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Used Car Buying Tips: How to Tell If a Car Has Been in an Accident


I have 20 years' experience working in the car industry. I love technology, fashion, movies, sports, reading and a ton of other stuff.

Educate yourself so you don't inherit someone else's accident repaired vehicle

Educate yourself so you don't inherit someone else's accident repaired vehicle

20 Years' Experience

With 20 years' experience working in the car industry, I have seen my fair share of vehicles. Part of my job is to examine cars that customers are wishing to trade in against a newer vehicle. This involves doing a physical inspection of the car to check for defects, rust and also paintwork that is not factory paint. I have learned tricks and techniques to assist me with this task and I wanted to share some with you.

Using these used car buying tips and tricks when examining a car you are looking to purchase could help you avoid buying something you didn't expect. Believe it or not, there are some private sellers and even some dealers (gasp of shock and horror!) out there that will not declare a previous accident on a used car they are selling.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1

1. Colour Test

This is the most obvious sign of after market paintwork on a used car. Take a complete walk around the vehicle and see if any of the panels appear to be a different colour than others. If, for example, a door had been repainted, it is not uncommon for that door to be a slightly different colour than its adjoining panels.

The aftermarket paint process is different than that of the factory and oftentimes, that newly painted panel will fade slightly. The mix that the body shop made up from the paint code on the car can sometimes be slightly off when applied to the car. Be careful with plastic bumpers though, because the factory paint on a plastic bumper can appear slightly off from the same factory paint on a metal fender. In Fig.1 you can see that the front door of the silver car is slightly darker than the rear door.

2. Finger Test

After doing a quick visual inspection, the next thing I do is to walk closely around the car and run my finger along the edges of doors, windows and also the back edge of the hood (see Fig.2). These edges should be smooth if painted at the factory.

Often with after market paint, the person applying the paint will concentrate on the panel finish and the lip of the panel will be left slightly rough or bumpy. This never happens at the factory because the paint is applied before anything else, so it goes on smooth and even. A rough edge normally indicates a panel that has been painted and you should examine it further.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

Fig. 3

3. Overspray Test

When a car goes to a body shop to have damage repaired, the body man will “mask off” the area he is going to be painting. Using tape, he will cover areas not needing to be painted with pieces of paper (see Fig. 3). The tape is run along the trim at the edge of the panel to be painted.

Unless the body man is extremely particular when he does this, he will normally leave a small edge of the black rubber trim exposed around the base of a window, or a molding, or some other area. The result of this is that there will be a small trace of overspray of the panel colour on the black trim. If the car is not black, this will be fairly easy to spot if you look closely. With a black car, you need to examine it very carefully and also use your finger in the same way as the finger test because the overspray will leave a defined line where the edge of the tape was. Also examine the inside of the wheel wells for overspray. One other good place to look is under the hood. If the front end has been painted you will often see overspray on the radiator or rad supports.

4. Sanding Marks Test

If an area of the car was dented and has been repaired, the body man will have possibly filled the dented area with the dreaded “bondo.” This is the name for the polyester resin used by the body man. It is a putty that is mixed with a hardener and then put in the dent and sanded to match the original shape of the panel. Some body men are experts at the sanding, but that is rare.

Usually, if you look closely at a panel, especially with the light shining on it, you can see the sanding marks underneath the paint. This is a telltale sign of aftermarket paintwork as a result of an accident.


5. "Orange Peel" Test

Paint robots put on the factory paint and it is evenly applied resulting in a consistently smooth finished surface. This mechanical system cannot be accurately replicated in the after market paint process. The result of this is that the new paint can sometimes end up with a less than smooth finish. That can look a little bit like the peel of an orange with its rough texture. Squat down at the front corner of the car and look along the panels moving slowly along the vehicle, checking to see if the surface is consistently smooth. Repeat it from the rear of the car back the other way. Then do the same on the other side of the car. I have seen some factory paint appear a little “orange peel” like, but not often. It’s just another indicator of a potential issue and certainly warrants further inspection and questions.

6. Fish-Eye and Drip Test

If the aftermarket body man is not very good you may even be able to see drips or runs in the paint. This is not common unless the paint job was done very cheaply, but I have seen it on several occasions. Another symptom of a sloppy job is a “fish-eye” in the paint. This is usually caused by some oil getting onto the paint before it was dry and leaving a small circular blemish, which is easy to spot. Simply do a close walk around the car and look for such blatant defects in the paint finish.

7. Bolt Head Test

If the front fenders of the car have been replaced or removed to be painted, there is often a tell tale sign under the hood. The bolts that attach the fender to the frame come painted at the factory but if they have been loosened to remove the fender, they will show signs of this. The paint may be stripped of the bolt head. The bolt may not be seated in the same spot after the fender was re-attached which will be easily spotted by an unpainted area being visible where the bolt was originally seated. It may have only moved a millimeter or so, but you will be able to tell. Look closely at all the bolts on the top of the fenders (see Fig. 4).

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

Fig. 5

8. Paint Checker Test

The last test is one that you would probably only undertake if you suspected that there was something just not right about the car but nothing from any of the previous 7 tests came up with any proof. You can use a paint checker to test the depth of the paint on the panels of the car. Paint checkers are not cheap however and would cost in the region of $300 and up for a good one. They determine the depth of the surface on top of the steel.

By checking all the panels around the car you can see if they are all a consistent depth. If one or more panel were significantly thicker than the others it would indicate after market paintwork. The depths are usually measured in “mils” and 1 mil = 1/1000th of an inch. A typical reading would be between 4 and 7 mils (Fig. 5) but I have seen readings as high as 25 on a painted panel. This would be a costly way to check unless you know someone who happens to have a paint checker.


There are a surprisingly high percentage of vehicles on the road that have had aftermarket paint work done to them. The majority of those are as a result of an accident. However, some are painted due to malicious damage and some through personal choice. Remember that just because a car has had an accident, it does not mean it is a bad car. Many “fender-benders” are relatively minor and the car will serve you well for years to come.

My desire is that a potential buyer reading this might be able to use these car buying tips and go into their used car purchase just a little bit wiser and better educated so as to not get taken for a ride literally and figuratively at the same time!

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.


briannaeric on July 23, 2020:

Thank you so much for these valuable para’s. It will be much useful for everyone who is going to buy used cars. Keep updating more and more.

Madonna Luciana on July 01, 2020:

Buying a car that has met a severe accident before is highly a riskier thing. So, we must check vehicle details thoroughly before buying a used car. The only way to know whether the vehicle has been in an accident before is to take a vehicle history check report. Take a look at this site https://cardotcheck.co.uk/vehicle-check, I recently came across. They are proving a lot of information on free vehicle history check reports.

Lamster on July 03, 2019:

A Ford Cougar at work was smashed up by one of the employees.

As it was almost new it was repaired.

It had new hood fenders grills and bumper at front.

You could tell because the aftermarket paint was smooth unlike the crappy orange peel job from Ford

ROB on April 26, 2019:

Good article!

Linda paeleman on February 14, 2019:

Free Vehicle Check History:

Driving a car which is written off is extremely risky and that’s why we at Car Analytics provide a Free Vehicle History Check which you can utilize to purchase a used car.

Prince Clement on October 31, 2017:

Thanks this information really helps.

Jeannie on February 24, 2017:


Hi. I'm looking at a car and I became suspicious when looking around the spare wheel because I saw a light coat of paint over the bottom of the boot. It was over the seals too. Would this be done by the manufacturer or has it been repainted?

Pete, thank you so much for caring about people and what they buy. Top man!

lupine on September 22, 2016:

Again, dealers will not tell you the truth about vehicles. They just want to make the sale. After the sale, they don't want to hear about problems, and won't be available. It's up to the buyer to check out the vehicle before any deal and signing. Don't be pressured into buying, take your time.

Tammy on July 02, 2016:

We bought a Yukon XL in August 2014 being told that the miles that were on it were from the dealerships owners family. 4 months later paint starts falling off, major mechanical and electrical issues have been coming to the surface for a year and a half now. We have confirmed that the entire truck has been repainted and the carpets replaced. I am thinking that this car was in a flood or trying to come up with an explanation as to why this would have been done, and not getting any answers from dealership and they're family. if it was in a flood it would have been about a year before we bought it so some time has passed. All of the seats and bolts holding them in appear brand new with the exception of the drivers seat (that was the only part that showed previous use) that one had paint corrosion and a whitish film on the computer case, as to where the passenger one does not. I have been in the dealership almost every week for quite some time trying to get answers and they just keep denying anything happened to this truck. Nothing an any vehicle reports. They have had 2 experts look at the truck and came back with "Yes the truck was painted and yes the carpet has been replaced" Is there anything else I can look for to prove that this truck has had something happen to it. I find it very odd that the only people that have had this car are family members of a dealership. (I checked with DMV) they apparently bought the truck within a month of it arriving at the dealership from the factory ,by what the title information shows.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 26, 2016:

@Becca - you can NEVER be certain that any car dealer will be completely honest with you. Make sure you ask the question about accident history and ask for a report such as CarProof. It would be worth getting the dealer to put in writing on the contract that the car is accident free in case you find something afterwards. Follow my guide here and hopefully you will find the answer yourself and be able to confront the dealer, or catch him/her in a lie.

lupine from Southern California (USA) on April 26, 2016:

@pjones1969 Still, not all accidents get reported, when it's sometimes just easier to pay cash and not use insurance co. This especially occurs if a teenager was driving, and parents prefer to settle with another driver, if willing. Otherwise, insurance rates would greatly increase. That's why it's always wise to look for signs of previous damage and repairs.

Becca on April 26, 2016:

Question: If buying a used car from a dealer, are they supposed to tell you if there has been a paint job done, even on a portion of the car?

April on March 25, 2016:

Going through the tough phase of finding car, This comes handy. Thank you so much.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on April 09, 2015:

It is very true that not ALL accidents are reported. Many people with minor repairs will pay to have them fixed to avoid insurance deductibles and increases in premiums. Just because a car has no "reported" accidents, does not mean it has NO accidents. Buyer beware always!

Pam from Arizona on April 09, 2015:

@lupine You are right that not all accidents get reported, but it is my understanding that if it is covered through insurance it must be reported. However, many people will have a high deductible to save on insurance costs...so in this case they will choose to pay cash for a minor repair and that is when it does not get reported.

I could be wrong, but recently I hit a license plate frame on the highway, and while you would think this is no big deal, the tire kicked it up and flung it into my door of a 2015 Toyota Corolla. Such a bummer!

My first thought was that this nice little ding was going to devalue my brand new car even more than taking it off the lot did. It was through talking to friends in the business that I learned this could be repaired for far less than my 1,000 deductible, and when it is cash it does not need to be reported. Hopefully they do a great job as it really is a very minor repair, but right in the middle of the door. :(

Thanks for this information, I hope mine passes all the tests listed here. Lol

jj on January 31, 2015:

(for pete - nice site. And thanks for not making me register, just to make a minor comment). You can use this if you want, and change it to fit. I just wanted to say thanks.

jj on January 31, 2015:

My neighbor bought a 2yo Honda. After someone ran into her, she got an estimate for damages. They found damage from a previous accident. Some suspension mount parts had been welded back on, and not in a good way. The car was totaled. She got lucky!

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on October 02, 2014:

My pleasure. Glad I could use my expertise to help you. Good luck with your search.

Thomas Bensen from Wisconsin on October 01, 2014:

Thanks for the tips my son is going to be in the market for his first car in the next month and and this is very useful.

question on August 13, 2014:

If done by a good mechanic after filling the dent with the dreaded putty will the car look the same or will it never look the same again

Clara Voz from Osaka, Japan on April 18, 2013:

These tips are great and can save a buyer from unpleasant surprises and thousands of dollars wasted on lemons !

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on March 13, 2013:

@joym7 - glad to be of help to you.

Joy from United States on March 13, 2013:

Good hub. I'll check out car when I would go to buy a used car.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on March 03, 2013:

@lupine Agreed about CARFAX and other such reporting agencies. That's why the other tips should all be considered to avoid buying something you didn't expect.

lupine from Southern California (USA) on March 03, 2013:

This knowledge is great because you will know what you are looking at, not what someone is telling you, or not telling you. Be aware that not all repair shops report to "vehicle reporting" companies, such as CARFAX, which means you are not getting a completely reliable report.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on March 03, 2013:

Yes, dealers mostly overprice their cars banking on customers being ignorant of many factors that set a car's value. Thanks for the comment.

Jane Katigbak from Philippines on March 03, 2013:

Very helpful especially to people who wants to buy a used car. This can also help them bargain with the price they desire because sometimes dealers are overpricing it.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on February 20, 2013:

@Lyricalvibes - you are most welcome. Thanks for checking it out.

Reza Vergara from Orange County, CA. on February 19, 2013:

thank you for this hub very informative and helpful !

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on February 09, 2013:

@JanMaklak - I agree with you totally. You should always have an independent mechanic check out a potential purchase ahead of time. As for curbsiders, they are a danger to the public as they have no legislation to govern them.

JanMaklak from Canada on February 09, 2013:

These points are excellent. I think a mechanic is also important. There can be a lot of sins hidden under the hood. In Ontario curbside dealers have been outlawed as a result of some of the shenanigans that ave gone on.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on February 05, 2013:

@cabmgmnt - too many dealers don't want you to know these things so they can pull the wool over your eyes. Glad I could help.

Corey from Northfield, MA on February 05, 2013:

These are excellent tips and I thank you for sharing them. Other than running a Vehix report, I oftened wondered about how to tell if there was ever an accident, now I know what to look at.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on February 05, 2013:

@DDE - you hit the nail on the head - most people just don't know what to look for and suffer as a result. Knowledge is power in this area.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on February 05, 2013:

@iguidenetwork - thanks for reading and commenting. Appreciate the votes and sharing too!

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on February 05, 2013:

A well explained Hub and good points made when buying a car sometimes one won't even know of such points mentioned here thanks

iguidenetwork from Austin, TX on February 04, 2013:

Very informative and helpful hub, I'll keep this as a reference just in case I'd trade my car or buy another used car. Voted up, useful and shared. :)

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on February 04, 2013:

@newusedcarssacram - seemed only right to share what I have experienced to help others. Many are so unaware of these things. Thanks for commenting.

newusedcarssacram from Sacramento, CA, U.S.A on February 03, 2013:

Wow, these tips sound very effective. These will be very helpful for people who are willing to buy used cars. Thanks for sharing your experience.

lupine from Southern California (USA) on December 04, 2012:

Thanks petenali - Your hub will help those not familiar with the body and paint process, as they may not be familiar with the applications and variations in quality.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on December 04, 2012:

@lupine - your comments are very true. There are definitely some bodymen who do amazing work. The paint checker test should still find that out too as you can't easily hide the paint depth.

With body work (like most things) you get what you pay for. Less cost equals poorer paint job.

My goal here was to try to help the layman to identify paint work of the quality done by many body shops.

Thanks for your input - maybe you should "hub" about the painting process and the different qualities of jobs done out there...?

lupine from Southern California (USA) on December 04, 2012:

Good tips...being in this type of business, the obvious signs you have stated in your hub are due to poor work mostly. There is no reason for a good bodyman to leave any sanding marks, that's just not right. As for orange peel and fisheye, they didn't add the required products to help eliminate this...that's a sign of cutting back on cost of materials. In other words, if you run into a car with these defects or tell-tale-signs of being repainted, the owner or car dealer just wanted a quick and cheap paint job...and that could be what they requested.

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on December 01, 2012:

@Ruby - more than glad to share my experience.

Maree Michael Martin from Northwest Washington on an Island on December 01, 2012:

Some really great tips here that I didn't know about. Thanks!

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on November 27, 2012:

@tipstoretireearly - Thanks for the visit and comment. Glad to have helped.

tipstoretireearly from New York on November 27, 2012:

Great advice that might help me save thousands on my next used car!

Pete (author) from Ontario, Canada on August 04, 2012:

@JAWebber - being on the inside, you would be amazed at how many people don't ask the obvious questions when buying a used car. They literally throw themselves like lambs to the wolves. I hope to help educate buyers through hubs I write about tips for buying used cars...

Thanks for stopping by.

JAWebber on July 29, 2012:

Great article. Very informative. I'm amazed at how many people buy cars before they do simple inspections like this.

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