Structural Damage and Car Frame Damage

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Both major and minor collisions can cause structural damage to a vehicle. Though not impossible to repair, a vehicle that suffers structural damage can be difficult and expensive to fix. Unfortunately, the vehicle’s safety may be compromised, and related mechanical problems could surface prematurely down the road.

What Is Structural Damage?

Structural damage refers to any damage made to a vehicle’s underlying structure or underpinnings. Back when all vehicles were constructed using body-on-frame construction, this also was called a “bent frame.” Today, pickup trucks and the few truck-based sport utility vehicles left on the market are the only models in which the body and a ladder-like frame are separate elements that are bonded together. Trucks retain this design for its inherent durability and the ability to support larger and more powerful engines.

Today’s cars and car-based crossover SUVs are based on what’s called “unibody” construction. Here, the body panels and the underlying chassis are built as a one-piece skeleton-like shell. This configuration reduces a model’s weight while maintaining its structural integrity. Shaving pounds from a vehicle is the easiest way to boost its fuel economy.

How Does Structural Damage Happen?

A vehicle can suffer structural damage in a collision with another vehicle or a fixed object, such as a light pole. Impact to a pivotal point of a car or truck’s chassis can cause the frame or unibody to bend, break or otherwise become compromised. A unibody frame is designed to collapse upon impact to absorb crash forces better than a body-on-frame vehicle for added safety. Unfortunately, this means that a unibody vehicle can more easily develop major structural damage in a crash.

If the cost to repair a given vehicle is more than its pre-collision resale value, it will be declared a total loss for insurance purposes. A totaled vehicle is usually scrapped and is issued what’s known as a salvaged or rebuilt title. Avoid any used car that’s been repaired and sold with a salvaged title, no matter how great a deal it seems.

Can You Fix A Car With A Bent Frame?

It is possible for a trained mechanic to repair a car that’s had structural damage, assuming the cost isn’t steep enough to total the vehicle. In a unibody car or crossover SUV, the entire body and its underpinnings are considered part of its structure. Damage to one part of the shell essentially affects the entire structure. 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.

What Does Structural Damage Mean To A Car’s Resale Value?

A car that’s suffered structural damage and has been repaired usually will retain a lower-than-average resale value. This can vary, of course, according to the vehicle and the severity and nature of the damage. Sources we checked indicate a structurally damaged car or truck should be worth anywhere from 30 percent to 70 percent less than an undamaged model.

Can A Used Car Dealer Sell A Vehicle With Frame Damage?

In most states, a used car dealer must disclose whether a vehicle has been salvaged, damaged in a flood or has been rebuilt. But a private seller might not even be aware of any underlying damage if the car had been wrecked by a prior owner. Also, most used cars are sold “as is.” That means they’re being offered without a warranty of any kind, and with limited, if any, consumer protection. Only a few states extend “lemon law” protection to used-vehicle buyers, and it typically applies only to qualifying models sold by dealerships.

How Can I Tell If A Used Car Has Had Structural Damage Repaired?

You won’t be able to simply eyeball a given car or truck to determine whether it’s had structural damage. Fortunately, obtaining a CARFAX Vehicle History Report will 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.

Still, you’ll want to take an extensive test drive and take note of any suspect vibrations, thumps or harshness that might indicate underlying problems. Even better, have the vehicle checked out by a mechanic that works with a qualified collision repair facility. A trained technician will be able to tell whether a car or truck has sustained structural damage by looking for torn, separated or re-welded parts. Most importantly, he or she will be able to determine whether it’s structurally sound and is safe to drive.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in January 2012. It has been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness. 

By | 2018-10-24T21:04:03+00:00 September 14th, 2018|Inspecting a Vehicle|21 Comments


  1. Laird Assessors September 20, 2012 at 2:27 pm - Reply

    One problem we face in the UK, is that unless the vehicle is declared a total loss, then it is unlikely to end up on a register. This can give buyers a false sense of security if a report comes back clear.

    Therefore the only way to ensure the vehicle has not been damaged and repaired is to have it inspected. A mechanic will have little or no experience in body repairs, so a body shop would be better, although they are used to looking at cars pre-repair.

    The best experts are consultant motor engineers like ourselves who are independent so have no fear of stating the true nature of a vehicle and its repairs. A professional engineer will be able to ascertain any damage, repairs and any potential diminution in the car’s value. Our reports are also CPR compliant so are admissible in Court.

    • Cedric April 4, 2014 at 6:46 am - Reply

      Where can I find a professional to evaluate a car I have a question about?

    • Linda October 5, 2017 at 2:10 pm - Reply

      I need someone to verify the structure damage to my car Can you diagnose?

    • Kim September 14, 2018 at 12:42 pm - Reply

      How does a car have structural damage not caused by an accident?

      • Curious gal January 12, 2019 at 4:21 am - Reply

        I was wondering the same thing. I’ve seen that on car fax.

  2. Kai Pettifrew January 22, 2015 at 1:45 am - Reply

    Nice post.Thanks for sharing with us

  3. Emily May 15, 2015 at 12:19 am - Reply

    What is an individual able to do if they purchase a vehicle from a dealership and were unaware that the car had structural damage in another state but was bought at auction and resold?

    • Linda Kasperkhan May 3, 2016 at 1:32 pm - Reply

      Sue them. Thats what I am trying to do right now cause I found out my car had been in an accident and it was not disclosed to me. Were you able to do anything?

    • flora campbell October 22, 2016 at 5:01 am - Reply

      what is an individual able to do if I purchased a van from a reputable dealership and find out after the fact van has structural was bought at an auction and sold

  4. choke January 7, 2016 at 1:33 pm - Reply

    Though I agree structural damage can be an issue and must be disclosed, I despise how CarFax makes it seem like any car with structural damage is a complete ticking time bomb and valueless therefore valueless.

    There are a multitude of levels of structural damage. Of course anything too significant and the car is likely totaled. But in some cases it may be just a minor shift in a column that holds a door straight. Or something is off by 1/16th of an inch causing bad body lines so it gets pulled straight

    These kind of structural “repairs” do not affect the structure or safety of the vehicle.

    Buyers should also consider if an authorized service center or dealership for that cars make is repairing a cars structure or not.

    If someone has a vehicle that had structural damage and it was repaired, they need to check their state laws for a diminished value claim.

    Some vehicles can lose as much as $2,000 if it has a crash reported on the CarFax. And a structural damage report may cause up to $8,000 in diminished value.

    Therefore the owner of this vehicle can receive a check for this loss in value from the insurance company and therefore be able to absorb that loss when selling it or trading it in to he dealership.

    But again, structural damaged vehicles are not usually the complete pieces of crap to be avoided as CarFax suggests. Just take the time to see where it was repaired and find any paperwork or history about the repair to be sure it was done right.

    • Nilz January 18, 2016 at 7:43 pm - Reply

      I have encountered this issue for my vehicle.
      CarFax reported this a year after I purchased the car, before I bought the vehicle the CarFax report was absolutely clean.
      Is it true that I may be able to receive a check form insurance company for the diminished value of my car while trading in?

    • Linda Kasperkhan May 3, 2016 at 1:36 pm - Reply

      The problem is what if the car you purchased from a dealer and come to find out that the car was purchased from an auction and the accident has happened in another state. Carafax wont release any information regarding the accident except for the fact it has structural damage. I took my car to trade it in and they devalued the car by 8,000-10,000 dollars.

    • Rhoda October 19, 2018 at 3:12 am - Reply

      You can only recover up the maximum of the insurance policy covering the accident. If your vehicle cost $9,500 to fix and the policy is for only $10,000, no matter what your diminished value, you are only entitled to the remaining $500 on the policy. If you want to take it further you can go to court and most attorneys will not go to court for a diminished value claim unless it is a very large payout. Over 10K or more.

  5. Matt February 22, 2016 at 11:52 am - Reply

    On a newer vehicle, Does the inner door brace count as structural, and would that count as structural damage if that inner brace is broken?

  6. SUPERBRUCE May 15, 2016 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    i own a 69 chevelle malibu 2 dr. with minor frame damage and of course front end body dmg..i need to know what the approx. value would be if i sell it?

  7. christian vazquez November 8, 2016 at 9:11 pm - Reply

    The problem is this: there is a don’t know policy in the car dealer world which means if they didnt know the car had a previous accident, they are not liable for selli g you a car as is. Thats why it is important to pull a carfax report because if the dealer wont you can avoid a big headache. Also, depending on the severity of the structure damage the car can loose almost all of its value but some dealers still sell the car at full price though they wont pay you full price when trading it in. They buy and sell cars to other dealers or at auction to avoid this information disclosure.

  8. Triston Talbot March 17, 2017 at 12:23 am - Reply

    I recently bought a 2014 F150. The truck looks nice, and after getting it home on a late Saturday night. Dealership closed on Sunday, I noticed body lines not even, and bed off from the cab. Went back to the dealer Monday, requested a carfax, and found out there was a front impact. The report listed airbag deployment, and no issues reported for structural damage. I took it Tuesday to a local auto body shop, and found that the frame is bent in, about Two inches, toward the passenger side. The frame was not straightened, and the parts were welded as is. New hole drilled for radiator mount. The technician told me if there were issues for the factory warranty they may be voided for the altered repair made. I like the truck, and so far the dealer is willing to work with me. They did not disclose the fact that the vehicle had been in a collision before the purchase. I could possibly have the repairs done, or find out if the structure has been compromised. Wondering if that is the case, where do I stand legally, and what should I do.

    • Triston Talbot March 17, 2017 at 12:29 am - Reply

      I also got an estimate for the repairs, went back to the dealer today, and showed them the damage. Said they wanted to go through a body shop that they use. Get a separate estimate, at a better rate, and figure out where to go from there. I feel like the cost of the vehicle was more than what I’m getting.

  9. Jen March 7, 2018 at 6:31 pm - Reply

    Would you buy a car that had rocker panel damage?

    • Rhonda October 19, 2018 at 3:15 am - Reply

      yes, I have a car with rocker panel damage. Runs fine. Drives fine.

  10. Gregg E January 5, 2019 at 12:36 am - Reply

    What is a real scam is how States and insurance companies are declaring vehicles “totaled” if their people who assess repair costs (and they *always* way over estimate) put a repair value as higher than the value of the car, which they *always* drastically under-value.

    It doesn’t matter if the damage is only to removable parts that can be replaced to restore the vehicle to like new condition. they want to force as many vehicles as they can to have to get salvage or other branded titles. It makes the States more money and the insurance companies also benefit. They can charge more to insure a “salvaged” or “rebuilt” vehicle. If the vehicle owner decides to not repair it, then junkyards and vehicle dealers benefit from improperly “totaled” vehicles.

    How about some federal legislation that says a vehicle can only be “totaled” if it has frame or structural damage, was burned, or submerged in water? Even being under water can be restored to like new, if you put in the work to fully strip the body, clean it, and replace all parts that were damaged by immersion. There’s no structural damage and having been cleaned soon enough no corrosion to the body.

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