If you’re like me, you don’t buy new cars. While the new car smell and prestige is nice, to be sure, you pay more, and take an instant depreciation hit the minute the vehicle leaves the lot. After my last new car purchase nearly twenty years ago, I decided that it made more sense to buy a car that was a couple of years old, with 20 – 30 thousand miles on it. Somebody else has taken the depreciation, the car has been broken in, and you can still get into a nice ride for a decent price.
Of course the down side to buying a used car is that you do not know how it was treated by its previous owner, nor do you know its history as far as accidents or mechanical problems. A mechanic can certainly tell you if the car has had or still has issues, but a vehicle that has been wrecked can also become a headache.
Cars that have been in accidents, particularly serious ones, are never quite the same again. Their alignment might be off, making them reluctant to travel in a straight line. This also causes the tires to wear unevenly. Body panels may not fit correctly, and paint work may not match exactly from one panel to the other.
This is not to say that you can’t or shouldn’t buy a car that has been in an accident, merely that it is better to know and be aware of it before making your purchase. Many times it may mean nothing at all, and others may mean that the vehicle is going to have a very difficult life ahead of it.
So when you are looking at that shiny new prospect, dig a little deeper and look for some of the telltale signs of an accident in its past.
Check for paint over spray on the door hinges or weather stripping, as well a chrome accessories and lens covers. Overspray might also be present within the wheel wells, engine wells, and trunk. This is usually a sign of very poor body work.
Look to see if there are minute differences in shading of the paint from one body panel to another. If the paint doesn’t match, there is a good chance the panel has been repainted or replaced altogether.
In addition, make sure the body panels fit together properly. The small gap between panels should be consistent over the whole car. If the gaps are too wide or too close in some areas, this may be a clue that the vehicle has been in an accident.
Listen for rattles in the dash, seats, and trunk. And check the glove box. Often, body shops and garages will leave their business card in the glove box, which is a surefire indicator of recent work.
See if the vehicle has a tendency to pull to the left or the right disproportionately. All vehicles will drift slightly, but sudden, obvious drift is a red flag.
Look for the manufacturer’s logo, such as Chevrolet, on the windshield. If it isn’t there, chances are it is a replacement piece.
Be sure to get the car up on a lift and access the undercarriage. In some cases, warped frames may be bent back into shape. The machine that performs this task will leave telltale “teeth marks” in the frame. If you see these marks, ask a lot of questions.
You should also realize what happens to vehicles that are “totaled”. Too often we assume that these are the cars and trucks we see piled high in your local junkyard. This isn’t always the case. Sometimes these totaled vehicles are sold off at salvage auctions. The buyers either use them for spare parts, or in some cases have them reconstructed. A totaled vehicle can be rebuilt and even driven, but it is the last car in the world you would want to buy.