How to spot damage on a used car

Beyond the CarFax: How to spot damage on a used car

By Jim Cavanaugh - Photographer

Vehicles are typically one of the largest purchases we make as consumers. To keep costs down, lots of people can find savings by buying used. But—how do you know you’re not buying a wrecked car that just looks new?

[WEB EXTRAS: AAA's approved auto repair facilities | Used car checklist ]

Before you even pick up the keys, Mike Cullen of AAA recommended you first check the vehicle history report, like those provided by CarFax.

"You're going to see if the vehicle's been involved in a flood, or you're going to see if it's a rebuilt title," said Cullen. "You're going to avoid title-washing, where if the car was taken out of state and the title was cleaned, and then given a clean title in the state after it was repaired and then brought back into the state to be sold, and you'd never know."

Any other gaps in the vehicle's history that may not be on the report, Cullen said, can often be filled-in by an automotive expert.

"You're not an expert, take it to somebody that is," said Cullen.

News 6 took our producer's used car to R & R Collision in Apopka to have owner John O'Hara check it out. He said the first place to look is at the paint itself.

"You can tell if the vehicle doesn't have any paint on the trim, moldings and what not," said O'Hara. "You have a good sign it's original paint on the car. If the trim's not removed, you can't sand it very well next to the molding. And what's going to happen is the paint flakes off because it didn't adhere properly."

Another way to check for body work is to take a magnet and see if it sticks to the steel panels. If there's a spot where it falls, that panel may have been previously repaired. O'Hara said gaps in the body are another indicator the car may have been involved in an accident.

"You see right here you're closed up," said O'Hara, pointing between the hood and the front fender. "It's almost overlapping. So we have a fit problem right here."

Next, he said, take a look under the hood. Scuffed bolts could mean the hood was removed or replaced.

"Well, here's an indicator here," said O'Hara, referring to the bolts that secure the hood. "You have the corners of the bolt. The paint's chipped off."

Another sign a panel has been replaced? Missing spot welds.

"See those little circle marks?" said O'Hara, pointing to small circles stamped inside the wheel well. "Those are done with a spot welder from the factory. And a lot of the shops don't have spot welders. That's an indicator if you don't see the spot weld, this panel has probably been replaced."

Cars with major damage end up on a machine called a frame rack. Large clamps underneath the vehicle hold it in place during repairs.

"Once we remove these clamps, you're gonna have marks on the pinch weld, and that's an indicator that the car's been in a serious collision," said O'Hara.

Now-- not all of these need to raise a major alarm-- maybe the car has just had a paint touch up. That may even help you negotiate a lower price. But if you find something more serious-- your family's safety could be at risk and you may want to choose another car.
 

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