How to know your car is a rebuilt wreck

Shady car dealers like to find ways to sell bad cars for as much money as possible. A really opportunistic dealer may sell a frame-damaged car with shoddy repairs, not disclosing that the car has serious structural issues. Once a car has sustained serious frame damage, it will often never again be safe to drive, unless very careful and expensive repairs are completed. The safety issues involved in rebuilt wrecks can be severe and possibly life-threatening.

Search the history

One of the ways to find out whether a car is a rebuilt wreck is to search its history. Summary history reports like Carfax and AutoCheck may tell part of the story, so they can be a good first place to look. You might also pull a title history on the car, to see if an insurance company ever owned it, or if it ever had a salvage title. You can pull a title history by contacting the state motor vehicles department in every state the car has been titled.

Look for physical warning signs

Here are a few indicators that your shiny car may be a beater underneath:

  • Paint that chips or doesn’t match indicates damage repair and poor blending.

  • Door that doesn’t close correctly could point to a door-frame deformation and poor repair.

  • Hood or trunk that doesn’t close squarely may indicate twisting from side impact.

  • Fresh undercoating on wheel wells, chassis, or engine strongly suggests recent structural repairs covered up.

  • Paint overspray on chrome, trim, or rubber seals around body openings reveals that the adjacent panel was repaired.

  • Misaligned fenders suggest a poor repair job or use of nonoriginal equipment manufacturer (non-OEM) parts.

  • CAPA (Certified Automotive Parts Association) sticker on any part may indicate collision repair.

  • Uneven tread wear reveals wheel misalignment, possibly because of frame damage.

  • Mold or air freshener cover-up suggests water damage from a leak or flood.

  • Silt in trunk may mean flood damage.

Frame damage is not always hard to spot if you know what to look for. You can also tell by taking your car to a reputable body shop, telling them that you suspect there's damage, and seeing what they say.