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I'm looking at buying a car that is only 2 years old, has good miles, a price about a third lower than I would expect...but it had an accident listed on the CarFax. The previous owner hit a deer and the dealer tells me that the car was likely rebuilt by the insurance. It was not completely salvaged. The car looks fine, and I've taken for a short test drive and seems okay. I don't know what to look out for or pay attention to.

What kind of mechanical things should I investigate or ask about that could be serious (hidden) problems?

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    Look for bits of the deer. :) – JoErNanO May 19 '16 at 13:39
  • I would look for the Antlers.... – Moab May 19 '16 at 15:14
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    @JoErNanO: That has already been addressed. – dotancohen May 19 '16 at 15:41
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    A tip I learned for this site when checking for "bondo-ed" spots on a car is to go around it with a magnet. The majority of the car should attract the magnet since it is made out of steel, where as the filled in spots the magnet will not. – John Dream May 19 '16 at 18:02
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    @JohnDream so long as you're not looking at a Corvette ;) – Aaron Lavers May 20 '16 at 0:26
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I'd be asking if the car was put on a chassis rig when it was repaired. If it's even had just one day on a rig, it was clearly enough of an impact that made the assessor/repairer think it might be a write-off.

If it wasn't put on a chassis rig, the next thing to look at are signs of welding along the forward chassis, particularly radiator support and crash beams. Some modern cars have the radiator support made from plastic though.

Check the alignment of the headlamps if you can, and check that there's no rust around the bolts that hold the fenders to the side of the engine bay. Also open and close the hood, to make sure it's not catching anywhere and operates smoothly. Same goes for the doors, check the gaps between the door jams are even, and that they dont make noises or rub when opening (this can be a sign of a warped shell, or poorly fitted panels).

Without an inspection report from the repairer/assessor, it'll be hard to know exactly to what extent it was repaired. Here in Australia, we have the RAC that can perform safety inspections on pre-purchased cars. You might have a similar service there? AAA or something?

A third party inspection before buying might cost you a hundred dollars, but might save you thousands.

9

You said "the dealer tells me that the car was likely rebuilt." The dealer should know for a fact that the car was rebuilt and issued a salvaged title, if not, walk away. On top of that, if the seller is slow, hesitant, or unwilling to comply with any of your requests for information about, or access to the vehicle, walk away.

The most common damage in deer related accidents is to the front bumper, fenders, and headlights, but in smaller cars the damage can easily extend to the hood, windshield, and roof. If the deer ended up on the windshield or roof, there can also be extensive interior damage. You should check under the carpets for stains or smells that the seller tried to mask or extinguish before your test drive. Be sure to check the trunk too... It's not unheard of for people to try to take the animal to the vet after the accident.

You should also ask the seller if they have any pictures of the damage. As they say, pictures are worth 1000 words, and pictures of the wreck can tell you where to look for damage or shoddy repair work. It may also show that the damage was limited to the hood, bumper, fenders, and headlights, but the body/paint work was enough to write the car off as a total loss.

Take the car on a longer test drive, being sure to include all road conditions and high/low speeds to make sure everything seems normal, and there are no excessive rattles or squeaks (2 year old cars should not have any).

In addition, have the car inspected by a certified mechanic (usually 60-100 USD). If you're in the states, the Automotive Association of America (AAA) has list of mechanics that have met their standards of service. Quality mechanics will be able to tell what mechanical parts have been damaged or replaced, and auto body shops can tell you if the frame was damaged, and how well it was repaired. They will also tell you if there is unusual tire wear (indicative of misalignment, which could be caused by residual frame damage), and the remaining life of most wear components (brakes, fluids, windshield wipers, etc).

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Uneven bonnet gaps

These are a dead giveaway of a bad repair job - also, check if the gap is too large or small for the car - try and get a photo from a similar angle to one existing to check. Also check door gaps, boot gaps, panel gaps for any misalignment.

Check underneath

Try and get under the car if you can - if you're mechanically minded you should be able to see things like welds or bodge-job "good enough" repair work

Test Drive

If you can, test drive the car for a long period of time, in various different conditions (I.E. Motorway, A-Road, Country Lanes, Duel Carriageways, single carriage ways, villages, towns. If you're US this equates to Freeways, Suburbia and inner city driving and everything in between.) . Keep an eye out for poor steering response, rattles, squeaks any anything else you'd not expect from a 2y/o car.

Other items of note

Try and get photos of the damage. The damage may have been confined to bonnet and windscreen damage, but if the vehicle was nearly written off, that suggests something major

Another thing to quickly check is the roof - does it look aligned correctly? Severe damage to a roof is a sure path to a write off, due to the size of the panel and structure.

Get It Checked

Overall though, nothing quite approaches a seasoned eye. If you have a mechanically minded friend, bring him or her along for the ride and get their honest opinion. Even better, see if you can get an independent mech to give their honest review of the car.

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In addition to the other fine answers, you should inspect the crumple zones, which are most easily inspected by looking between the fender bolts under the hood. On most vehicles, you should see the factory ripples in the sheet metal. If that metal looks like it was ever deformed, painted, or replaced, then walk away from the car.

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  • Why "walk away"? I would just say "only pay accordingly". – R.. May 19 '16 at 21:25
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    @R.. modern cars are funny things, they only like to be crashed once really. If the monocoque has stress anywhere in it from a previous impact, it won't crumple the same way the second time. It might look ok, but in a crash it might fold in half on you. (of course, this isn't always the case, but when it comes to your safety, it's better to be certain) – Aaron Lavers May 20 '16 at 0:24
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Check at least for the following:

  • Paint color match and alignment of panels. Stand a short distance in front of the vehicle and look for uniformity between the left and right sides. Check for overspray (repainting) under the hood/fenders. If any overspray is visible, repairs were likely shoddy.
  • On later model cars, look for a small VIN decal - under hood, on hood, fenders, and other major body panels. If the stickers are missing or the numbers don't match, odds are the parts were replaced.
  • check the radiator and cooling system hardware - I once saw a deer buried so deep in the grill, it pushed the radiator and cooling fan completely against the block. Also check all reservoirs - coolant overflow, washer fluid, brake master cylinder: and especially any other piece of plastic under the hood.
  • check all lighting and signal lamps and be attentive to the trim/fit around them.
  • Ask the dealer if the airbag was deployed and/or look for visible signs of replacement on the dashboard and steering wheel.
  • Look closely under the seats and along the seat rails for broken glass - usually unless the vehicle had an expert detail job, if glass was broken, there will be remnants/shards.

After all that, decide your level of comfort with the vehicle (how much is enough to just walk away and keep looking) OR if signs are visible, use cosmetic problems to bargain for a lower price or some kind of warranty from the dealer. More often than you might expect, these types of cars are liquidated by insurance companies at commercial auctions and dealers snatch them up, perform minimal repairs, and reap a generous profit. Good luck!

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Buying a vehicle that has been subject to an insurance claim in this example is no different to any other. Unfortunately there seems to be little transparency in the vehicle claims industry (certainly in the UK), so as a buyer you have very little information as to the detail of the repair so it is hard to make an informed decision as whether to purchase.

I hit a deer with my car at 60mph (~100kph) a couple of months back. Fortunately I was lucky with the damage but I have absolutely no doubt that my insurance company would have written it off due to the age and value. In my case the front bumper had some very minor paint damage but the support / crash bar behind, the wing and the plastic grille were all damaged. These are all bolt on/off parts and have absolutely no effect on the structure of the rest of the car. My car is a big old Korean 4x4 so had size and weight on its side, I don't think my (BMW era) Mini would have fared quite so well.

In summary, unless you, or someone you trust are confident in what you can see, and have trustworthy reports for what you can't, I would walk away. I consider my self to be relatively sensible when buying used cars but I have been dazzled by the shine and bought badly repaired lemons before, from 'reputable' dealers too.

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