That said, there are a few grey areas that can be glossed over in a used car deal, where facts are at least obscured, if not positively hidden. This might not constitute fraudulent behaviour, but it’s at least unethical and can make a great deal a complete liability if you miss them. Prime among considerations - no matter that the car stands gleaming and apparently perfect in the lot - is whether or not the car has ever been in a car accident, and to what extent it was damaged by the collision. The criminal history of a car is right up there with that consideration too, followed closely by a service history and other relevant intel. In a country also making headlines for crash for cash scams, many car accident vehicles are out there, for sale, make no mistake.
Wheel Index has in our experience true stories of two crashed Mercedes sedans welded together to rebuild one sale car, lumpy, welded drive shafts still illegally turning away at the wheel end, and even steering and alignment shimmed and offset to crazy lengths to detract from a buckled chassis or other accident implications. In fact, buckled chassis are one of the most commonly masked fundamental accident flaws sellers frequently fail to disclose. When you think about it, a single test drive is seldom sufficient to pick up on issues like this, as a smash car can appear for all intents and purposes as any other - sound, polished and smart.
And - for those who imagine scurrilous individuals in dusty backyards - don’t think a car history check is only good for private car deals. Any dealership can move car accident vehicles too, presented as restorations that appear as good as the one next to it. That’s why it’s just good sense to follow a few protocols when investigating a used car for sale.
How to check for accident damage on a used car
- Savvy, available intel
Use our fantastically comprehensive car history check tool as a first and logical step towards establishing a framework of known intel. When approaching a used car for sale, take a head-on view and assess the body lines of the car. Take a line of sight head-on and from various angles too, looking to see that the used car’s body is smooth and that all lines are straight and even. Usually, if there’s been a car accident, you’ll be able to pick up misalignment if you take a minute or two to look.
- Reliable indicators
Be on the lookout for a few indicators of previous car accident damage when looking at a used car. Listen attentively for any unusual sounds while inside and test driving the car. A few rattles are not unusual on an older car, but this can also be the result of a previous car accident. Irregular noises are something that might be missed in a ten-minute test drive, so it helps to be aware of the need to listen for any sound that interrupts a smooth driving experience when out driving a prospective car purchase.
- Supporting documentation
You can also check for comments on maintenance plan documentation. BMW, for one, lists car accident details as standard and, although other brands might not log such details, they also might, so it’s worth checking and also asking the dealership if the car has ever been in an accident.
- A quick pro opinion
It’s also good to ask a mobile panel/dent shop for their opinion. They will usually drive out to the seller’s yard or dealership and inspect the car onsite, and their knowledgeable eyes will tell you straight away if and where repairs have been done. Very usefully, they might also be able to point to flood damage on a used car too, something very difficult for the layman to detect. While water might not seem such a biggie, airbags will often fail to deploy after flood damage and electrics can be erratic, so it has very real, dangerous implications.
- Mismatches and cracks
Look for bumper cracks and other damage, no matter how trivial. If a bumper appears either misaligned or discoloured, it might be a replacement post a car accident, so ask all the questions you feel necessary. Things like “Why is the bumper lopsided?” or “How come the petrol cover is a mismatched colour?” are entirely acceptable lines of enquiry when you’re about to spend thousands. “Have you ever had a car accident in this vehicle?” or “Has this car even been submerged in the Sabie River?” is also not impolite!
- Mind the gap!
Examine the used car’s panels and door, boot, bonnet and light gaps. Uneven panels are a warning sign, reflecting previous repairs from a car accident.
- Colour and paintwork
Go up close and also stand a little distance away, in order to check the paintwork for respraying. Any used car or its panel that has been resprayed will never match original parts 100 percent, although the difference can be subtle, so take your time.
This might all sound like a lot of paranoia and precaution, but the principal reason to establish whether or not a used car has suffered car accident damage in the past is that you will have to pass it on one day. Hopefully for a good price, one that leaves you a bit of cash or sitting in the seat of a trade-up. And you will definitely struggle to sell the car if a new buyer discovers the car was in an accident. Even worse and more defeating, you’ll typically get terribly low trade-in offers on a previously accident-damaged used car. This is the prime motivation to glean a car history check when making a shortlist.
Buying a previously damaged used car can be all good, provided you are fully aware of the implications, if any, and are getting some kind of offset for your faith in the now-renewed car. Car accident damage also varies widely. A used car that was just last year rolling base over tip down the N1 shedding bits in the wind is a much bigger leap of faith than one that was merely rear-ended in traffic. Ultimately, it’s up to you, and any choice can be a good one as long as you have all of the information at hand.
Why safety has to come into it too
Apart from financial loss, another really good reason to check a used car’s accident history actually becomes the most important as you log drive-time with the car, and it’s all about safety. It’s a rare rebuilder that aims for and attains factory-level restoration on a car accident repair. Their skimping on costs when rebuilding a busted used car can mean something is waiting to break, life-threatening or not. Other considerations include the constantly higher expense of replacing rapidly or unevenly wearing tyres, resulting from a buckled chassis or other undercarriage components that give the car a skewed drive.
Again, the (safe) mechanical functioning is a practical consideration, beyond expense, as it involves your safety and convenience, something dangerous or frustrating when lost. And, also, there is the possible loss of minor functionality, where little things like a rear wiper or inside light have failed to be repaired. Where the rebuilders didn’t refit a complete electrical harness (the car’s electrical wiring) or skimped on a small part here or there, those small omissions are going to add up quickly to persistent frustration for you within a month of driving the car, if not sooner.
Buying an accident-damaged, now-repaired car really can be all good, as long as you know about and are happy with the repairs. Ask how they were done and by whom, and talk to them if you wish. It’s really your decision, and there’s as often no compelling reason to turn a used car down simply because it’s been in a car accident. Just ensure it’s a well-informed decision, as you will struggle to sell the car if a new buyer discovers the car was in an accident, especially when they haven’t been told from the outset.