What You Didn't Know About Vehicle History Reports

(Uncover the secrets you need to know)

Car made out of dollar bills

What's in a Vehicle History Report?

Car history reports, like the ones provided by AutoCheck and CarFax, are one of the most valuable resources consumers can use to protect themselves in the used car market. According to Kelley Blue Book, car history reports use a car's vehicle identification number to run a check on important facts and events in the vehicle's past, including these:

  • Accidents
  • Manufacturer recalls or lemon law flags
  • Salvage or junk titles
  • Odometer rollbacks
  • Number of previous owners
  • Other states where the car was registered

This information can save you from purchasing a car that has hidden damage from a collision or from buying a vehicle from an unscrupulous seller who may have altered the facts about the car's history. Just make sure you're covered with an affordable car insurance policy.

When Do You Need a Car History Report?

Once you locate the car that interests you most, it's time to run a report or two. Edmunds recommends that "consumers buy a subscription for one of the services as soon as they start the shopping cycle. Always run the vehicle history report before calling the owner and especially before driving across town to see the car in person." But remember that the vehicle history report may not be error-free.

While Edmund's car buyers frequently rely on these reports when purchasing vehicles for their test drive fleet, they note there can be a lag between the time a major accident occurs and the time it pops up on a CarFax report. That time difference could include the day you, unaware of any problems, purchase the vehicle. 

Also, if a car belonged to a business fleet or individual owner who was self-insured, accidents may have gone completely unreported and will not appear on a car history report.

Consumer Reports ran their own experiment with several cars that had major collisions in their histories and, alarmingly, found glaring gaps in the reporting, with some completely totaled cars coming out with near-perfect AutoCheck scores. Because of this possibility, Consumer Reports advises the following precautions:

  • Always take a used car to a mechanic for a thorough inspection, and don't rely on the vehicle history report as your only source of information, especially if that report comes from the dealer.
  • Test drive carefully, and use your nose to sniff out signs of mold or mildew which could indicate past flood damage.
  • Look at the title, and make sure there is no salvage or rebuild indication.
  • Get multiple reports, since one car history report might find a problem that another misses.

If you plan to purchase from a private seller, you should definitely look up a car history report or two. Dealers are not usually interested in selling salvage or junk titled cars because of the legal headaches involved, but private sellers may try to pass off a salvage titled car without mentioning it to you. 

You can also ask to see the seller's record of repairs and maintenance, and use that to supplement or compare with the car history reports you order from reporting companies.

While you're doing all this homework to figure out if the car you want is quality, make sure you research coverage as well. You'll need to have insurance on your car before you drive. It's a good idea to look up your state's minimum requirements for coverage (typically states have mandated liability coverage limits or fees to pay) before you start looking for quotes. 

Our independent agents can send your data off to several insurers for quotes - for free - so you can compare a few prices before you pick your coverage.

What's the Best Vehicle History Report for You?

If you're car shopping on a tight budget, shop around for an inexpensive report before relying on the free one from the dealer. Edmund's notes, "The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS) lists a number of the companies that provide its vehicle history reports, some of which cost only a few dollars."

CarFax and AutoCheck are two of the most popular and widely used sources for car history reports. They both draw data from the NMVTIS and a number of other databases, but they present the information slightly differently and may receive updates at different times. For this reason, it might be a good idea to check both.

 AutoCheck also provides an easy-to-compare numeric score between 60 and 90 that rates the vehicle's past by the type of title, number of owners and collision history.

Both Edmund's and Consumer Reports recommend that you use even the best vehicle history report as just one more resource to guide your decision and not as conclusive evidence of a reliable car. Nothing can replace the opinion of a good mechanic and your own eyes and nose. Just make sure you're covered with an affordable car insurance policy.

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