With the rise of used vehicle history reports, from the likes of CarProof and CarFax, it’s easier than ever to know the accident repair history of a used vehicle you’re considering to buy.

But how do you use that info?

Do you steer clear of everything but a 100 percent no-accident vehicle? Are all $3,000 accident claims equal? Can you buy accident-endowed vehicles at a discount?

According to Joe Varkey, a vice-president at CarProof, the mandate of the company’s vehicle reports is definitely not to celebrate the no-accident car at the expense of its less-fortunate brethren.

“Our entire mandate is to get people the information they need to make an educated decision,” says Varkey. “As long as you know what you’re getting, you can make that educated decision… It doesn’t have to be a perfectly clean to be a good car.”

Good thing, because, according to CarProof’s experience, about one third of all vehicles on the road have some kind of “reported” accident damage.

We know you’re staying away from cars with heavy accident claims, but just to make sure you’re cool with all the lingo you might see on a CarProof report, here’s a quick review…

Salvage — Vehicles that insurance companies decline to repair, because their repair costs doesn’t make sense relative to their current value.

Rebuilt — Salvage vehicles purchased from insurance companies and repaired by other entities. They can go on the road once they pass inspection, but will always be branded “Rebuilt”.

Non-Repairable — Vehicles that can never go back on the road. Crushed or sold for parts.

CarProof gets its accident damage and repair history from multiple sources: insurance and adjusting companies, body shops, towing companies, rental and fleet providers, police departments, auctions, and car service centers.

CarProof reports are certainly comprehensive, but not bullet proof.

As anybody who has had a fender bender knows, making an insurance claim is not always the best option, and not everybody or everything reports to CarProof.

“We always tell people, the only way to be 100 percent sure is a CarProof report plus a mechanical inspection,” says Varkey.

A crucial aspect of this new CarProof landscape is that CarProof is as important to dealers as it is to consumers.

They use the reports to help them select vehicles for their lots.

So if you don’t consult a CarProof report on a vehicle your are considering purchasing from them, well, they will know more about the car than you do…

One of the largest used-car dealers in Canada is Haldimand Motors of Cayuga, Ontario, owned and operated by John Edelman. Haldimand Motors was one of the first dealerships in Canada to provide a CarProof report for every vehicle it sold. Now you can see the CarProof report for each car listed on its website, by simply clicking on a link.

Why?

“I think it’s pertinent information,” says Edelman. He cites one of the mandates laid out by OMVIC, the governing body for auto dealers in Ontario: “If the information is available to the dealer that is pertinent to the sale of the vehicle, it needs to be given to the customer.”

Technically, if dealers have the CarProof report, they have to offer them to customers at some point. Edelman is advocating that all dealers should be mandated to offer them right away — at the advertising stage even. If it is offered further down the sales process, like just before you sign on the dotted line, you may not be thinking straight, says Edelman, because by that point you probably have an emotional attachment to that specific vehicle and just want to take it home.

SmartAutoCheck.com is in the business of inspecting used cars for prospective purchasers, wherever the used vehicle is located. Currently it services customers in Southern Ontario, Calgary and Edmonton.

We asked co-founder, Efi Bershadsky, if used car buyers should stay away from any vehicle with an accident repair on its CarProof report.

His short answer is “no.” His slightly longer answer is that he just purchased a Subaru Tribeca with a reported accident claim of $8,000. The repair was done right, and he figured he saved $4,000 over the going rate for that year Tribeca.

But for most customers, he advises they stick to vehicles with smaller claim amounts, say under $5,000, because anything more would probably denote structural repair, versus cosmetic repair. He believes cosmetically repaired vehicles are often good value, because their integrity and usefulness is not compromised, and it gives you a lever to negotiate a lower selling price.

For used cars in the $5,000 to $10,000 range, he thinks it’s reasonable and possible to ask sellers to knock off $300-$500 for documented cosmetic repairs. For cars around $3,000, you probably can look for a discount of around $50-$100, while cars over $10,000 it may be possible to lower the price by $600 or more.

Josh Bailey of Canadian Black Book told us there has been a widening gap at wholesale auctions between “Extra Clean” category that by definition have no accident claims, and the regular “Clean” cars that can have a modest accident claim. So the latter category, with the potential for negotiation, may be the best value going in the used market.

For cars with structural damage it is a whole different ballgame. You don’t want those cars, says Bershadsky.

Structurally-damaged vehicles can be repaired properly, obviously, but it is much harder to verify if the work was indeed done correctly. It’s almost like stomach surgery — you don’t want to go under the knife again, just to make sure everything was sewn up correctly internally. And cars with repaired structural damage will always carry a stigma, affecting any future resale.

SmartAutoCheck.com performs their vehicle inspections before looking at a CarProof report.

“We don’t want to come to the car with any pre-judgment,” says Bershadsky. Interestingly, his experience is essentially the same as CarProof’s — he finds that about one in every three cars has some damage repairs, whether it’s on the report or not.

Damage repairs are found out by the usual suspects — extra paint, new rims, cracked windshield, additional welding, premature rust, etc. Extra paint is detected by a paint gauge tool, which is actually a micrometer, which measures paint thickness.

Jack Martino is one of the managers at Martino Brothers Collision, with two locations in the GTA, one in continuous business since 1955. He noted that his “average” repair comes in around $2,700, and of those, about 25 percent include some “minor” structural work, which could be something like a radiator support or an apron panel that supports a fender.

“When you’re pulling uni-bodies (to straighten them) and setting them up, you start getting over the $3,000 mark,” says Martino.

It’s worth noting that when vehicles sell at dealer-only auctions, $3,000 of reported accident damage is also when the wholesale price takes a significant hit. Auctions typically give re-dress or arbitration possibilities to dealers who buy such vehicles and then subsequently uncover ugly repair issues.

So $3,000 of reported accident damage might be a good threshold to keep in mind, when comparing specific used vehicles on your short list.

But $3,000 might also be what it costs to replace the driver’s mirror on a Mercedes-Benz SL550. So it’s worth it, to have a body shop confirm what was actually done for the amount indicated on the report, and whether it was done right.

Even though you probably should stay away from cars with major structural repairs, that isn’t at all saying they can’t be repaired right.

Andrew Shepherd, of the Auto Industries Association of Canada, believes the average consumer is not aware of how accurate and sophisticated modern body repair processes are. He notes vehicles are completely returned to their pre-crash safety standards, and that their work has been verified by crash testing results.

“We have so many resources now,” says Jack Martino, noting that documentation directly from the automakers, allows his technicians to repair and attach parts exactly to manufacturer specifications.

“These techs are truly unrecognized engineers,” says Martino.

The shop regularly inspects used cars for customers, advising them about body condition and how well past bodywork was performed.

“The body panel gaps pretty much tell the whole story,” he says. “They should be bang on.”

A beautiful paint job sounds obvious, but Martino notes good painters only like to work in good shops—they don’t like painting over dubious bodywork.