If you are entertaining the idea of purchasing a used vehicle, have it inspected by an independent mechanic prior to purchase like Auto P.I. or Lemon Detectives. This should be regarded as a ‘must do’ when buying a used car. The worst paint job in the world isn’t going to leave you stranded on the side of the road; a bad transmission or fuel pump will; every time.
Not every car that has had bodywork done should be completely avoided at all costs; when repair work is properly performed by trained professional craftsmen there is little reason to worry about structural integrity. However, no matter the quality of repair, because of its need, the car is devalued. There are, unfortunately, few truly gifted body men that will work for peanuts. Quality work is expensive, and most people like to save money more than they like to know that the replacement bumpers behind front fascia, that you never see, are painted body color to match the factory originality (like mine are). Most people are going to let you know that there was fender bender in the past, if you ask them. However, not every person selling a car is going to be completely honest with you about some of the less than stellar moments in its history. By using some common sense and knowing what to look for, you can make a more informed purchase decision.
How to use your eyes like you know what you’re looking for.
Go to an open area in sunlight; top floors of parking garages are great for this, as are large empty parking lots. Being in the sun makes a huge difference; you’ll miss a lot of issues if you try and do this in your garage at home or under a street light.
Stand well back from the car (I’ll use ‘car’ in place of ‘vehicle’ as it is easier to type) and look it over, nose to tail. Do the headlights sit evenly? Is there any ‘sag’ to the bumpers? Now look between the panels. Are the gaps even top to bottom? Is the hood to fender gap straight and true? Does the hood sit higher on one side or one corner? Are the tail lights the same shade of read? Do the headlights display similar wear?
Are all the panels the same color? I’m not being facetious, many colors such as metallic silvers and golds, as well as pearls are very difficult to match; this is part of the reason you need the sun light. Is the metal flake content of the paint heavier on the door than the fender? Do the hood and fenders shine more than the roof and quarter panels? That could be evidence of a partial re-spray. Look at the car from multiple angles; are there any obvious issues with the paint and/or body panels? If there are, you need to investigate those areas closer. If not, good, now investigate closer anyway.
Get up close and personal with the bumpers and rocker panels. Be sure and look below the front bumper. Are the plastic panels rigidly in place or are they loose or missing? This can lead to a bevy of issues down the road. Make sure that the under carriage panels are all there and properly installed. Look for runs and drips in the clear coat; often, the lower half of the bumpers and rocker panels will reveal previous paint work by the presence of these flaws that are overlooked by most paint and body shops due to their seldom-seen location.
Inspect the inner fender liners, they should be black plastic. If there is any paint on these at all, then there has been paint work; this is overspray, the result from paint wafting onto areas it isn’t supposed to; areas that should have been protected better during the paint application process. Common overspray locations include: the cowl area, hood-protruding windshield washer nozzles, wheel wells, exterior lighting, and weather stripping around the doors, hood and trunk. Another place often seen while appraising vehicles is at the bottom of the fender just aft of the wheel; that attachment point is often a giveaway. Also, be sure and check the door jams for evidence of over spray as well as around the edges of exterior lighting .
Now, let’s take a look under the hood, shall we? Look to where the hood is attached to its hinges. There shouldn’t be any exposed metal on the bolt heads. These should be painted body color and the paint should be unmarred; if the paint is chipped, has wrench and/or socket marks, or the paint around the base of the washer is split, this indicates that the hood has at least been removed, if not replaced, at some point in the cars history. Is the original NVH pad still attached to the hood? Does it appear to be older or more worn than the hood? Are the manufacturers’ stickers on the hood? Have they been painted over?
Scrutinize the fender bolts as well. Make sure that the fenders are mirrors of each other. If one fender has ‘Ford’ stamped on it, expect to see the same ‘Ford’ stamping on the other fender in the same location; if it isn’t there, the fender is most likely a lower quality replacement stamping.
Take a moment to study the front structure of the car. Does it appear to be straight? Are surfaces flat and smooth that should be? Do you see any bare metal in the structure where the paint has chipped off of a bent surface? Are there new plastic pieces on one side, but not the other? Remember, a new alternator is a good thing, a new radiator support and headlights are, generally, not good news.
Are zip ties being used to fasten wiring, or anything else for that mater, under hood? They aren’t supposed to be there. Manufacturers most often use plastic, interference-fit pins and clips.
Your eyes are your first line of defense against buying a patch-work car. Take your time. Your vehicle is the largest purchase outside of our homes that most people make. Inspect and reinspect, ask questions and if you aren’t sure about something don’t be afraid to get a second opinion.