I was recently in the market for a pre-owned vehicle and was shocked at the number of vehicles that had prior collision repairs even though they had a “clean history”. Follow my tips for purchasing a used car, so you won’t get fooled. What some folks may not know is that you can avoid these collision damage reporting agencies by simply paying for repairs out of pocket. We at the body shop don’t report losses – your secret is safe with us. These losses are reported somewhere else down the line in the claims process.
Before you even set foot on a used car lot, do a little research online using a site like Cars.com or Edmunds. Once you’ve found a couple of cars that rate well and meet your needs, then it’s time to go shopping.
When I set out to find a vehicle, I had no intention of choosing one that was clear of collision damage. I am confident in the abilities of modern collision repair methods. What I didn’t expect to find was 7 of the 8 cars I looked at had poor-quality repairs. My experience spanned two evenings following work so I was viewing cars in poor lighting – not the best idea but unavoidable sometimes for those of us with busy schedules.
Front-end damage is the easiest to spot since there are more parts to deal with than a side or rear impact. I handled my inspection like I would a pre-delivery inspection at the shop. I cranked the vehicle, turned on all the lights, the A/C and the radio, rolled windows up and down, locked and unlocked the doors. I checked the instrument panel after a few seconds to make sure no trouble lights stayed on and then I exit the vehicle. If you are paying attention, you will notice I didn’t pop the hood or the trunk. This can be done before entering the vehicle but I like to give it time to warm up so I will get everything running first. Next I walk around the vehicle paying special attention to hood/fender/front bumper/headlamp gaps at the front end and trunk/quarter panel/tail lamp/rear bumper gaps at the rear. Once I am satisfied, I open the front door again and pop the hood and the trunk, once again checking to make sure that no dash warnings have appeared. The A/C should be blowing cold by now so I switch to heat. I open and secure the hood prop rod (if equipped) and check the headlamp mounting areas as well as the back of the headlamps (if accessible). I’m looking to make sure the headlamps are secure and that if there are any decals, they indicate that they are the same brand as the vehicle. If they have a different manufacture name or say “Made in China or Taiwan” they could be aftermarket, which means they have been replaced – likely to collision damage. Using the flashlight on my phone I shine into the dark crevices to look for leaks or fluids that are puddling. Look for broken paint on edges or kinks and you any bare metal or welds on structural pieces. There are a hundred and one things I am looking for but primarily I am comparing one side to the next, looking for things that don’t belong. Is something in the engine compartment shinier or duller than its surrounding components? How does the engine sound inside the compartment? When I am satisfied, I close the hood and return to the driver seat. The inside of the car should be an oven by now. I am preparing to check out the rear so I once again inspect for warning lamps and shut the vehicle down. I don’t want to be sucking on exhaust fumes during my inspection of the rear.
I pop the trunk, which should release nicely, some trunks simply release, some swing open. Lift the floor mat and you should see a nice, clean bead of seam sealer where the rear floor meets the rear body panel. Rarely should you find brush marks or lumpiness here, definitely no hammer marks. Satisfied, I return the spare cover and move on. Most vehicles will have fasteners holding a panel covering the inside of the tail lamp. If you cannot remove this yourself, ask the salesman to have someone remove this cover. It will expose an area commonly damaged in a rear impact. Again, it should have clean, round holes for mounting the tail lamp and have nice, clean seam sealer applied. Reamed out holes, and bare welds are signs of improper repairs. After checking both sides, if I am satisfied I gently close the trunk which should secure easily. If I am confident that I can get back up, I now lay on my back and wedge my noggin up under the bumper to inspect the rear frame rails and the exhaust. Another idea here would be to ask the salesman to have the vehicle placed on a lift for inspection. Being the strapping young lad I am, I wallow on the asphalt and inspect. It is very important now that the vehicle be turned off as it may impair me from ever returning to the world of the upright. Frame rails can be covered by exhaust components or splash shields but are visible on most vehicles. Again, you may have to ask the salesman to have someone remove some plastic shields (most easily done on a lift).
Lastly, I walk around the vehicle once more letting the light hit body lines. Check door gaps, open and close them. Grab the edge of the door and shake it, you shouldn’t hear anything rattle. If you’ve made it this far, the prospects are good. I wont get into the test drive, it’s a whole other can of worms, but after moving the vehicle, stop and get out. Check the ground for fluids. You shouldn’t find anything more than say a puddle of water from condensation. If you do notice a puddle, dip your finger in it. It should be colorless and odorless.
Best advice – have a vehicle inspected by a mechanic before purchasing. If you must – try your own inspection. Happy hunting!