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Ways to Tell if a Car Has Been in an Accident

Written by: Kristy Welsh

Last Updated: August 1, 2017

One of the scariest things about buying a used vehicle is not knowing whether or not the car you fell in love with has been in any accidents. A car could have been in an accident, fixed by a reputable car repair facility, and still have structural problems pop up down the road.

If you're buying a used car from honest people who are also the original owners, then simply asking them about it is a surefire way to know a car's accident history. So if it's a family member or close friend whose used car you're considering, just ask. However, if you're considering buying from someone you don't know, or don't know well, a formal investigation is in order. It may turn up nothing but peace of mind, or it could turn up an accident history that carries unexpected expenses for repairs, or even worse, deems the car unsafe.

Order a CARFAX Report

If the car has been in an accident that has been reported to the authorities, then a record of such should appear in a CARFAX Report. As of this writing, one CARFAX Report runs $39.99, and includes reported records of the following:

  • Major Accident
  • Mileage Rollback
  • Multiple Owners
  • Structural Damage
  • Lease, Personal, Taxi or Police Use
  • Total Loss
  • Rebuilt
  • Flood Damage
  • Airbag Deployment
  • Mileage Rollover
  • Salvaged
  • Hail Damage
  • Branded a Lemon
  • Last Reported Mileage
  • Junked
  • State Owned
  • Length of Ownership
  • Estimated Miles Driven Per Year
  • Not Actual Mileage
  • Recall Information
  • Warranty Information

Of course, not all accidents are reported, so this is no sure-fire way to tell. But considering what a damaged car could cost you in the long-run, paying for a CARFAX Report seems a nominal fee indeed, and could immediately and undoubtedly reveal an accident history.

Ask a Vehicle Repair Professional

If a CARFAX Report turns up no record of an accident, have the car inspected by a mechanic who specializes in collisions. In fact, it's a good a idea to do this even if the CARFAX Report does turn up accidents. Why? What if, for example, CARFAX only has a record of one of multiple accidents? An inspection by a mechanic could catch evidence of such. On the flip side, a mechanic may not see something that turned up in the CARFAX Report. In other words, it is a good idea to do both.

A proper car inspection by a mechanic could cost up to a couple of hundred dollars. Again, though, paying hundreds of dollars for a mechanic to help assure you of the car's true value could save you thousands of dollars that could be lost on a lemon.

Inspect the Car Yourself

If you need more than suspicion to warrant spending money on a CARFAX Report and/or an inspection by a mechanic, look for proof yourself:

  1. Look for signs of paint overspray on parts of the car that shouldn't be painted.
  2. Look for the CAPA (Certified Automotive Parts Association) logo on car parts.
  3. Make sure the airbag indicator light flashes on, then off, after turning on the car.
  4. Look in the trunk, under the carpet. You should see uniform "strength indents" stamped into the metal, and everything should be smooth and even.
  5. Look behind the rear and front bumpers. The metal body behind them should be smooth and even, showing no signs of damage.
  6. Place a magnet on the rear quarter panels (body of the car behind the doors that cannot be replaced). It should be all metal, so if the magnet doesn't stick, then filler has been added, indicating an accident. Place the magnet up and down the rear quarter panels, testing different spots, but carefully so as not to scratch the paint.
  7. Look underneath the car. The floor pan should be smooth and even, also showing strength indents.

A flashlight will come in handy for these inspections, as will a piece of cardboard for looking underneath the car.

Keep in mind, though, that just because you don't see any signs of damage doesn't mean the car is accident free. Your safest bet to tell if a car has been in an accident is going all out and doing the CARFAX Report and professional inspection by a mechanic.