Buying a used car usually involves more research than buying a new one. Since you can only learn so much by looking at the car, gathering additional information is essential for making an informed decision. This is where a vehicle history report becomes invaluable.

A vehicle history report is a compilation of records detailing a car’s past. Companies that issue these reports gather data from insurance companies, repair shops, motor vehicle departments, and law enforcement agencies. The resulting report provides an overview of significant events in the car’s life, such as changes in ownership, service history, major accidents, and repairs.

While these reports don’t cover everything, they are a valuable starting point. For buyers, they can reveal potential red flags, aiding in making an informed purchase. For sellers, having a vehicle history report can help demonstrate the car’s roadworthiness to potential buyers.

The level of detail in a vehicle history report, also known as a car history report, varies based on the reporting service and the available records. However, these reports generally include the following information:

  • Title History: This section shows the number of owners the car has had and where and when it was sold. While it doesn’t reveal previous owners’ names, it does indicate the states where the vehicle was titled. Frequent transfers across state lines might raise questions about the car’s ownership history.
  • Salvage Title: Issued to vehicles that were previously totaled by an insurance company and possibly repaired and rebuilt, a salvage title signals significant past damage. A car is considered totaled if repair costs exceed a set percentage of its assessed value. A salvage title is a clear indication of serious damage, whether from a major accident or another cause.
  • Indication of Major Accidents: Reports often include information about major accidents and significant repairs. Some reports detail airbag deployments and provide insights into the collision’s severity, including impact areas and which side of the vehicle was damaged. Even if there’s no visible exterior damage, vehicles with past damage may be prone to structural, mechanical, or electrical issues.
  • Natural Weather Events: The report may highlight damage from non-collision events like flooding, hail, or fire. It’s generally wise to be cautious of vehicles previously damaged by fire or flooding.
  • Service History: These reports typically list key service details such as oil changes, annual inspections, and routine maintenance. They may also include information about any warranties associated with the vehicle at different times.
  • Mileage: The report usually records the vehicle’s mileage at various points in its history. Discrepancies, such as a lower current odometer reading than a previous entry, are clear red flags.
  • Recalls: Information about any manufacturer-issued recalls for the vehicle is often included.

By providing this comprehensive information, vehicle history reports help buyers make informed decisions and assist sellers in demonstrating their car’s reliability.

While a car history check can provide valuable information, it doesn’t tell the whole story. For instance, the title history may indicate the number of previous owners but won’t reveal how those owners used the car. However, the report might specify whether the vehicle was licensed for personal use, rental, work, or law enforcement purposes.

Another limitation is the accuracy and completeness of the data. The information in a car history report is only as reliable as its sources. Not all incidents are reported in publicly available records. For example, a car’s accident history might not include unreported accidents or minor damage such as fender benders and dents.

Lastly, vehicle history reports typically don’t provide details about the current condition of the vehicle. To assess aspects like tire tread or other signs of wear and tear, a personal inspection is often necessary.

In addition to consulting a vehicle history report when researching a used car, consider hiring a mechanic to perform a pre-purchase inspection. The cost of a mechanic’s inspection is relatively low compared to the expense of unexpected repairs after purchase. Additionally, providing your mechanic with a copy of the car history report before the inspection can help them focus on potential issues more effectively.

Deciding when or whether to request a vehicle history report depends on your potential purchase circumstances and your risk tolerance. Given the relatively low cost of these reports and the valuable information they provide, it’s often wise to consider purchasing one once you become seriously interested in a car.

Vehicle history reports can be beneficial for both buyers and sellers. For buyers, these reports offer peace of mind by highlighting any potential red flags and providing useful information for price negotiations.

Sellers can also benefit from car history reports, as they offer proof to potential buyers that the vehicle is free from known major issues. Some used car dealerships include vehicle history reports as a standard part of the car-buying experience.

If a seller doesn’t have a vehicle history report on hand, you can easily obtain one yourself. Here’s how:

  1. Locate the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN): The VIN is a 17-character sequence that can usually be found on the corner of the driver’s side window. It may also be located on the frame of the driver’s door or on insurance documentation.
  2. Order the Car Report by VIN: Several online services offer vehicle history reports. You can enter the VIN on these websites to see how many records are available for the vehicle before deciding to purchase the report.
  3. Other Sources of Information:
    • U.S. Department of Transportation: This database provides information on vehicle recalls.
    • National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB): This service can tell you if a car has been reported as stolen.

For both of these additional sources, you will typically need the VIN of the car in question.

While the cost of a vehicle history report varies by provider, they are typically affordable, usually costing less than $50. Some companies may also offer discounts if you order reports for multiple vehicles.

When buying a car, it’s wise to steer clear of risky purchases. When selling a car, you want to assure buyers of its reliability and functionality. In both cases, a vehicle history report can be invaluable. By compiling information from various sources, it helps create a more complete picture of what could become your next set of wheels.