No used car buyer wants to purchase a vehicle that was seriously damaged and then repaired by the previous owner. Whether it was a crash, a flood, or some other calamity that caused the damage, it’s possible the car will never quite be same even after repairs.
There are services available to help used car buyers identity previously damaged and repaired vehicles. A good inspection by a skilled auto technician may also detect previous damage that has escaped the attention of these database services. When arranging such an inspection, used car customers should make sure that the technician has no interest in the outcome of the sale. This inspection should be done before committing to make the purchase.
Cars that have been severely damaged and repaired often end up with a branded title. Any vehicle with a title labeled “salvaged,” “junk” or, in Connecticut, “rebuilt” should immediately raise flags. Generally, this indicates the vehicle sustained damages accounting for at least 50 percent - and as much as 80 percent - of its value at the time of the incident. That can be a lot of damage, especially in a newer car.
Minor accident damage, if properly repaired, should have little, if any affect on the function, utility or value of the vehicle. Minor damage consists of cosmetic scrapes, nicks, dings and dents that require the straightening or replacement of body panels, such as a fender or door. It does not entail damage that necessitates the repair, straightening or replacement of structural elements, such as frame members.
Properly repaired minor damages can often escape the notice of even the most knowledgeable inspector. If you can’t see any evidence of a body repair and the work doesn’t affect the operation of the vehicle, there should be nothing to worry about, assuming good quality parts were used. Some replacement body parts offered by third party manufacturers have developed a reputation for coming up short in some areas, such as corrosion protection, and don’t have a precise fit.
Cars that have sustained major damage are frequently not repaired. There is little economic incentive to go to the trouble of putting more time, effort and money into a vehicle than the vehicle would be worth. That means that you don’t put $10,000 into repairing a car that will only be worth $5,000 when finished. Instead, you write the wrecked vehicle off and go buy another one, after checking for damages, of course.
An older car with a rebuilt title may still be worth considering. Older cars can be easily totaled by a crash that does what many might consider to be minimal damage. A $5,000 car can be written off after sustaining $4,000 in damages. As anyone who has had auto body work done recently can confirm, it doesn’t take much to inflict $4,000 in damages.
However, a rebuilt title on a newer car means that it sustained far more damage. It suggests $16,000 worth of damage on a $20,000 car or $32,000 in damages on a $40,000 vehicle. That’s a red flag that should give any potential buyer pause.
Cars used in government and insurance industry crash testing are sold for scrap. The federal government lists the vehicle identification numbers for all the cars it has crash tested at www.nhtsa.gov/cars/problems/salvage. Cars that have been exposed to flooding, or are lemon-law buybacks, should also have an appropriately branded title. Unfortunately, some cars have managed to avoid picking up the branded title because of loopholes in laws and procedures in some states.
Consumers have a lot to consider before buying a used car. Title information and an expert inspection should put them in a better position to make an informed decision.
Jim MacPherson is the host of "The Car Doctor" show airing Sundays at noon on WTIC-AM. Paula MacPherson is his wife and new-car review partner. Send comments, questions, suggestions in care of Special Publications, Hartford Courant, 285 Broad St., Hartford, CT 06115, or email email@example.com