Everybody’s looking for a deal on a used car. New car sales are cyclical, with buying decisions largely based on the economy. When the economy goes south and you need a car, your best option is to buy pre-owned. But used doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get the best deal. You need to shop around and be wary of any dodgy characters offering BMW Series 3 deals that look too good to be true.

If you’re thinking of buying a used car in the UK, one of the things you always should consider is possible accident history. Stuff happens, but that doesn’t mean everyone is honest about the condition of the vehicle they’re selling. Scams are rampant right now, and some people will lie to make some extra money. The question is, how do you tell if the Fiesta you like had its boot smashed in? There are multiple ways to decide for yourself if a car has been involved in an accident: vehicle inspection, vehicle check, and look for yourself.

Vehicle Inspection

There are a number of vehicle inspection services to choose from, with rates starting at about £100 and rising to as much as £250, covering everything from the engine compartment, body exterior, electrical controls, front and rear suspension, interior, and luggage compartments, front and rear underframes, transmission, exhaust system, steering, clutch, brakes, fuel system, wheels, and tyres. The service may also provide a road test, a thorough summary of engineer endorsements and findings, and photos of the vehicle showing its main flaws. Once you have a full diagnostic and vehicle report, it won’t be hard to see which parts or components were damaged in an accident.

Vehicle Check

If you’re comfortable with a data check only, and trust the vehicle will be aesthetically pleasing and in working condition, we can provide a report for less than £20 normally which clarifies if an insurance provider has written-off a vehicle. A write-off happens when an insurance company representative has inspected the vehicle and determined the car has been too badly smashed or if the cost of repair is more than the value of the vehicle. Depending on the extent of the damage, the insurance company assigns different write-off categories: Cat A (scrap only), Cat B (break for parts), Cat S (structurally damaged but repairable), and Cat N (Not structurally damaged, repairable).

Here’s a closer look at each category, with enough detail to help you make an informed buying decision.

  • Category A. This write-off states the vehicle has been totally damaged in an accident. You can’t fix it or sell it for parts. The insurer calls for scrapping or crushing vehicles such as these, examples of which would include a car that has been consumed in a fire.
  • Category B write-offs state that the car is so terribly damaged that repairs aren’t possible, but the owner can still sell certain parts. Once any salvageable parts have been removed, the car must be scrapped.
  • Category S is any structurally broken vehicle, or vehicle which has suffered damage to the crumple zone, the chassis, or any other vital part. A Category S vehicle can be repaired and driven once again on UK roads.
  • Finally, a Category N write-off means the vehicle remains structurally fit but has suffered from non-structural flaws which could endanger its safety. These usually refer to brake and steering problems that can make the car a road hazard. Just like a Category S car, you can fix a Cat N vehicle and get authorisation to drive it legally on UK roads.

Knowing the different write-off categories can further inform your buying decision, but keep in mind that a car accident check doesn’t always reveal if a car has been in an accident. Why? Because a data check will only reveal what an insurance company reveals about a car, and not what an owner fails to report and fixes on his or her own. Therefore, the accident isn’t registered in the Motor Insurance Anti-Fraud Theft Register database – which is illegal. And how do you get around that? Look for yourself to determine if a car has been in an accident.

Look For Yourself

If you can’t afford an inspection service or data check, you can always look for yourself to see if a used car you want to buy has been damaged in an accident. Your own eyes may not be as reliable, but what you see and feel can go a long way to informing a buying decision. So, let’s say there’s a used Ford Focus you’re interested in. What do you look at for signs of an accident?

  • Check the tyres.
  • Check electrical-powered components like the windows, radio, and onboard GPS, for instance. If a car has been broadsided, components inside the door panel may have been damaged, causing a failure in electric-power assisted open-close functions.
  • Looks for signs and dents along the body and wheel wells. Make sure to look during full daylight, as signs of bodywork are easier to see.
  • Damage to the door windows and windscreen. Look for any chips or cracks, which may be signs of a collision.
  • Check for panel gaps. If there are large gaps, the panels were poorly fixed, or not fixed at all.
  • Stains on the upholstery and floor carpeting. In an accident, someone could’ve spilt coffee or other liquids.

Finally, ask the seller if you can take the car on a road test. He or she can come along, but you need to drive the vehicle yourself before handing over your hard-earned money.