How to spot Paintwork on a car
Originally posted at

Buying a used car instead of a new one can be a great way for a savvy shopper to save money, in some cases a substantial amount.  Some cars have a market value that's up to 25-30% below their original list price when only one year old!  However, buying a used car, while it can offer great savings (i.e. reward),  does carry risk.  Has it been wrecked?  Flooded?  Maintained?  Well, today we'll concentrate on the "wrecked" part.

Probably the one biggest thing that I am looking for whenever I appraise a car is "Has this car ever had paintwork?"  Maybe you've been at a dealership before, sitting in front of a salesperson about to have your trade-in appraised and the question comes up.. "Has your car ever been in an accident or had paint repairs?"

It's very important for us to know this, as it can greatly affect the value of a car, particularly on more expensive and late-model cars.  Simply put, if a car has paint repairs (paintwork) then its' value is diminshed.  Not only is it important for us to know this when placing a value on a car when either buying it or taking it in on trade, but it's also crucial for you, as a consumer, to know this when considering the purchase of a used car.

Now, you may have heard that if a car is fixed properly, that is will not suffer diminished value or safety.  I disagree based on experience.  First of all, a modern unibody car that has been in a substantial accident can and will be compromised structurally.  Simply put, the car may have protected its' occupants once in an accident, but it may not be able to do the same job twice.  Furthermore, the car will always be worth less than an undamaged one and may be difficult to re-sell later on.  I'm not saying that a car that has had paintwork is always a bad buy, but if a car has had previous repairs, you need to purchase it accordingly.

Not to sound high and mighty, but, well, we're professionals and we can generally spot paintwork from far away.  You, however, may not be able to.  Most consumers who buy used cars look at a few every few years.  I look at dozens and dozens every week.  So now I'm going to give you some inside tips and show you exactly how to spot paintwork and avoid a costly mistake.

So, I have some pictures of an example car here, a 1997 Jaguar XJ6.  It's a beautiful, low-mileage car in a desireable color combination.  It's gorgeous with gleaming chrome, english Conolly leather, a 245 horsepower engine.. wow is that car nice.  It's also been rear-ended lightly and it's also had paintwork on the front and the left front fender replaced.  Nothing terrible, and nothing structural, but the car has been in a couple of accidents.  Therefore, when this car sold at auction last year, it sold for $3,200 less than another XJ6, in the same color and with similar mileage.  When I bought this car last year, a clean 1997 XJ6 had a market retail value of about $29,000.  At that time, a fair price for this car would have been about $26,000, NOT $29,000!  See how it pays to know how to spot paintwork?

Isn't this a nice looking car?


OK!  Lesson time!  Pay attention... there will be a quiz later between you and your wallet.

A car that has had body repairs can be nigh-on impossible to spot for someone who isn't familiar with what to look for.  However, if you DO know what to look for, it's very easy.  There's a few telltale clues...  and my Jaguar has them.

First, and probably the easiest thing to look for, is the telltale signs that a body panel has been painted.  A panel that has not been repainted will, as a rule, feel as smooth on its' edges as it does on the surface.

Look at the following picture and notice where my fingertip is.  If you look closely, you may even see a rough edge at the inner edge of the front fender.  If I run my finger along there, it feels "rough" where the masking tape line was.  It should feel smooth, but here it does not.  So we can tell that this panel has been painted.  Now the red flags need to come up.


But that's not the only thing to look for.  When bodyshops do paint repair, they also tend to use this really messy polishing compound, which sorta gets everywhere...   So look at the next picture, taken of the underneath of the hood on this car.  You'll notice some white spots on the edges.  This could be from a somewhat sloppy wax job, or it could also be from polishing compound.  But what you want to do is to look for evidence overall of the car having been in an accident.


Also, on a lot (but not all) cars, you'll see stickers on all removable body panels (As well as other components of the car) that have the car's VIN on them.  They are on security paper and are tamper-proof.  The first picture shows a VIN Sticker on the fender of the Jaguar, and the second picture shows where a painted body panel (Driver's door) damaged a sticker when the edge was buffed.


Now, another great way to tell is to look at the bolts which hold the door hinges and fender bolts to the frame of the car.  In the following picture, if you look carefully, you'll see that paint has been chipped off of the fender bolts on this car.  I don't know of a way to bolt and and unbolt painted body hardware without chipping the paint.  If you see this, it's a good sign that the body panel has been removed from the car.



Also, I want you to look at the paint itself.  In the next picture, you'll see a close-up of a small surface imperfection that happened in the paint process.  Look closely, see it at the very tip of that fender where it meets the base of the windshield pillar?  It may be tough to see, but it's there.  See how it sort of looks like a pimple? You want to closely look at the surface of the paint for orange peel, also look for alignment of the panels.  Do they seem misaligned?


Now, another thing to look for is overspray.  It happens.  And if you see it, it is a sure sign of paint repair.  The next picture show overspray on a headlight lens and trim ring.


Well, there you go!  You're now on your way to learning how to tell if a car has been hit or not.  Also, remember, it's not like you're shopping for a late 1930's Alfa-Romeo 8C 3200 (If you are you dont need to be getting advice from me!) or a 1957 Bonneville or something.  There's lots of cars out there.  Be choosy and find a nice one.

Feel free to post questions on Bimmerboard.