Checking Used Cars for Collision Damage
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Checking Used Cars for Collision Damage

Almost any car accident will cause major cosmetic and structural damage. If repaired correctly, the look, function and safety of the vehicle can be restored. You might make sure this happens when your own car is in a collision, but what about a car you’re about to buy? Here are some ways you can identify collision damage and poor repairs, so you can avoid a lemon.

VIN Checks

The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) is a unique number assigned to each vehicle. It includes information about the manufacturer, model, trim level and equipment. This number can identify the vehicle through government and private agencies, letting you find out the history of the vehicle.

The National Insurance Crime Bureau offers free vehicle reports using their VINCheck tool. It’s not detailed, but it will catch most major accidents and title changes. However, it can take up to 6 months for incidents to show up in the database.

Third-party reports from companies like Carfax, Autocheck, VehicleHistory, and VINCheckPro will have more detailed information about the vehicle. Some used car dealers will offer these reports for free, as they have subscriptions to these services to avoid buying lemons for resale. You can also get a short-term subscription to check vehicles you’re looking at, whether they’re at a dealer or being sold privately.

Using a VIN check is not foolproof. In fact, it’s possible to buy a vehicle that has been repaired terribly that actually has a clean CARFAX. Unfortunately, we’ve seen a lot of this. These unscrupulous body shops can wash titles and use non-tracked parts (often stolen) and the vehicle is NEVER the same. These reports only show documented information, including title changes and claims filed with insurance companies. There may still be damage from accidents and unreported incidents. Carefully examining the car can clue you into poor repairs and unrepaired damaged.

Overspray and Poorly Matched Paint

Overspray is paint that spreads to areas that don’t need to be painted. The most obvious areas to spot this overlap is on door and window seals. If these seals aren’t carefully taped or removed from the vehicle, they can be covered in paint.

Due to fading and age, even using the correct factory color will create mismatched colors. It may also be a sign that a body panel was replaced without being repainted to match the rest of the car.

Misaligned Doors

Doors, trunks, hatches, and tailgates should close easily. Some wind noise is normal, but if it seems loud, the doors and windows aren’t creating a tight seal. The smell of mold and damp floors are both indicators that water is entering the cab, either from a bad seal or a leaking heater core.


In major accidents, the frame will crumple to absorb the impact, protecting the passengers inside. When rebuilding the vehicle, severely bent sections are replaced with new metal. These repairs should be hard to spot. If you see mismatched metal and sloppy welds, it’s possible that the frame is then weak and misaligned. This can cause handling problems and will make the vehicle less safe in the next accident.

Airbags and Seatbelts

Do the airbag sections of the dash, steering wheel or doors look out of place? If the colors of these parts don’t quite match the interior, there’s a good chance these parts were replaced.

Modern seatbelts have a single-use gas-charged pre-tensioner that locks the belt in place during an accident. This keeps the passenger from moving around in the cabin, reducing the chance of injury. Once this mechanism activates, the seatbelt needs to be rebuilt or replaced. If the seatbelt doesn’t retract normally, the tensioner may have been released without repairing the belt.

Body Lines, Panel Gaps and Body Filler

Unless you’re looking at an antique car, the gaps between the panels should be even. A professional auto body shop will take care to get each panel aligned perfectly, but poor repairs and minor accidents will make these gaps uneven.

Modern paintless dent repair allows minor dents to be pushed out without resorting to the use of filler. However, it’s still used for fine imperfections to create a flat finish that will look like new when painted. Magnets used to be the tool of choice when checking for body filler, but they won’t stick to aluminum, plastic or carbon fiber. Instead, you should trust your eyes. Look at the side of the vehicle from the front and back corners. If the surface looks wavy, or the paint reflection isn’t even, the car has had some bodywork. Feel around the areas that look out of place. If you notice a change in texture, that area is probably covered in body filler.

Protect Your Investment

When you need collision repair, you need Merton Auto Body. We’re a preferred shop for most major insurance companies for a reason. We’re an I-CAR Gold Class shop with ASE-certified technicians. That means we have the latest training and equipment to repair any vehicle, new or old. Our shop is just south of Silver Spring Dr. in Merton, just a short distance from Pewaukee, North Lake, Sussex and the rest of Lake Country


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