Last updated September 1st, 2023
Buying a used car can present a challenge. There are many factors to consider, such as the vehicle’s overall condition, whether the car has a good mileage - and if it is affordable and practical for your needs.
However, unless a vehicle has obvious signs of damage, many buyers will fail to check whether a car has been in an accident. This is not something that should be left to chance.
A car is always worth less after an accident and may also have sustained structural damage that is not immediately apparent. This may cause expensive mechanical issues to develop further down the line.
Seemingly minor cosmetic flaws such as dents and scratches are worth investigating, as the damage might be more serious than it seems. It is also possible that the car has a hidden insurance write-off category, so proceed with caution!
In this guide, we will highlight the signs that may indicate a car was involved in an accident – and the tools available to help you find out with certainty. We’ll also explain the seller’s responsibilities when it comes to disclosing accidental damage.
There are numerous signs which may indicate a car has been involved in an accident:
If you notice discolouration, cracks, or an area of the bodywork that appears weaker than the rest, this is a tell-tale sign that a scratch or dent has been remedied with poorly-mixed car body filler. (This may lead to additional wear and tear in the future.)
A cracked bumper is an obvious sign of damage sustained from a collision. (Aside from hurting a car’s looks, a cracked bumper will also compromise the vehicle’s safety, as it won’t absorb the same level of impact in a collision that an undamaged bumper would.)
Aftermarket bolts and hinges are a sign that the owner has attempted to repair damage from a previous accident. You can usually tell when third-party bolts or hinges have been used, as they won’t match the original components.
There should be a consistent gap between the car’s doors and panels. If there are inconsistencies, this may indicate the vehicle has been damaged and/or undergone repair work.
Bubbling may simply occur when a vehicle rusts. However, in more extreme cases, paintwork differences or pronounced bubbling could indicate an attempt to conceal damage to the car.
Look for scratches on the bumpers or doors for evident signs of damage.
Scraped or dented rims can be a sign of damage from an accident - or poor driving and parking. (When viewing a used car, you should also check that the tyres’ tread depths are within the legal limit.)
Check for split seams on the airbag and paint around the casing, as these are signs that the airbag has previously been deployed.
Welding a car whilst repairing it can weaken its structural integrity.
Yes, there are numerous online tools available that can help you determine whether your car has been in an accident:
If you choose to sell your damaged car, it is your responsibility to inform the buyer about its accident history.
However, sometimes, private sellers are not fully transparent in this regard - or are simply unaware of their vehicle’s accident history with previous owners. Unless the seller has a receipt showing that accident repairs were carried out when they owned the vehicle, it is difficult to prove that they had knowledge of any prior accidents.
However, car dealerships have additional legal responsibilities, meaning they cannot participate in ‘unfair trade’. Yet, the definition of ‘unfair trade’ can vary from person to person – unless the car has obvious and severe damage.
If the dealer knows about the damage, they have a legal obligation to inform the buyer. Of course, in practice, proving that the seller was aware of any damage can be tricky.
Therefore, whether you are buying from a private seller or a used car dealership, you should always do your research before committing.
To find out whether a car has been written off, you can use one of the various paid car check tools available online. (See our guide ‘How to check if your car has a category’ for more details.)
If a car has been written off by an insurer, it will have been assigned an insurance write-off category. (To learn more about these categories, see our guide ‘What is a Cat A, Cat B, Cat S and Cat N write-off?’)
Important: You should never buy a Category ‘A’ or ‘B’ car. Vehicles with these categories are considered ‘beyond repair’ and therefore cannot legally be used on the roads.
Category ‘S’ and ‘N’ cars can be restored to roadworthy condition and can still make great cars, if repaired to a high standard. Nevertheless, you should inspect them carefully before committing to a purchase.