such as the front end core support or the trunk.

Buy a vehicle history report.

Get the vehicle's identification number (VIN), then go to www.carfax.com or www.autocheck.com and purchase a vehicle history report. The history will show past owners and damage to the car, as well as mileage and title history. Review the title history for terms such as “salvage” or “rebuilt,” and track previous ownership. Some state motor vehicle departments may also provide some of this information.

Ask a professional to inspect the vehicle.

Take the vehicle to a mechanic or body shop you trust. Have them inspect the vehicle inside and out for previous repairs and the quality of any repair work they discover.

Ask the seller about a warranty.

If buying from a dealer, ask if there is a warranty on the vehicle.

Check out the seller.

Some unscrupulous sellers may try to sell a poorly repaired salvage vehicle, which means it's been totaled before and they've rebuilt it. If you're buying from a car dealer, check out the dealership with the Better Business Bureau. If the seller is an individual, look through the classifieds for other vehicle ads with the same phone number — a sign of an unlicensed broker who sells used vehicles by posing as the owner.

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