How to Tell Real Damage from Superficial Damage

by Chris Knapman

Buying a used car can be exciting, not to mention easier than ever before, thanks to the pricing transparency and dealer ratings pioneered by CarGurus. Despite this, there are still a few potential pitfalls, the worst of which is surely the possibility of buying a car that—unknown to you—has been repaired after suffering major damage.

Whether you’re worried about buying an unsafe car, or you’re concerned about the financial aspect (even if a heavily damaged car has been repaired to a high standard, it won’t be worth the same as a car that hasn’t been crashed), you’ll understandably want to exercise caution when looking at a used car. But how do you tell the difference between superficial scrapes and repairs that have been made following major damage?

What Counts As Major Damage?

If a car has suffered fire damage, it can be very difficult to make an economical repair. Even a small fire can leave a lingering smell in the car, and once major flames take hold, little can be done to salvage it. If you are looking at a car and notice blistering or scorching to the paintwork or interior, or if it smells at all like it’s been in a fire, it’s best to walk away.

Although harder to spot, flood damage can be nearly as devastating as fire damage, wrecking everything from engines and electrics to interiors, and leaving a foul smell. Indeed, the majority of flood-damaged cars are written off by insurers simply because fixing them to an acceptable standard would often cost more than the car is worth. Signs of flood damage include wet carpets, a damp or musty smell, faulty electrics, and corrosion under the hood or trunk floor. If running the heater causes the windows to mist up, it means there’s moisture somewhere in the system—another sign of possible flood damage.

Then of course there’s accident damage. At its most serious, you could be looking at a car that has rolled over or one that had to be cut open by a fire crew to rescue occupants. But even smaller bumps can spell major trouble if they have bent or cracked the car’s chassis.

To look for signs of poorly repaired accident damage, pay close attention under the hood and trunk floor, as well as along the sills (the lower part of the car’s body that runs under the doors). When a new car leaves the factory, everything will line up straight and true. The bodywork will be smooth and rust-free, and the paint colors consistent with no overspray onto other components. If the car you’re looking at doesn’t fit with this description, there’s a good chance it has been repaired to a poor standard.

If a car that has suffered fire, flood, or significant accident damage the insurer will most likely deem it totaled. But if the damage is at a level where the car can be repaired and safely returned to the road, the car may be given a salvage title, instead.

As a used car shopper, you need to know if a car has been given a salvage title, and you should be sure any and all repair work has been carried out to a high standard. Even if the car has been repaired, a salvaged car should be priced well below the market value of a non-salvaged car. A vehicle history report will reveal if the car has ever been recorded as totaled or given a salvage title

Repairing Minor Damage

The good news is that the majority of used cars you’ll come across in your search will not have a history of major accident damage. However, this isn’t to say they will be blemish-free either.

Bear in mind, most accident damage can be repaired. If there’s significant panel damage, or if a car’s paintwork is excessively worn, you’ll generally need to take it to a body shop to be fixed. Panels such as doors, hoods, and front fenders can be replaced, and if necessary the whole car can be repainted.

If the damage is more superficial, such as small parking dings that haven’t cracked the paintwork, or minor scrapes and scratches, you might get away with using a less intensive repair, rather than taking it to a body shop. Some mobile technicians can come to your home or place of work and repairs the car on site—this is particularly common with windshield repairs.

Wheel Deals

Look at the car’s wheels. Scrapes, scratches, dents, or even buckling—often a result of hitting potholes or curbs—are some of the most common types of damage you’ll see on a used car.

In many instances, such damage can be successfully repaired by a specialist wheel refurbishment company at a cost of $50 to $100 per wheel. So, if you see a car with unsightly wheels, don’t necessarily let that put you off. Instead, use it as a negotiating point when agreeing on a price.

The Bottom Line

Salvaged cars are rarely worth the trouble, unless they've been priced well below market value. And even then, if the car has been in a fire or a flood, it will likely never be truly the same as it was when new. But sometimes damage can be repaired with a bit of elbow grease and the correct products. Light scratches, for example, will often polish out, and even chipped or faded paintwork can be revived with a specialist product.

Items such as cracked headlight casings or broken pieces of interior trim can be easily sourced online (either new or used) and are often quite simple to change. And if the headlight lenses have turned cloudy, applying a bit of toothpaste (yes, really) can work wonders restoring them.

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Having previously written for The Daily Telegraph, What Car?, Auto Express and others, Chris Knapman now oversees the editorial content at CarGurus, covering buying guides and advice, car reviews, motoring news and more.

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