How to Spot a Car With Fire or Smoke Damage

A fire-damaged car can end up being a literal hot mess. Here's how to avoid buying one.

Car on fireGetty Images

Article QuickTakes:

Vehicle fire damage is not very common. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), between 2013 and 2017, an average of 117,400 passenger vehicles caught fire each year out of more than 275 million. Even so, it doesn’t hurt to keep an eye out for fire-related damage when shopping for a used car. While the car’s title should carry some kind of branding (e.g., fire, salvage, or rebuilt), sellers can get around this in a couple of ways. Fortunately, there are ways to tell if your prospective purchase was once a four-wheeled marshmallow roasting over an open flame.

Causes of Vehicle Fires

Mechanical malfunctions and electrical faults are the leading causes of vehicle fires. Combustible fluids such as gasoline, motor oil, and even coolant can ignite if they leak onto a hot enough surface, and in rare albeit highly publicized cases, the large lithium-ion battery pack in an electric vehicle (EV) can erupt when damaged. Moreover, faulty wiring or a misplaced lit cigarette can set a cabin to flames.

Naturally, a car can also sustain fire damage from outside sources. The NFPA reports that roughly 6,600 garage fires break out each year in the U.S., many of which presumably torch the vehicles held inside.

What to Look For

You might think a fire-damaged car would automatically be deemed unfit to drive, but that's not always the case. It depends on the extent of the damage and other factors, including where you live and the company insuring the car. An owner could have a singed vehicle repaired and repainted; whether it will ever be the same is a different story, however.

It’s a good idea to steer clear of anything with scorch marks. Fire causes steel to oxidize or rust. It can also leave residue from burning off a car’s paint. If the bare metal wasn’t properly cleaned, a new coat of paint will have difficulty adhering to it and easily chip.

Less obvious signs of fire damage include brittle insulation on electrical wires and weakened tires with cracks in the sidewall and/or bubbles in the tread. These will be tough for any shopper to spot, which is why getting a pre-purchase inspection is a good idea. It may cost you a few hundred dollars, but having a trained mechanic look over the car before you buy can help you assess its health and potentially save you from a maintenance nightmare later.

What About Smoke Damage?

Another thing to look (or rather, smell) for is smoke damage in the interior. Smoke finds its way into the nooks and crannies of a car's cabin and can coat surfaces with harmful chemicals. It’s tricky to deal with, and requires rigorous cleaning or reupholstering to get rid of. A less-than-thorough cleaning job should leave behind plenty of olfactory evidence. Look for soot stains on the headliner, and check hard-to-clean areas — like behind door handles and under the seats for black dust and oily residue. If the owner has replaced all the fabric surfaces, you may want to ask why.

Consider Getting a Vehicle History Report

Companies like Carfax and AutoCheck can compile data tied to a car's Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) into a comprehensive report for a small fee, typically between $25 and $50 per VIN. A vehicle history report might not list every event in a car's life, but it will detail all the major ones. And if there's a serious defect on the title, including fire damage, that'll show up too.

This site is for educational purposes only. The third parties listed are not affiliated with Capital One and are solely responsible for their opinions, products and services. Capital One does not provide, endorse or guarantee any third-party product, service, information or recommendation listed above. The information presented in this article is believed to be accurate at the time of publication, but is subject to change. The images shown are for illustration purposes only and may not be an exact representation of the product. The material provided on this site is not intended to provide legal, investment, or financial advice or to indicate the availability or suitability of any Capital One product or service to your unique circumstances. For specific advice about your unique circumstances, you may wish to consult a qualified professional.
author photo
Alex Nishimoto
Alex Nishimoto is a Los Angeles-based writer with 15 years experience covering the auto industry. He spent much of his career as an editor on staff at a major automotive magazine, testing cars, writing articles, and assisting on segment-defining comparison tests. When he's not writing about cars, he's wrenching on his E30-generation BMW 325is, which he's owned since college and plans to restore one day.