Should you buy a car with an accident history?

When shopping for used cars, information is king. And if information is king, accident history is the king of kings. Besides basics like price and mileage, a car’s accident history is perhaps the number one piece of information that shoppers are interested in obtaining when they’re searching for their next car. And what’s more, people seldom question whether the focus given to a car’s accident history is well-placed, or if it’s perhaps a bit over-blown.

This article will do exactly that: examine whether buying a car with an accident history is really as bad of an idea as people make it out to be. So, with this in mind, let’s break down everything that a savvy car-shopper should know about accident histories.

First things first: where can you find out about accidents?

The first thing that we should all know about accident histories is where to find them. The most popular way to know if a car has been in an accident is to run a Carfax report on the vehicle. If the car is being sold from a dealer, they should be able to provide a Carfax report for free. However, if the car is being sold privately, you’ll have to run one yourself. Either way, running a Carfax report is the best way to check if a car has been in an accident.

However, Carfax reports are, unfortunately, not always able to tell the whole story. If a police report wasn’t filed, or if the body shop doesn’t report to Carfax, the car will still show up as not having been in an accident, even if it has been. Most accidents will show up on a Carfax report, but not all. For this reason, it’s important to know what to look for on the car, with your own two eyes, so you don’t need to rely on Carfax.

Additionally, you can always ask the seller and hope that they’re being honest. Having said that, lets carry on assuming that you know that the car has been in an accident: should you walk away, or still consider buying?

Not all accidents are created equal

No two accidents will ever be exactly alike, and this is why I don’t subscribe to the “always walk away from a car with an accident” mentality. This is because something as minor as respraying the front bumper due to rock chips can be reported as an accident to Carfax by some body shops.

This is, of course, no reason not to buy a car, which is why you always want as much information on the accident as possible. In my opinion, there are two main questions regarding the accident that need to be answered in order for you to determine whether the car is still worth buying. These questions are whether the airbags deployed, and whether there was structural or frame damage to the car. If the answer to either question is yes, my recommendation is to walk away.

Airbag deployment indicates that the accident was severe, and replacing airbags is an intricate process that, once completed, still comes with its own slew of potential safety issues down the road. Additionally, cars whose airbags have deployed are often plagued with electrical issues regarding SRS warning lights and other similar problems.

Similarly, structural damage also indicates that the accident was severe, and once a frame is damaged, it’s nearly impossible to return it back to factory specifications. So in cases of airbag deployment and structural damage, it is best to walk away and find another car, no matter how enticing the deal may be. However, if neither of these two major issues are present, you can still proceed with the sale, but do so with caution. 

Buying a car with an accident history: what to know and what to look for

So, you’ve determined that the car was in an accident, but the airbags didn’t deploy, and the frame remained unscathed. If this is the case, chances are the accident wasn’t all that bad, and that the car may still be perfectly fine and worth buying. I emphasize may because you still need to ask some questions before pulling the trigger. It’s important to know where the car was damaged so that you can inspect the area to assess the quality of the repair.

You can often find the areas of damage on CarFax, or by asking the previous owner if the accident occurred under their ownership. If it did, be sure to ask them where it was repaired so you can ensure that it was a reputable body shop. If you can find out the area and extent of damage, the decision is then left your judgement regarding whether to proceed. That said, if you can verify the extent of damage and that the car was well-repaired, I’d give the purchase a green light, assuming everything else checks out.

However, if you don’t know where or how badly the car was hit, or where it was repaired, I would shy away unless it’s an otherwise perfect car being sold for an irresistibly good deal. 

Final thoughts 

Buying a car with an accident history can be a slippery slope, but it can just as easily be complete a non-issue. The difference between these two is simply the amount of detailed information that you can procure. Like we said, if there was airbag deployment or structural damage, walk away. If the accident is a gray area, and you don’t know much about it, proceed with caution, and don’t settle for anything less than a stellar deal on an otherwise perfect car. However, if you can verify that the accident was relatively minor and well-repaired, I say go ahead with the purchase, assuming that everything else with the car checks out.  

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