First look at the car’s paint job. Look for signs that the car has been repainted. The most obvious sign is just a poor paint job. But even excellent paint jobs can reveal a previous accident. Paint oxidates with time so when a section of a car is repainted, the painter has to match not the original car color, but the car’s current color. This is a very difficult task. Paint is usually done in panel sections (a complete fender or hood) so look for either a brighter (newer) shade or a more faded (older) shade between panels. Sometimes only a section of a panel has been painted, in which case, look for the ‘border’ between the old and the new. The texture of the paint will be different. You will need bright light and a clean car to inspect the paint.
Don’t worry about dings and scratches unless you are very picky about looks. They can be repaired and don’t mean the car was not cared for. Next, get very close the car (about a foot away) and look down the length of the car, from every angle. You will see all the imperfections in the paint if it has been repainted. Look at the texture and reflection. If they are not even, that section has been repainted. Pay attention to the clear coat. Cheap repairs often don’t finish the clear coat very well.
Next, open the doors, trunk and hood. Look at the hinges, and weather-stripping. Is there any paint on plastics or rubber? Look around the trim and emblems. Factory paint jobs are perfect! Remember that. Look at the bumpers. Is the paint the same as the rest of the car? Is the paint pealing? Painting bumpers is very different than painting panels. There are a few more steps involved in making paint stick to plastic. Good painters charge a premium to perform these steps. Inexpensive paint jobs look the same for a few months, and then they start pealing.
Now let’s pay attention to the body. The gaps between all panels should be even. Getting the right gap after a collision repair is very difficult. Inspect all the gaps between panels, doors, hood and trunk. Also check if the doors close tightly and smoothly. Look for rust. Some cars will rust around the wheel well after a while even if the car has never been in a collision. But rust will often appear where there has been damage. A small circular rust spot on the surface of the paint is no big deal. A bubbling rust spot below the paint is a very big deal. Rust is also a sign of flooding and water damage.
Not all collisions are the same. The worst collisions are frontal. Stay away from cars that have been repainted in the front. Rear collisions are not as bad. You may actually get a better deal on a very good car by pointing out that the car has been rear-ended.
Check if all the trim is there. Check if the grill is in good condition. Take some time to look at the glass. If your state requires an inspection for you to register your car, a cracked windshield might cost you at least $200.
Now it’s time to inspect the frame. In intact frame is really what you are looking for when you inspect the paint and body. If car has been in a serious accident, the frame will be either cracked or bent. You can identify the frame by looking under the car and under the hood. All the panels are attached to the frame, which is made of thick metal (steel) and holds the entire car together. Look for cracks or welding traces.