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Car Frame Damage and Other Structural Damage

Any collision can cause structural damage to a vehicle, which may be difficult and expensive to fix. Structural damage can affect the safety of the car or truck — and related mechanical problems could surface prematurely.

What Is Car Frame Damage / Structural Damage?

Structural damage is any damage to a vehicle’s chassis or underlying structure. In other words: It’s like breaking a car’s skeleton — and that’s pretty serious business!

Two Types of Chassis: Body-on-Frame vs. Unibody

Unibody vs. Body on Frame
Body-on-Frame vs. Unibody / Photo Illustration: Carfax / Photo: Getty

Today, most cars and crossover SUVs are built from a unibody construction: The body panels and chassis may look like separate pieces, but they’re one solid structure. This saves on weight while maintaining structural integrity — two critical factors for many carmakers. And that’s desirable because shaving off pounds is the easiest way to boost a car’s fuel economy.

A body-on-frame vehicle, such as a pickup truck, has a body bolted on top of a frame resembling a ladder.

How Does Structural Damage Happen?

Close Up Of Two Cars Damaged In Road Traffic Accident
Photo Credit: monkeybusinessimages / Getty

When a car is in an accident, the frame or body can be bent, broken, or compromised. A unibody vehicle’s design allows it to absorb crash forces better than a body-on-frame one, improving safety for occupants of these cars. Unfortunately, a unibody vehicle can more easily develop major structural damage in a crash.

If the cost to repair a given vehicle exceeds its value before the accident, the insurance company will likely declare the car a total loss. Totaled vehicles are usually scrapped and issued what’s known as a salvage title. Be wary of any used car repaired and sold with a salvaged title, no matter how great a deal it seems.

Can You Fix a Car With a Bent Frame?

Car Frame Damage With Mechanic Fixing It
Photo Credit: avid_creative / Getty

It’s possible for a trained mechanic to repair a car that’s had structural damage. Though damaged sections of a unibody frame can be replaced, driving a vehicle that’s undergone structural damage should be considered a safety risk. What’s more, the underlying damage can cause additional mechanical problems later on.

How Does Structural Damage Affect a Car’s Resale Value?

A car that’s suffered structural damage and has been repaired usually loses some value compared to vehicles without that damage. This can vary, of course, according to the vehicle and the severity and nature of the damage. If you’re looking at a car that’s been damaged, check out its Carfax Vehicle History Report. It can often tell you the severity of the crash, so you’ll know whether it was merely cosmetic or something more serious.

In most states, a used car dealer must disclose whether a vehicle has been salvaged, damaged in a flood, or rebuilt. But a private seller might be unaware of any underlying damage if a prior owner had wrecked the car.

Most used cars are sold “as is.” That means they’re being offered without a warranty of any kind. Only a few states extend “lemon law” protection to used-vehicle buyers, and it typically applies only to qualifying models sold by dealerships.

Signs A Used Car Has Had Structural Damage Repaired

Persons Hands on a Steering Wheel
Photo Credit: Motortion / Getty

You won’t be able to eyeball a car or truck to determine whether it’s had structural damage. Fortunately, obtaining a Carfax Vehicle History Report can indicate if a pre-owned vehicle has been in a wreck and whether any structural damage was reported. It also will indicate whether a model was previously salvaged and rebuilt.

Once you’ve narrowed your choices, take the car for an extensive test drive and write down any noises that seem out of place. Or better yet, have a qualified mechanic inspect the vehicle before buying it.

A trained mechanic can tell if a car or truck has sustained structural damage by looking for torn, separated, or re-welded parts. The mechanic will also get underneath the vehicle to see things you might not notice.

If you have questions about this story, please contact us at Editors@carfax.com