If you're thinking about buying a used car that has been in an accident, there are a few things to keep in mind.
We'll get into the answer of "Should you buy a used car that has been in an accident?"
First, it's important to verify the extent of the damage. Second, be sure to ask the seller about any recent repairs on the car and the history of the accident. Third, be sure to verify the car's mechanical condition before making a purchase.
So should you buy a used car with an accident history?
Yes, cars with an accident history can offer excellent value and a great deal to you especially if the car was taken care of by the current owner. Carfax reports that 40% of all cars have some accident history. However, there are specific things I will share with you to determine your level of acceptance of the accident history.
We will get into the details of exactly what to look for regarding cars with an accident history.
Life happens and fender benders are the main reason we are required for car insurance. I have purchased cars with an accident history but I understood the risks involved with a dinged history report.
For example, under my ownership of my current car there were 4 accidents. Yes, four accidents but 2 of them were very minor and no airbags blew. Airbags are a big deal to me. If airbag lights are on the dash of the car you are looking at. I would skip it. Chasing down electrical gremlins with an SRS code on the dash can end up a money pit.
You can get a vehicle history report. I prefer a Carfax report over the Autocheck. Both are good but I prefer Carfax with all of my purchases.
TIP: If an airbag light is on, that is a red flag that something is not right with the safety system.
You are guaranteed to encounter a car accident history during your car search. However, a car accident should not be a deal breaker. As mentioned in my other blog post, the number of owners is an important number to track. (Unless you are looking for an exotic or supercar)
A car with multiple owners indicates to me that for whatever reason, the owners did not want to keep the car for a long time. However, if ownership is 12 months or more, it could be another reason. But a good rule of thumb, the less number of owners the better.
Here is my take on the number of owners:
- 1 Owner - Best scenario. In this case, if you do have accidents you can investigate with the seller the accidents that occurred under their ownership and the repairs done.
- 2 Owners - This is very common. Most of the off lease cars are sold as CPO or certified. Here the public has a chance to buy this car with the remaining warranty
- 3 - 4 Owners - Depending on the location and the length of ownership, I would consider this. Most likely these are older cars but have an appeal to drive. I would tread carefully on the history and see the number of accidents in comparison of WHEN the car was sold. If a car was sold immediately after the repair, I would question why.
- 4+ Owners - I would consider these hoopties. This is bottom of the barrel and can be had at a discounted price. Most cars in this category face the challenge of having a clean history and detailed maintenance. There are exceptions to the rule but I would opt to think REALLY hard if you REALLY wanted a 4 owner car. You will end up the 5th owner.
Extent of the Accident
An accident Carfax report will help reveal the type of accident. WIth any accident report, Carfax indicates the severity of the accident. Mild, Moderate and Severe.
- Mild - Anything with Mild can be considered cosmetic damage. Scrapes and bumps on the bumper covers.
- Moderate - Moderate can indicate an airbag might have blown or mechanical damage was moderate that the vehicle most likely needed to be towed.
- Severe - This was a back accident with multiple contact points. This might be a rear end collision with a rear hit. In addition, multiple airbags and frame damage most likely occurred too. This type of accident would total the car and it would be sent to a salvage yard for recyclers.
If a car has two mild accidents versus another car with one moderate accident, I would prefer the two mild accidents since it is most likely less trauma to the car overall. However, the true test is to see the car in person to check for paint match and gaps.
If a car had 4 accidents but is a one owner car for the life of the vehicle, I would strongly consider this since it's a 1 owner car. The owner had the car for years and you can see how they took care of it overall.
So you need to take into account all of the factors of owners and number of accidents. If no airbags were replaced then the impact was not too hard.
Repairs and Quality of Work
Checking for body work and painting takes a trained eye. Years of experience has helped me understand where to look. A good body shop will repair the damage of the accident as if nothing happened. While the quality of a body shop can vary, there are tell tale signs of a good paint job versus a mediocre one.
The most obvious sign of paint work is the smoothness of the paint surface. It should be glossy and match the rest of the car.
If a panel looks a little off or has paint defects like dust, dirt or scratches, point that out to the seller and ask about the repair. A quality repair should be impossible to detect or see but you can use this as part of your negotiation process.
Paint Defects to look out for which are cosmetic.
- Ripples - Look at the paint and see if there are any waves or ripples. This indicates that the bondo and surface of the paint was not smooth. It's not a deal breaker but keep it in mind.
- Texture - Orange peel and smoothness should be limited. A good detailer can wet sand these defects out with a paint correction but that would cost in the $600-$1000 range to do so.
- Color Matching and Metallic Finishes with Flakes - Paint match should be close. However, bumpers might have a slight shade from the factory. This is because bumpers are plastic and panels are metal. Metal flakes are hard to match too under a repair but the paint shop should have blended in the panels for a seamless look.
- Paint Failures - Flaking or failure of clear coat or the base coat indicates that the paint's flashpoint was not fully cured. Thus, the paint did not have proper adhesion. This is a big issue for me but if you can live with this issue, you can mask the issue with polishes and waxes.
Check the area that was reported in the accident report. See if the panel gaps are even or acceptable. Sometimes structural damage can make alignment of the panels difficult. As long as you are ok with the minor imperfections, you can use this when you negotiate the price.
Note: You might be able to discount the asking price by $500 - $1000 if the condition of the car was misrepresented. However, if the car is in mint and pristine condition despite the accident(s) then you know that the workmanship was high quality.
Also check for overspray as an indicator of low quality or shoddy work.
The overall condition of the car's paint and exterior will set the tone. However, even though the car might be imperfect, mechanically it might be perfect.
Start the car and look for any leaks or repairs that might impact the drive ability of the car. The car should drive straight and not pull to one side. It might be due to tire pressure but it might suggest that there might be some frame damage. Use the history report to focus your attention to the area where the accident occurred.
Rust is a big issue too. Sometimes in an accident, components are repaired but left exposed. Check the car for rust. If the paint looks good, there is nothing worse than having hidden rust issues.
Rust will shorten the life of your car and make it not road worthy if it eats through your jack points.
As mentioned earlier, the number of owners is important to consider. The current owner might be accident prone or live in an area where there are careless drivers. A good rule of thumb is to keep the number of accidents to 1 per 2 years. This would allow some margin when considering. Again, the less accidents the better.
If a car has 2-3 accidents but was dealer maintained, then you can see that the owner of the car cares for the health of the car. Dealerships are expensive and owners who maintain their cars at dealerships are paying out the nose BUT it shows that they take it to the experts.
Note: Sometimes the owner might have not reported an accident. In this case, it will not show up on the Carfax or vehicle history report. You will need to carefully examine the car for the repairs.
In addition, the title status is important too. A rebuilt title means that the car was totaled previously and the current owner has it repaired and passed inspection to be roadworthy. I would ONLY consider this car if you were planning to run it to the ground.
Otherwise, rebuilt titled cars do not hold value. In fact, you might have an issue insuring it as some insurance companies will not insure rebuilt titles.
A clean title indicates that there are no big issues with the car and it was never branded a total from any previous accident. Again, sometimes owners have an accident and get it fixed out of pocket. Just follow my instruction above regarding paintwork and it should help you determine mismatched paint.
To have peace of mind and a clean title, I also recommend a PPI or pre-purchase inspection to a trusted mechanic or shop. They will be able to scan the car's computer for any codes as well as check on the critical component of the car.
There are other third party services like lemonsquad.com. I will be reviewing them in a future blog post.
So, now you have the answer if you should buy a car that has been in an accident. I have and you can too, just do your homework and get a Carfax report to avoid any headaches.