Has the Car You’re Looking at Been in a Wreck?
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Has the Car You’re Looking at Been in a Wreck?

Has the car you’re looking to buy been in a wreck? In the old days, buyers would use a magnet to check for body filler, but these days there are records and simple visual checks that can help you avoid buying a lemon.

Title Brands

Severely damaged vehicles will get a “branded” title, although the qualifications for branding vary state by state, and it’s possible for unscrupulous sellers to title a car in a different state to remove this branding.

In Wisconsin, a vehicle is issued a salvage title if the insurance company determines that repairs would cost 70% of the total cost of the vehicle. The damage it takes to reach that value can vary a lot: a new car would need to be almost unrepairable, while an old, high mileage car may only need minor damage to be past the value limit. A vehicle with this branding cannot be licensed or driven on public roads. If the damage is repaired, it can be inspected and issued a “rebuilt salvage” title, allowing it to be licensed and driven again.

“Salvage” and “rebuilt salvage” are just two of 9 brands you may see on a Wisconsin title:

  • Claim Paid – A vehicle less than 7 years old that had an insurance claim for damage between 30% and 70% of its value.
  • Flood Damaged – A car that has been submerged or has water-related damage that would cost more than 70% of its value to repair. Cars under 7 years old are branded both “flood damaged” and “salvage.”
  • Hail Damaged – A car less than 7 years old that has hail damage that costs more than 70% of its value to repair, but does not require the replacement of inner or outer body panels, including plastic components like bumper covers. If any of these parts do need to be replaced, it’s branded as salvage.
  • Prior Police Vehicle and Prior Taxi – These vehicles are branded because they see unusually hard wear.
  • Non-USA Standard and Prior Non-USA – The vehicle was imported from another country. While this has nothing to do with damage, it can make licensing and insuring the car a lot more complicated.

Data Reports

To keep branding from being hidden by changing the state the car is registered in, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTMS) maintains data across states, which is offered to the public through third-party systems. Some low-price providers just have NMVTMS data in their reports, while companies like Carfax and AutoCheck also include other information tied to the VIN, such as reported accidents, recalls and commercial and rental use histories. Most used car dealers will be able to provide you with one of these reports, but if you’re looking at private sales, you’ll have to pay for these out-of-pocket.

Doing a Visual Inspection

What if the car has damage that wasn’t reported? Quality auto body repairs will be almost undetectable, while poor repairs will be obvious if you know where to look.

Even the best paint job won’t perfectly match the original paint, but a poor-quality job will be an obvious mismatch. Keep in mind that plastic components like bumpers and trim pieces may not be a perfect match even with factory original paint.

Inconsistent panel gaps are an indicator of poorly-done repairs or a shift in panels caused by an impact.

It takes a lot of work to paint both the outside and inside of a car. The color between the paint on the door sill and the outside will change over time since the interior paint isn’t exposed to sun and weather, but a stark contrast can indicate a respray. An even better place to look is under the hood: most crashes involve front-end impacts, while it’s rare for repairs to include removing the motor and transmission to repaint the inside of the engine compartment. Along with mismatched paint between inner and outer panels, look for different bolts used to attach the fenders and bent or otherwise modified radiator mounts used to compensate for changes to the shape of the front-end shape.

Finally, take a look at the tires. A properly repaired car will be aligned to compensate for minor bends in the frame and suspension, while a poor repair will leave out this step, leading to uneven tire wear.

When Accidents Happen, Get it Fixed the Right Way

If you have a car that needs collision repair, bring it to the experts at Merton Auto Body. We’re an I-CAR Gold Class shop with ASE-certified technicians, and we have an appraiser on site. That means we can get work approved quickly and use the latest in repair techniques to make your car safe to drive while helping retain its resale value.



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