Used Car Buying Tips: How to tell if a car has been in an accident

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 & 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 & 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 then 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!

Comments 41 comments

JAWebber profile image

JAWebber 4 years ago

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

petenali profile image

petenali 4 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@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.

tipstoretireearly profile image

tipstoretireearly 3 years ago from New York

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

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

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

Ruby H Rose profile image

Ruby H Rose 3 years ago from Northwest Washington on an Island

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

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@Ruby - more than glad to share my experience.

lupine profile image

lupine 3 years ago from Southern California (USA)

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.

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@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 profile image

lupine 3 years ago from Southern California (USA)

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.

newusedcarssacram profile image

newusedcarssacram 3 years ago from Sacramento, CA, U.S.A

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.

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

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

iguidenetwork profile image

iguidenetwork 3 years ago from Austin, TX

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. :)

DDE profile image

DDE 3 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

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

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

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

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@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.

cabmgmnt profile image

cabmgmnt 3 years ago from Northfield, MA

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.

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@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.

JanMaklak profile image

JanMaklak 3 years ago from Canada

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.

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@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.

Lyricalvibes profile image

Lyricalvibes 3 years ago from Orange County, CA.

thank you for this hub very informative and helpful !

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

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

dmvjane profile image

dmvjane 3 years ago from Philippines

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.

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

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

lupine profile image

lupine 3 years ago from Southern California (USA)

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.

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@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.

joym7 profile image

joym7 3 years ago from United States

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

petenali profile image

petenali 3 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@joym7 - glad to be of help to you.

truckdriversafety profile image

truckdriversafety 3 years ago from Osaka, Japan

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

question 2 years ago

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

bensen32 profile image

bensen32 2 years ago from Round Lake Park

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.

petenali profile image

petenali 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada Author

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

jj 21 months ago

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!

jj 21 months ago

(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.

pjones1969 profile image

pjones1969 18 months ago from Arizona

@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 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

petenali profile image

petenali 18 months ago from Ontario, Canada Author

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!

April 7 months ago

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

Becca 6 months ago

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?

lupine profile image

lupine 6 months ago from Southern California (USA)

@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.

petenali profile image

petenali 6 months ago from Ontario, Canada Author

@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.

Tammy 3 months ago

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.

lupine 4 weeks ago

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.

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