Car Frame Damage & Structural Damage

Find out what the signs of frame or body damage are and steer clear of vehicles with hazardous structural faults.
Last Updated 01/19/2017

“My husband and I were looking for a 2002 Jeep Liberty. We found one for a decent price, but the owner didn’t mention any previous damage or maintenance issues. We didn’t even think about looking at a CARFAX until my cousin mentioned it. We wanted to be sure we were purchasing a car in good condition, so we paid for the report. It showed that the car had been in two different accidents, one of which caused severe damage to the motor. CARFAX helped us avoid making a terrible deal.” - Gabriela V.

It is an aspect that’s easily overlooked, but a vehicle’s frame or body is its most important safety feature. Cars with structural damage to the frame or body can be seriously unsafe, particularly in the event of a collision.

Unfortunately, many cars with structural damage following an accident are returned to the road, sometimes by scammers who try to hide the car’s history. Signs of car frame damage can be hard to spot but there are things you can do to protect yourself against unwittingly buying one.

What is Structural Damage?

This happens when any part of the vehicle which is part of the main body or frame, or is designed to ensure structural integrity, is damaged. Even minor car frame damage from a trivial collision can seriously undermine the structural integrity of a vehicle.

Examples of vehicle components which are part of the body or frame include suspension mounting, lower and upper frame rails, and for unibody vehicles, the A, B and C pillars, windshield, rear window frame and rocker panels.

Anything which can be bolted on is not considered part of the underlying structure.

Cars have either a unibody or frame construction.

Unibody construction

Unibody construction, where the body and frame are made from one piece of metal, is now the most common structure for cars. Its benefits include a lower body weight and protecting passengers from the force of impact in a crash.

Unibody illustration

Frame construction

Frame construction is when the vehicle’s frame is made of steel and then the body is mounted on top of it. Although unibody construction is now more popular, this method was used extensively in the past and is still used on some models.

Perimeter Frame Illustration

How Does Frame Damage Happen?

This happens when a car is hit at a crucial part of its structure, causing bending, shifting, cracking or other damage. A ripple effect can take place, when even minor damage to one part of the body leads to damage and weakening in other areas.

What Problems Does Structural Damage Cause?

Damage to the car’s body is always concerning because it can affect passenger safety if it is involved in another accident.

In modern unibody vehicles with crumple zones that protect the passenger compartment, this is because once the crumple zones have been damaged they are permanently weakened. If the car crashes, these crumple zones will behave unpredictably, which can also cause the airbags to deploy at the wrong time.

Underlying structural weaknesses can mean that greater damage is caused to the car in an accident.

How to Protect Yourself against Frame Damage

One of the best ways to protect yourself against buying a car with structural damage is to purchase from a reputable used car dealer. On our used car listings you can find vehicles with no reported accidents, which reduces the risk of frame damage.

When you’re viewing a used car check for the following signs of frame damage:

  • Clamp marks, which are holes or gashes on the frame, indicates a wrecked car repaired using a straightening machine
  • Replacement hood, trunk, windows or doors
  • Unusual engine noise, as a major accident can affect the engine
  • An inconsistent finish or rough paint line, particularly under the hood, caused by repainting after repairs
  • Doors, windows, hood or trunk which don’t close properly
  • Welding marks under the hood

Order or ask to see a full CARFAX report to see reported accident, service and maintenance history and have get an inspection from a qualified mechanic before you buy.

If you suspect frame damage, get a collision repair facility inspection. They use lasers to measure a vehicle’s body to the millimeter and compare it to the manufacturer’s specifications.