10 Signs Your Used Car Is Really A Rebuilt Wreck

We often hear from readers horrified to discover that their perfectly lovely used car was once another owner’s total loss. They only find out much later, once something goes horribly wrong due to the previous damage. But once the vehicle is all fixed up and shiny, how is the average car buyer to know the difference? It turns out that there are distinctive signs that a car was previously in a crash or flood. Some you might notice yourself, and others require a mechanic’s eye.

Our friends at Consumer Reports Cars give you the lowdown.

  1. Paint that chips off or doesn’t match indicates damage repair and poor blending.
  2. Paint overspray on chrome, trim, or rubber seals around body openings reveals that the adjacent panel was repaired.
  3. Misaligned fenders suggest a poor repair job or use of nonoriginal equipment manufacturer (non-OEM) parts.
  4. CAPA (Certified Automotive Parts Association) sticker on any part may indicate collision repair.
  5. Uneven tread wear reveals wheel misalignment, possibly because of frame damage.
  6. Mold or air freshener cover-up suggests water damage from a leak or flood.
  7. Silt in trunk may mean flood damage.
  8. Fresh undercoating on wheel wells, chassis, or engine strongly suggests recent structural repairs covered up.
  9. Door that doesn’t close correctly could point to a door-frame deformation and poor repair.
  10. Hood or trunk that doesn’t close squarely may indicate twisting from side impact.

For the rest of the signs, some which are more complex and perhaps better left to pros, check out the post over at Consumer Reports.

No, Of Course This Car We’re Selling Has Never Been In A Severe Accident
Buyer Says CarFax Report Didn’t Let Him Know Car Was All Messed Up
The Used Car You Are Looking To Buy May Have Been Totaled


Edit Your Comment

  1. crispyduck13 says:

    11. Price that is too good to be true.

    • CommonSense(ಠ_ಠ) says:

      No way, you can find deals.

      I bought a 2004 corolla S on ebay after katrina in 2006.
      I got it for $8,500 which was about $7 to 8K less than buying it from someone you could trust.
      I flew to get the car and took it to toyota and have a full inspection before handing the guy the money and it all worked out.
      I basically saved $6K which was too good to be true as everyone was paranoid about buying cars on ebay at the time.
      I have had it for 6 years now, driven it very hard and no problems at all.

      Many dealers buy auction cars that turn out to be rock solid or have great condition trade-ins they get for almost nothing. Sometimes you can get a great deal and they still get a great profit.

      The most important thing to do is to take the car to a real mechanic or dealer and pay them $100 to $200 for two hours of taking things apart and doing a real inspection.
      That is what I did and that is why it all worked out with a too good to be true price.

      • crispyduck13 says:

        I just bought a car with a $6500 market value for $2300 including all taxes and fees. Got this deal because a friend works as a car salesman and sold me a trade-in which they paid very little for. I’m also married to a mechanic and am generally pretty knowledgable about these types of cars, so whatever breaks we can handle.

        I understand that the too good to be true thing can happen and everything will be fine, but for the average person it should be an indicator that something is off. Also – don’t trade in your car, my god that guy got screwed.

  2. lovemypets00 - You'll need to forgive me, my social filter has cracked. says:

    12. If it looks like the car in the picture above, that may be a clue also. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

  3. Blueskylaw says:

    “10 Signs Your Used Car Is Really A Rebuilt Wreck”

    11). They forgot to pull the blue painters tape off
    12). The insurance company scratched f*ck you on the inside of the fender

  4. milkcake says:

    Is rebuilt wreck always terrible?

    • crispyduck13 says:

      Not always, I’ve purchased a salvage-titled vehicle before, took $1500 to fix, and it was fine, not sure why they total some cars really.

      • viper2000 says:

        They “total” out some cars because they are cheap bastards.
        They have an unrealistically low value they apply to vehicles that are not brand new.
        My car was hit, small fender bender, nothing major, just needed a new fender and headlight bracket, probably would have cost me 50 bucks at a junk yard for the parts, but their adjuster wrote it up as a $700 repair job, and valued my car at $600.
        So now my car, which had no body damage, ran great, very little interior damage, just had a full tuneup and all new tires, has a “salvage title”. Screw insurance companies.

        • clippy2.0 says:

          Does that really matter? I mean, I can’t even imagine a $500 car, but if you’re worried about selling it, won’t you just drive it till it dies anyways, and then sell it as a beater for almost nothing anyways?

        • cosmic.charlie says:

          Typically they will let you “buy” the car back from them and give you a check for the difference. In this case go for it if you don’t care how the car works. You aren’t going to get any appreciation from your $700 car.

        • Zowzers says:

          oh its gotten worse recently. They’ve started to calculate what they can make off of selling the car as parts in to when they determine if its totaled. AKA, it is now actually profitable for them to total cars…

      • iesika says:

        I’ve had insurance declare my car totaled before for a fender bender. The repair ultimately cost me under $200 in parts and took a friend and I an hour to fix in the parking lot of her apartment, with tools we had on hand. Been driving that car for 2 years, since, and just the other day someone offered to buy it off me while I was at a garage sale.

      • dilbert69 says:

        Because the cost of repairs exceed the book value. On an older car, this is almost always true, but then you shouldn’t be carrying collision insurance on a car you could afford to replace.

    • BennieHannah says:

      No. My daughter had a fender bender that mashed the front bumper pretty bad, and crimped the hood. The car was in excellent shape otherwise, with lower than average mileage (it had previously belonged to my mother). The insurance company totaled it because they estimated the repair cost to be just above the car’s value. There wasn’t anything wrong with the frame or the engine. I imagine it was sold at auction, fixed on the cheap sold for a nice profit, and someone is happily driving it around today.

    • Aiesline says:

      I had a car totaled due to hail damage. Nothing wrong with the car otherwise. I was actually really upset they made me get rid of it.

      • kosmo @ The Soap Boxers says:

        Interesting. You weren’t given the option to retain the car? Generally, the insurance company will just deduct the salvage value (amount they could have sold it for at auction) from your check and let you keep it.

        I’d definitely keep a car that was totaled due to hail, because as you point out, the damage only affects looks and not drivability.

  5. crispyduck13 says:

    This is only mildly related but a tip for making sure that used car in the ad doesn’t had bad rings or valve seals or some other internal oil leak: make the appointment to see it rather early in the morning, then show up 15-20 minutes early and MAKE them start the car in front of you, this is the point when most cars with those problems will smoke like a chimney, then after 10-15 minutes the smoke can sometimes clear up.

    Got burned like that when some asshole told me to meet him at his house to see the car, then when I showed up early he got all weird and said he had to run an errand, would meet me a couple blocks away in 15 minutes. Now I know why, skeezy ass motherfucker.

    Buyer beware indeed.

  6. TheMansfieldMauler says:

    7. Silt in trunk may mean flood damage.

    Wow, thanks for that super informative tip. But do barnacles and fish skeletons count as silt also? I need to know quick!

    • StopGougingMeThere! says:

      I thought the same about the mold/smell tip. Sometimes stupid people deserve to get ripped off!

  7. ansjc09 says:

    OR buy certified used from a dealership.

    • HomerSimpson says:

      Yea, car dealers NEVER screw people over!

    • StopGougingMeThere! says:

      Except that CERTIFIED vehicles are warranted by the manufacturer as if they were new. Whether or not that is worth the extra money is up to the buyer but I don’t consider a Certified vehicle a rip off either.

    • ScottG says:

      Chances are if you are in jeopardy of getting a rebuild then Certified Used is going to be outside your price range anyway. And of course dealers aren’t all honest either – nor are all used car lots and individual sellers scammers.

  8. stephent says:

    in Michigan the title is supposed to be a different color (yellow I believe) Found that out when I made an offhand comment about knowing it had been resold by an insurance company (state Farm) at some point to the guy at the secretary of state doing the title transfer who comment that the title should be yellow and that State Farm had just paid a sizable fine for not giving out the properly colored title. This didn’t surprise me since when the car I was replacing was wrecked my insurer (State Farm) didn’t care that the odometer had broken years before and was at least 50,000 low. They paid me for the lower milage though so I wasn’t going to complain I told them the truth. Got a newer car with much less miles on it for that price. Referb still going strong 5 years later.

  9. McRib wants to know if you've been saved by the Holy Clown says:

    Deer fur is still in the grill.

  10. clippy2.0 says:

    Most of those are really not that helpful, or hard for the average person to spot. I still can’t spot tire wear, and I’ve rebuilt my entire suspension! However, the mold and fresh paint on the undercarriage are probably the best bets to check for. personally, I don’t think I would even bother with an out of region title; why would I buy a car from “florida” in mass?

    of course, alot has to do with the age of a car. but telling someone to check for flakes because it might be totaled? yeah, thats almost helpful

    • clippy2.0 says:

      Oh doh, the original article notes these tips are really for late modal used cars, so that suddenly the list makes alot more sense!

  11. Keep talking...I'm listening says:

    I’ve heard of flipping used cars, but that picture is ridiculous!

  12. Major Tom Coming Home says:

    My worst nightmare would be an airbag compartment stuffed with newspapers. I am a frugal person but now that I could afford to do so, I chose to buy an inexpensive new car rather than a used car – mainly because I was afraid of getting something with serious issues. Seriously, anyone knowingly misrepresenting a repair to an automobile safety system needs some serious prison time.

  13. samonela says:

    Stick a magnet sheet to the major metal surface areas of the car (doors and fenders). If it doesn’t stick, that is body filler in place of straight metal.

    Vehicle history reports are also good, but not an end-all to the car’s true history. Although most cars that were insurance write-offs should have a salvage title tied to their VIN. But that still doesnt stop shady sellers.

    Be prepared, do your homework.

    • Geekybiker says:

      Some cars use non magentic panels. Plastic in saturns, fiberglass in others. Some cars come with aluminum hoods and trucks.

      • samonela says:

        A hood and trunk would be replaced. The rear fenders cannot. They can only be straightened as much as possible and bondo’ed.

        The front fenders and doors can be replaced, but it is often cheaper for a shop to try and straighten them as much as possible and use body filler. Hence why you check these areas.

        As for older Saturns and the like with their composite (non-metallic) body pieces, in an accident, those will shatter all over the place and MUST be replaced. You can’t hide that.

        • Zowzers says:

          rear fenders can absolutely be replaced. A properly equipped body shop has all the tools necessary to replace any panel on the car, including the structure beneath it. and replacement is becoming the norm rather then bondo or metal finishing, thanks to car mfg’s going with more high tech steels.

        • MrEvil says:

          Also, Body filler (when used properly) will be applied in such a thin layer that a magnet will still stick to the steel.

  14. No Fat Chicks says:

    #15 Pucker print on driver’s front seat where butt cheeks slammed together right before impact.

  15. nautox says:

    We had a customers car that would eat tires and wouldn’t align properly.
    Turns out it was 2 4Runners welded together, front of 1 and the rear half of another.
    True story.

  16. jeffbone says:

    You bought it from someone named Jerry?

  17. Zelgadis says:

    11) It smells like mildew inside. (water damage)

  18. SoCalGNX says:

    Never rely on Carfax. I have used it twice and got ripped off both times.

  19. webweazel says:

    I used to work at body shops. Here’s some good certain ones-

    Cutting a car in half and welding two together happens quite a bit more often than you all realize. If it’s done by pros who KNOW what they’re doing, it works exceptionally well. If it’s done by a backyard hack, it’s a bad scene, and there will be copious amounts of evidence of this fact.

    Stand about 10 feet back and look at all the seams where the body panels meet. They should be nice and even all the way from top to bottom, and similar in size all around the car. Open each door and lift straight up on them sharply. There should be no sloppiness or movement. Do the same with the hood and trunk. They should move smoothly with no binding.

    In a bad side or rear hit, oftentimes the inside of the trunk needs repair work. This area is somewhat ignored finish-wise. Lift areas of the carpet in the trunk and look at the seam sealer. It looks like brushed on (or caulked on) putty. It is neat and exactly the same evenness everywhere it is found from the factory. NOBODY can recreate it exactly the same. Plus, if there was re-painting done in the trunk, it’s usually sloppy or “fresh” looking.

    It can be difficult to find front end patching or re-welding because of the nature of what resides under the hood. Check from under the car for any evidence of redone welds and/or fresh spray paint covering up fresh work. If there’s road dirt underneath, it should be pretty evenly distributed. Look at the underside of the hood for evidence of fresh painting. Dirt “nibs” stuck in the paint are easily seen in resprayed hood undersides. The hood and fenders can be adjusted a lot to line up body seams, so look for evidence of tool use on the fender bolts or hood bolts. Missing fender bolts should be noted, also.

    If you can crawl underneath, check all around underneath the body pan for redone welds and/or fresh spray paint covering up fresh work. Look for replaced seam sealer there, too. Don’t go so much by a fresh undercoating look. Sometimes in a detailing procedure, they will wash and scrub and then spray black paint in the wheel wells and a little bit under the body to make them look better for sale. I did it all the time. This is not a cover-up in and of itself. If it’s done on only 1 or 2 wheel wells though, and/or is thickly applied anywhere across the underside body pan, it might need a much closer look. Preferably on a car lift.

    Look at the inside edges of the back quarter panels and any welded seam areas you can see. Open the doors and look inside the door hinge area and in trunk area. There should be a seam where the panels have a row of spot welds. Looks like “dimples”. Make sure these are the same size and shape visually all around the car. (There are also some all around the door openings, but usually covered by the rubber door gasket. Don’t pull this off unless you have evidence of a bad hit and need to check this area for more proof. You could irreparably damage the gasket.) Again, something that cannot be recreated exactly like the factory by hand. Somebody mentioned the use of a magnet to check for evidence of plastic filler. This won’t tell you much except in very older cars. Nowadays, even on a small front fender dent, it is more cost-effective to REPLACE the whole fender than it is to repair it. Even in the case of a quarter skin, they were replaced all the time for the smallest of dents. Doors, however, are usually repaired unless the dent is large. They’re much more of a pain in the ass and more expensive cost- and labor-wise to replace. A lot of the time, they are replaced from the junkyard. Look for evidence of overspray, fresh paint, or tool use scratches. So, this is not evidence in and of itself, but another piece of the puzzle.

    Check those same welded body areas right along the outer edge in the seams for evidence of overspray. Not everybody tapes it up the same or as well. Remember that cars can sometimes have small dents and damaged bumpers repaired and resprayed over its lifetime, so this is not a certainty of bad damage, but another part of the whole picture.

    Another nice trick is to go out onto an asphalt roadway and wet a large area down well with a hose. Have a friend drive straight through the wet road. Look closely at the tire tracks. You should only see two of the same exact size tracks if it is tracking correctly. Also see where the tracks of the front wheels meet up to the back tires. If something is off in either of these tests, you’ll see it immediately. Seeing one wheel off to the side, or seeing that both front wheels are tracking to the left of the back wheels, is almost certain evidence of a racked frame or major damage that was not repaired correctly. This is certain evidence of the headaches to come, and probably one of the fastest and easiest first tests of a car.

  20. Rick Sphinx says:

    We bought a used Certified Toyota for $18K, got in accident (not our fault). Insurance paid over $9000 to repair it. I knew from previous experience, that the car is not worth what it was before the accident. So I sued for Diminished Value, and got $3500 from the other driver. If I were to sell privately, this is amount I would have to reduce the price to seel it due to the damage. They car has been repaired, top notch job. Nothing wrong with car, just not worth as much. This money is not a windfall, it just make me financially whole since the accident. This value is the diminished value at the time of the accident, not when you were planning on seling years down the road. Sue for it, it’s your money. Go to small claims court, get an official diminished value report done (costs about $300), and be sure to deal locally, in person, as on-line reports are usually not acccepted in court. Some states don’t allow this, so check first. Of note, we approached our insurance company first for the diminished value, and was offered $200, I mean…please. Go after what’s yours.