Tips for buying rebuilt cars

Don't get stuck with a lemon

Last updated: January 2015

Repairing and reselling “salvage” vehicles is a very large business. While it is possible to restore such a vehicle to good condition, rebuilders often cut costs to make a profit. Even if they try to do a good job, no one can predict the crashworthiness and mechanical reliability of those vehicles.

Similar issues affect the estimated 60,000 vehi­cles that are repurchased by manufacturers under state lemon-law programs. Many are resold at retail. Lemons usually don’t have the severe problems you’d expect with salvage cars. But it can be very diffi­cult verifying that the chronic defect has been corrected.

State laws differ, sometimes considerably, on what they define as salvage vehicles and on how—or even if—those vehicles need to be inspected and buyers informed before resale. Your state DMV can explain how to spot a salvage title.

Consumer Reports found that these differing standards have led to the interstate trafficking of salvage and lemon vehicles. Even if titles of former lemon and salvage vehicles are conspicuously branded, those who buy a used car from a dealership often never see the previous title.

If you’ve unknowingly purchased a salvage vehi­cle or recycled lemon, contact your state consumer and motor vehicle officials. You also can check with NACA (, which keeps a list of lawyers who specialize in such cases.

Before you buy, check to see what protection your state offers and what’s required of the seller. The Federal Trade Commission requires used-car dealers to post a buyer’s guide on every used car, which details in writing all warranty information. Keep this after the sale.

Telltale signs that a car is a rebuilt wreck

  1. Paint that chips off or doesn't match indicates damage repair and poor blending.
  2. Paint overspray on chrome, trim, or rubber seals around body openings reveals that the adjacent panel was repaired.
  3. Misaligned fenders suggest a poor repair job or use of nonoriginal equipment manufacturer (non-OEM) parts.
  4. CAPA (Certified Automotive Parts Association) sticker on any part may indicate collision repair.
  5. Uneven tread wear reveals wheel misalignment, possibly because of frame damage.
  6. Mold or air freshener cover-up suggests water damage from a leak or flood.
  7. Silt in trunk may mean flood damage.
  8. Fresh undercoating on wheel wells, chassis, or engine strongly suggests recent structural repairs covered up.
  9. Door that doesn't close correctly could point to a door-frame deformation and poor repair.
  10. Hood or trunk that doesn't close squarely may indicate twisting from side impact.
  11. Dashboard lights, power windows, and other electronics with intermittent problems could be a sign of flood damage.
  12. Dashboard air-bag indicator that doesn't light up could mean the air bag was replaced improperly--or wasn't replaced at all--after an accident.
  13. Big dents, kinks in structural components, or crimped or crunched fuel lines and pipes underneath are the easiest problems to find because rebuilders assume you won't be looking there.
  14. Uneven surfaces on frame components could be filler, seam sealer, or welding beads.
  15. Damaged/gouged nuts and metal on top surface of strut tower (which connects the front wheels to the frame) in engine compartment may mean the frame was realigned.
  16. New metal on only one part of the hood apron shows section repair rather than replacement of the entire apron piece.
  17. Welding bead anywhere on heavy frame members underneath the engine suggests frame-rail sectioning or sloppy repair of a cutout made in the rail to perform repair work.
  18. Inconsistent welds around hood apron, door, door frame, or trunk exemplify a non-factory weld.
  19. Frayed safety belts or belt fibers that have melted together because of friction indicate a previous frontal impact above 15 mph.
  20. Missing car emblem or name on trunk may mean a non-OEM part was used.

Used car buying guide

Learn more about choosing a used car, avoiding a lemon, buying and selling a used car, pricing and financing, and more in our used car buying guide.

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