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By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 7/10/2007 7:47:25 PM ET 2007-07-10T23:47:25

It can be awfully scary out there in car-buying land.

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Each year thousands of people unwittingly buy vehicles that have been severely damaged in accidents. It’s not too difficult for unscrupulous rebuilders to patch such vehicles up quickly and turn a profit by moving them along to unsuspecting buyers.

Even cars and trucks that seem like real “cream puffs” can be concealing serious damage — and the vehicles’ titles may not clue you in to that key detail.

How can you protect yourself? Read on.

1. Understand what happens to “totaled” vehicles. If a car or truck is damaged so badly that the cost of repairs exceeds its value, insurance companies typically declare the vehicle to be a total loss and pay out a claim to the owner. Then many insurers sell the totaled vehicles at salvage auctions. Sometimes the vehicles get purchased for their parts or scrap materials; in other instances, they get snatched up by rebuilders or by car dealers who hire rebuilders.

2. Check the vehicle’s title. Does it reveal the car or truck’s storied past with the words “salvage title” or another similar expression, such as “parts only,” “unrebuildable” or “scrap”? If so, that’s a sign of a past accident. If not, don’t assume you’re completely out of the woods yet. Those words appear on the titles insurance companies hand over at salvage auctions, but it’s not hard for those in the barely regulated rebuilding industry to have that disclosure removed. One way to do this is to bring the vehicle to a different state and re-register it.

3. Ask the seller point blank. The simplest way to find out whether the car has been in an accident is to ask. Unfortunately, though, the seller may not be up front with you. Nevertheless, make it a habit to ask this question clearly and directly.

4. Get thee to a mechanic. Any time you buy a used car, it’s important to have the vehicle thoroughly inspected by a mechanic — ideally a mechanic with a background in collision repair. Even if you’re concerned about the cost, get the inspection anyway. It’s worth it! Spell out your desire to learn whether or not this vehicle has ever been in an accident.

5. Know the value and limitations of vehicle-history reports. It’s never a bad idea to get a vehicle-history report through CARFAX or Experian Automotive’s AutoCheck service. Such reports can reveal important and telling red flags. Just be aware that a clean report isn’t a guarantee that the vehicle’s history is actually clean. Plenty of problems don’t get reported to government agencies, and government agencies don’t always report known problems to CARFAX or AutoCheck. Again, nothing beats an actual inspection by an experienced mechanic.

6. Do your own checks, too. You don’t have to be an automotive expert to give the car a good once-over yourself. The paint job can be the most obvious telltale sign that the vehicle has been in a wreck. Check to see whether the paint color and finish are uniform all over, and look for any “overspray” of paint on chrome, trim or rubber seals. Consumer Reports recommends looking for other signs as well, including: misaligned fenders; CAPA (Certified Automotive Parts Association) stickers on any parts, which may indicate a recent collision repair job; fresh undercoating on wheel wells, chassis or engine; doors, hood or trunk that don’t close correctly; dents in structural components; crimped or damaged pipes and fuel lines.

7. What about the air bags? Check to see whether the dashboard air-bag indicator lights up momentarily when the car is started and then goes off. (That’s what should happen!) If it doesn’t come on at all — or if it blinks in a funny way or remains on all the time — that could indicate a problem with the air-bag system. For instance, the air bag may have been replaced incorrectly after an accident, or simply not replaced at all. You can have the air bags scanned when you get the vehicle inspected, and this will generally reveal any malfunctions.

8. Stay away from newer vehicles that have been totaled and rebuilt. If an insurance company totals an expensive new car, the damage must be severe. And no safety inspection will be required after it’s rebuilt — making it difficult for you to know how and where the rebuilder may have cut corners. Unless you really know and trust the mechanic who did the work, it’s best to avoid such a vehicle if you know it’s been rebuilt.

9. An older car might be OK. It can be easy for an older, low-value car to get counted as a total loss by an insurance company, even if the damage it sustained wasn’t too extensive. Find out everything you can about what kind of damage occurred before making your decision.

10. Know where to turn. If you think you bought a rebuilt wreck without your knowledge, you can contact your state’s consumer affairs department or attorney general’s office to report your problem and find out whether any state laws have been violated. To find contact information for your state, click here . You also can visit the Web site of the National Association of Consumer Advocates and pursue qualified legal help if necessary.

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