Used car been in a smash? Here's how to find out

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Used car been in a smash? Here's how to find out

There is no comprehensive or central database that records the history of accident damage to vehicles

Consumer journalist

One of the most-asked questions by would-by buyers of a second-hand car is: “Has it been in accident?” 
It’s fair to say that many a car salesman has answered with an incorrect “no”, or with a reassuring “only a fender bender” when in fact the truthful response would be: “Yes, a really bad one; you wouldn’t believe what the car looked like before it was fixed.”Blindly trusting a commission-earning salesman, is, with respect, a silly thing to do; if you don’t do your own checks, you’re very likely to get “caught” in some way.
But here’s the thing – no matter how proactive you are, you have no means of finding out for sure whether a car has been in an accident; not since March 2015 when insurance claims information provider Audatex stopped making accident claim information available to credit bureau Transunion, which also has an Auto Information Solutions division.
So while Transunion’s FirstCheck app is a wonderful source of information with respect to a car’s estimated market value and whether or not it’s been stolen and/or still being financed, it cannot answer that crucial “has the car been in an accident?” question for you.
It’s a major lapse. Here’s why: cars that have been in major accidents and “written off” by insurers – because the repair cost is more than 70% of the car’s market value – are then sold by those insurers to auction houses where they are bought for a song, fixed up and then make their way onto showroom floors where they are bought by people who are completely oblivious of their problematic history.
Prince Mashinini knows all about that. He bought a second-hand Ford Figo for R135,000 in January from AutoMax Selected Used Cars in George. When it broke down three months later, his insurer’s assessors revealed that the car had been written off in June. “I then tracked down the previous owner’s brother on social media and he told me his sister had hit an SUV head-on in the car.“None of that was disclosed to me at the time of sale,” he said.
AutoMax owner André Fourie said he was also none the wiser.
“I bought the car from a private person in good faith,” he said. “It looked fine, and nothing flagged in any of the checks I did – Transunion, Lightstone, or the Dekra Bumper to Bumper check – the latter only ‘previous repairs noted’ which could have been referring to very minor repairs.”
Fourie has since taken the car back, settled the bank, and refunded Mashinini, including for the cost of repairing the car.“Currently there is no comprehensive or central database that records the history of accident damage to vehicles,” said Ross Stewart, of TransUnion Auto Information Solutions.
“That data is split between panel shops, insurers and the like, but there is no accident history database which is accessible to the consumer.”
Two weeks ago I went onto the Auction Nation’s website and tracked its Johanneburg car auction which was on to go at the time.
Most of cars up for auction, including ones which had clearly been in severe accidents, had been sold by the insurer as Code 2s.A Code 2, according the Code of Salvage agreed to by various stakeholders – insurance industry, police and motor financers – is an ordinary second-hand car. In other words, those wrecks have the same legal status as the meticulously maintained, never-been-in-an-accident car someone trades in for a newer model. 
A Code 3, on the other hand, is a car so badly damaged that it’s unfit for use as a motor vehicle. It may be rebuilt under “stringent procedures”, but its Code 3 status will forever reflect that, which radically reduces its value, and most insurers will not insure them. I sent Discovery photos of two badly damaged cars which the insurer had sold to the auctioneers as Code 2s and were sold on that auction: a 2017 Mazda CX3 which fetched R60,000, and a 2014 Hyundai i20 which sold for R38,000.What made them Code 2s and not Code 3s, I asked. 
Discovery Insure CEO Anton Ossop said the extent of the damages on both cars was such that they were not declared unfit for use.“In fact, a vast majority of cars that are written off after accidents can be repaired and remain safe to drive and roadworthy and are therefore coded as Code 2. 
“Declaring that a car was previously in an accident is the responsibility of the seller of the vehicle.”
Ah, well that’s where the problem comes in. That’s clearly not happening.I also picked out a 2017 Kia Rio from Outsurance which had clearly been in a serious front-end smash. It sold for R64,000 on the same auction.
“The biggest differentiating factor between a Code 2 and Code 3 car is whether the damage is minor or major structural damage,” Outsurance told me.
“All cars are assessed by suitably qualified and experienced in-house assessors who refer coding decisions to their immediate management team for assistance, and the auction house also independently verifies the coding decision, informs us if they disagree with the code we have applied and corrects the code.”What to do
So if the dealership doesn’t know the accident history of the cars they are selling – or chooses not to disclose it – how do would-be buyers avoid buying one? 
• Get the car checked to by a third party inspection centre such as Dekra and specifically ask them to look for signs of major accident damage.
• Test-drive the car in a variety of conditions from low to high speeds. Be on the lookout for poor handling, alignment and obvious defects like body panels and bumpers which are not symmetrical or aligned, strange engine pitch or noise, rattles or other noises. 
• If an engine bay side wall is clean, and the opposite side wall is dirty, be suspicious. Crooked bumpers indicate trauma. Look for messy wiring, non-matching panels and oil on the engine cover – all bad signs.
• Source the car’s catalogue online or at a dealership to see if the paint colour aligns with manufacturer’s colour options.
• Some cars such BMWs store data of the car in the key’s memory: request the key be sent to a BMW dealership for a report
- Car enthusiast Tebatso Mashigo, who tweets car advice as The Stig’s South African Cousin (@Benevolent_Mash)
CONTACT WENDY:
Email:consumer@knowler.co.za
Twitter:@wendyknowler
Facebook:wendyknowlerconsumer

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