Whether or not a car has been repainted can have a substantial effect on its value. This is especially true for vintage and collector cars. It’s important to know as much about a vehicle’s history as possible before buying or selling it.
The problem isn’t so much the paint itself. What’s more important is the unknown:
Why was it repainted?
Was it in a collision or did it suffer some sort of impact? Has it undergone heavy rust repair? Or was it something simple like a scratch that was too deep to polish out?
How was it repainted?
Where was the work done? Did they take the time to do it properly? Is the paint job going to last as long as the car?
What’s underneath the new paint?
Body filler (or “Bondo”) is used commonly in the autobody industry. It has an intended use though and overusing it can lead to wavy looking panels and even cracked or chipped paint. There are also plenty of stories of things being used to fill in panels such as old newspapers. You’d be amazed at how creative people can get when they’re looking to save money.
Top warning signs that a car has been repainted:
There are plenty of warning signs that a car has been to a body shop for paintwork. It’s possible that only one of these or all of them are present. Keeping a close eye out for them can save you some future stress.
Inconsistencies in texture
Many modern cars leave the factory with what’s known as “orange peel”. This is a texture in the paint that you guessed it, looks like the skin of an orange instead of being perfectly smooth. This is normal in a lot of cases so it isn’t necessarily a sign of a repaint.
The important thing to pay attention to here is the difference between panels. If one fender has a lot of orange peel in it but the rest of the car is smooth, that would point towards the fender being repainted. On the other hand, a panel with perfect paint that doesn’t match up with the amount of orange peel in the rest of the car could also indicate the same thing.
Inconsistencies in color shade
This is another one where you need to compare each panel with the others. Some colors are harder to match than others. Unfortunately, there are body shops out there that will get it “close enough” so they can get paid for the job and move on.
Paint needs to be examined in different lighting situations. It might match perfectly under the direct sunlight but look completely off in the shade or at night time. Reflections in the paint will vary with different light sources. If the body shop failed to double check their work properly, you might be dealing with 2 different shades of paint on your car.
In my experience, paint overspray is one of the most commonly found signs that a car has been to a body shop. It can be identified both visually and by feel. Most of the time, overspray will look like a dull patch on top of the paint. It will also feel rough to the touch compared to smooth, uncontaminated paint.
Overspray happens when other sections of the car aren’t covered up while the paint is being sprayed. I’ve seen this happen everywhere from a small corner of a panel where the tape peeled up to the entire side of a roof that had been completely neglected during the painting process.
The good news is that overspray can be removed fairly easily. This is where clay bars and clay bar alternatives come in. They can be used to pull the overspray up and off of the clear coat, leaving behind a smooth finish. So there’s good news and bad news – it’s simple to fix but it does indicate that the car has been repainted (or at least it was parked near one that was).
Visible tape lines
Body shops will tape off certain areas that they don’t want to get paint on. This is typically found near windows, moldings, trim, and emblems. It’s common to see tape lines along windows where they have been covered up to save money rather than removing them to do the job thoroughly.
A tape line looks like a sharp cutoff between 2 different depths of paint. Another example of a tape line is an edge where excess compound or polish residue is left behind. Fresh paint is always buffed afterward but this could also indicate that the original paint has been polished or corrected. It’s a sign of sloppy work either way but can’t be relied on to prove the car has been repainted by itself.
Paint depth gauge readings
Paint depth gauges can be really helpful in figuring out a vehicle’s history. This is another situation where you’re comparing each panel with the others to compare the readings. If the entire car is reading around 200 microns and the hood reads 750, chances are it’s been repainted.
Aftermarket paint jobs are typically thicker than OEM ones. Most cars are painted by machines at the factory and they’re dialed in to use the least amount of paint as possible while still being effective. Manufacturers are trying to control the cost of wasted product now more than ever.
A car that has been painted by hand will usually have more paint on it. It also might have body filler underneath the paint which will have an impact on the readings from most paint depth gauges.
You can read more about paint depth gauges and how to use them in this article:
Pay close attention to the gaps between body panels. They often need to be removed in order to paint the car properly and there may be inconsistencies in the gaps if they haven’t been aligned properly.
A good autobody technician will spend the time to get these right so if there are noticeable differences in these gaps, it’s likely that other corners were cut during the painting process as well.
Some cars will actually have stickers that show the VIN number on multiple panels to prove that they’re original. These are difficult to cover up or replace during the painting process so look to see if they’re missing or have tape lines around them.
There might also be situations where decals or stickers are left off because the owner prefers the look or new ones couldn’t be found. Remember, every car will have some type of decal in the driver’s door jam that shares info such as the paint color code and recommended tire pressures.
Damaged trim or moldings
Plastic or rubber trim can be tough to remove without leaving any damage behind. It’s increasingly more difficult as cars start to show their age and these pieces become brittle.
Watch out for cracks or noticeable pry marks as well as any broken clips or tabs. Sometimes people will even use glue or silicon to attach a piece that’s been broken. There aren’t many other reasons to remove these parts unless you’re repainting the panel.
It’s common practice to blend fresh paint in with older original paint. This is one way to make sure a slight color difference goes unnoticed. There’s nothing wrong with blending paint, as long as it’s done properly. And when it’s done properly, you probably won’t be able to see it.
Blend marks can sometimes be difficult to spot if you aren’t experienced but it will often look similar to overspray. Think of the spray pattern being overlapped onto an adjacent panel – that’s usually what a blend mark will look like.
Signs of a lazy painter
Some autobody technicians are just plain lazy. This makes their work very easy to spot. Keep an eye out for sanding marks, drips/runs, and even burnt edges.
Sanding marks will look like straight scratches in a uniform pattern. These are supposed to be refined and buffed out until they’re completely removed. If they’re still visible, the painter got lazy and quit his job early. Sanding marks can also be found below the painted surface – these can’t be fixed by polishing and the panel will need to be repainted.
Drips and runs are pretty self explanatory. They can be fixed with some strategic sanding so if they’ve been left behind, the painter hasn’t done their job properly.
You wouldn’t think thin paint and burnt edges would ever be found on a panel that has just been repainted but you’d be surprised. Some autobody technicians might be experts at spraying paint but when it comes to the final stages of polishing their technique leaves something to be desired.
Sanding and polishing is the final stage in perfecting a fresh paint job. It removes any remaining deep sanding marks, some orange peel, and any dust contamination in the clear coat. Most body shops use a rotary polisher with a big wool pad to do the job. The paint is naturally thinner along the edges of a panel and hitting them too hard for too long with sandpaper or a buffer can wear through them.
Hopefully, your car hasn’t been repainted but if it has, these warning signs should get your attention. Some of them might be clear on their own, but the more signs you see, the more info you have to put together the puzzle of the car’s history.
Tim is the creator of Canadian Gearhead. His experience with auto detailing and working for Toyota shows through all of the articles posted here. He runs the Canadian Gearhead site and YouTube channel full-time now and currently owns a 2007 4runner, 2006 Tacoma, and 1991 MR2. Read more about Tim: