Skip to main content

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

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
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 of Experience

With 20 years of 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: Colour Test

Fig. 1: Colour Test

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. 3: Overspray Test. After-market painting and body work can be identified if you know what to look for.

Fig. 3: Overspray Test. After-market painting and body work can be identified if you know what to look for.

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.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4

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. 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 seven 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 panels 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.

A Little Knowledge Goes a Long Way

There is a surprisingly high percentage of vehicles on the road that have had aftermarket paintwork done to them. The majority of those are as a result of an accident. However, some are painted due to malicious damage, and some are 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.