How To Tell Whether a Used Car Has Been in an Accident

by Cate Rushton

It’s not always easy to spot a car that’s been in an accident, but educated buyers can find evidence of a previous wreck by carefully inspecting the car, checking its title and getting the opinion of a trustworthy mechanic. In addition to possible structural damage, previously wrecked cars are worth less than other used cars with no accident history.

Check the Car’s Title

A car that’s been damaged so badly that it will cost more to repair it than it’s worth is issued a salvage title. Mechanics and hobbyists often buy salvage title vehicles at auction, perform repairs and re-sell the car. In most states, these cars will have a *branded* title that will denote the car as *rebuilt* or *restored.* Not all salvage cars have been in motor vehicle accidents; some have been damaged by floods, storms or vandalism. The title to the car should be in seller’s name and should be issued in your state, or the state where you’re buying the car. Be wary of a title recently issued in another state; people who repair salvage cars often move it to another state in order to obtain a clean title. Check the car’s odometer against the mileage listed on the title to make sure they match.

Inspect the Car

Inspect the car during daylight hours so you can clearly see any damage. Take along a flashlight to look under the car and hood. Some signs that a car has been in an accident include: * Gaps or overlap between the door and fender * Paint overspray on doorjambs, trim and plastic parts such as headlights, taillights and mud flaps * Cracks or damage to the dashboard * Uneven, rough finish that could indicate body filler used to repair dents * Slight paint color difference or finish from one panel to another.

Ask Your Mechanic’s Opinion

While you can often see evidence of a car’s accident history with a visual inspection, some damage is harder to spot. Ask your mechanic to thoroughly inspect a used car before you buy. He can check for after-market mechanical parts, a sure sign that the vehicle has been repaired. People who repair salvage vehicles may use low-quality parts in order to make a profit. Your mechanic also can put the car up on a lift to see damage you may not see during your own inspection.

Learn the Car’s History

Check the car’s history using the vehicle identification number. The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System is managed by the U.S. Department of Justice. It’s purpose is to protect consumers and provide information about vehicles that have been stolen or wrecked. [Order an NMVTIS report](http://www.vehiclehistory.gov/nmvtis_vehiclehistory.html) from an approved vendor. You’ll receive information including: * Current title information and date it was issued * Last known odometer reading * Previous theft * Branded title details * Salvage title history Information in the NMVTIS database is updated immediately when states submit data. Some states report new information every 24 hours; others report every few days. Ordering a NMVTIS report is one way to determine if a car has been wrecked, but not all states participate so there’s no guarantee that an accident will be noted.

About the Author

Cate Rushton has been a freelance writer since 1999, specializing in wildlife and outdoor activities. Her published works also cover relationships, gardening and travel on various websites. Rushton holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Utah.

Photo Credits

  • photo_camera Piotr Sikora/iStock/Getty Images