What Does a Vehicle History Report Tell You?

A crucial step in any used car purchase is getting a vehicle history report. It’s like a window into the car’s past, providing a wealth of material so you can make an informed decision about whether to buy the vehicle and how much you should pay for it. They’re often […]

A crucial step in any used car purchase is getting a vehicle history report. It’s like a window into the car’s past, providing a wealth of material so you can make an informed decision about whether to buy the vehicle and how much you should pay for it. They’re often referred to as Carfax reports, though Carfax.com is just one provider, joined by AutoCheck.com and other sources in providing vehicle history reports. AutoCheck is a division of credit reporting bureau Experian.

Vehicle history reports provide details about a car’s ownership, accident history, title status, mileage, and more. You’ll just need to know the car’s vehicle identification number (VIN) to get started. This guide will walk you through all of the different types of information you can find in a report on a vehicle’s history, including:


How Do I Get a Vehicle History Report?

Many dealers offer free Carfax reports for the cars they have on their lots. If you want to buy a single report from AutoCheck or Carfax, you can expect to pay between $25 and $40. Both companies offer quantity discounts if you need to check out more vehicles. Other vehicle history report providers offer various levels of information, and some do so at lower prices than the market leaders Carfax and Autocheck. Some lenders will also provide customers with a vehicle history report, as it is in their best interest to ensure that any vehicle they are financing is sufficient collateral for the loan.

Sellers of used cars can benefit from purchasing a vehicle history report on their own vehicle and providing a copy to potential buyers. Not only will it save buyers money, but it’s a sign of good faith that you’re not trying to hide anything about the car’s history.

To get a vehicle history report, you simply fill out an online form and provide the VIN, which is found in the lower corner of the windshield on the driver’s side in most cars. If you are looking at a report from a dealer or a seller, take a look at the car’s VIN to ensure it matches the number on the report.

What’s in a Vehicle History Report?

There are volumes of useful vehicle information in a Carfax or AutoCheck report. Some of it can confirm good news about the vehicle you’re considering, while other information can raise red flags. Not every piece of negative information is necessarily a deal-breaker – some can even help you negotiate a better purchase price.

In the next several sections, we’ll explore what is, and is not, in a Carfax, AutoCheck, or other history report.

Has the Car Been in Any Accidents?

One of the more vital things a vehicle history report can tell you is the vehicle’s accident history. Carfax and other history report providers gather data from state motor vehicle departments (DMVs), insurance companies, collision repair shops, and law enforcement agencies to build a list of serious collisions a car has been in. In many cases, severe structural damage and airbag deployments are listed.

If you see a car with either of those types of damage listed, you should tread carefully, if you still consider the purchase at all. You’ll want to have an independent mechanic assess the quality of repairs and look for additional structural issues. Some unscrupulous repair shops install used or even stolen airbags in cars they are repairing. If you see a severe collision in a vehicle’s history report, it’s a good idea to request documentation of the repairs so you can see if they were performed by a reputable shop.

In some cases, you’ll just see that a collision occurred, while in others the information will be quite detailed, specifying which parts of the car sustained damage or whether the crash was with another vehicle or a fixed object.

Seeing evidence of accident damage can give you an opening to offer less money for the purchase of the car. You’ll still want to have it thoroughly checked out by a mechanic to ensure that any repairs were done correctly and the car is safe to drive.

This section of the report isn’t the only place to see evidence of an accident. You’ll also want to study the vehicle’s title history to see if it has been branded with a salvage title, which means it was considered a total loss by an insurance company but was then rebuilt and put back on the road.

Has the Vehicle Suffered Any Other Damage?

Not all damage a vehicle can suffer comes from collisions. Vehicle history reports also show most fire, flood, or hail damage. While hail damage can be safely repaired, you should steer clear of fire- or flood-damaged cars, as both types of incidents can cause hidden damage that can cost you lots of money and compromise the safety of the vehicle.

Read our article on avoiding flood-damaged cars for more information on the topic. Flood- and fire-damaged vehicles are often put on sale hundreds or thousands of miles from where the damage occurred.

A vehicle history report or a VIN check from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB) can tell you if a vehicle has been reported stolen but not recovered. It might seem obvious, but it bears repeating: Don’t ever buy a stolen car, no matter what excuse the seller gives you about the car’s status. It could be you who ends up behind bars.

If the car’s history shows that it has been stolen and recovered, look at the time between when it was taken and when it was found. If that period lasts months or years, it’s a good indication the vehicle was abandoned. When that’s the case, its overall condition is highly uncertain.

What Is Its Title History?

A vehicle’s title information can tell you quite a lot about the car’s history. If you see a title history that spans several states over a relatively short amount of time, it’s a good indication that the car’s previous owners are attempting to “wash” negative information off the title by moving it from place to place.

Vehicle history reports should show if the title is branded. A title brand can indicate a number of issues with the car – such as how it was used or if it was totaled and rebuilt. A salvage title means that an auto insurance company determined it was not economically viable to repair a car and declared it a total loss. Later, someone came along and performed repairs sufficient to return the vehicle to the road. When the automobile is re-titled, it is branded with “salvage” on the document.

Most buyers should steer clear of vehicles with salvage titles. You risk finding safety issues and further damage that’s expensive to repair. Since a car with a salvage title won’t command anywhere near the price that a similar vehicle with a non-salvage title will sell for, repairers have to rebuild the car as inexpensively as possible. Many lenders won’t lend money for the purchase of a vehicle with a salvage title, and those who do will likely charge a high interest rate to do so. When it comes time for you to re-sell the car, you’ll find that it has very little value.

Other title brands to be wary of include those for flood damage, fire damage, hail damage, police use, or taxi use. If a vehicle was repurchased by a manufacturer due to a lemon law claim, many states require that to be disclosed on the title.

When and Where Has It Been Sold?

A comprehensive vehicle history record will show you when it first entered service plus when and where it was resold in the ensuing years. One of the biggest red flags for buyers is a history that shows the car bouncing from state to state in a short period of time, as that’s a way of clearing negative information from the vehicle’s title.

Transferring a car from state to state also can mask some types of vehicle damage. A buyer in Oregon, for example, may not check for flood damage like a buyer in hurricane-prone Florida might.

How Many Owners Has It Had?

A car with only one previous owner is typically more valuable than one with multiple owners. Using public records and other indicators, Carfax and other report providers can piece together the number of owners the vehicle has had, and the type of owner they are.

Finding a car with an individual owner is best. If the report shows a vehicle that was owned by a business, fleet operator, or rental car company, you’ll want to ensure your mechanic knows that when they are doing your pre-purchase inspection.

If the current owner of the car financed its purchase and the loan is not paid off, a lien should be shown on the report. The loan will have to be paid off before the title can be transferred into your name.

What Mileage Should the Odometer Show?

At various points in an automobile’s life, its odometer reading will be recorded. Those points can be changes in ownership, major services, registrations, and vehicle inspections. Car history reports can confirm or put into question the odometer reading you see on the vehicle’s dashboard.

If the numbers you see on the dashboard are lower than those you find on the history report, it’s one of the biggest red flags you can find when considering a pre-owned car purchase. Unless the seller has a solid-gold explanation as to why the numbers are different, you should walk away from the deal.

Rolling back odometers used to be a fairly common (and highly illegal) scam in the used car market, but modern electronic dashboards and comprehensive vehicle history reports make rollbacks harder to pull off today. It is, however, possible to swap out the entire instrument cluster, odometer and all, so you still need to be vigilant to protect yourself.

Has It Been Properly Serviced?

Carfax and other history reports will often show when and where major periodic maintenance and other repairs were performed. Not all service facilities report on the vehicles they work on, however, so it’s still important to request service records on any automobile you’re considering.

It is unrealistic to expect every oil change to be documented in the service history, though they might be if the previous owner always got an oil and filter changed at a shop that consistently reported their data to Carfax or other vehicle history report providers. You should use the report more as a way to get a general sense of whether major service intervals have been met, and as a red flag if you see the same major component (such as a transmission) being replaced multiple times.

A used car with a well-documented service history is more valuable to car buyers than one without it. If the report doesn’t reflect that maintenance has been performed, and the seller can’t provide any service records, let the mechanic who is doing your pre-purchase inspection know. They can look at components that should have been replaced to ensure that they were serviced correctly.

Where Has It Been Inspected and Registered?

Every state requires vehicles to have their registrations renewed, and many states require emissions, safety, or other motor vehicle inspections be performed on a periodic schedule. Those transactions with state DMVs provide a wealth of important information for vehicle histories.

Watanyou Ruangporncharoen/EyeEm/Getty Images

Watch reports closely for gaps in registration histories. They can indicate periods when a car was stolen and not recovered, abandoned, or going through a major collision reconstruction process.

Are There Any Open Recalls?

An important part of car ownership is ensuring that you head to the dealership when you get a recall notice and have the repair or update performed. Failing to do so can put you, your family, and other road users at risk. Unfortunately, not every car owner pays attention to recall alerts, and the notifications sent out by carmakers about recalls can get misdirected as cars change owners. A comprehensive vehicle history report will show what recalls have been issued by the vehicle’s manufacturer, and whether or not the recall has been repaired.

The fact that a used car has been recalled should not disqualify it from your consideration. With the complexity of today’s cars, many are recalled at some point in their lifetimes. In all but rare circumstances, the manufacturer pays for both the parts and labor for the recall to be performed. Most recalls are performed in the service departments of franchised new car dealers.

What Information Isn’t in a Vehicle History Report?

Whether it’s a Carfax vehicle history report, an AutoCheck report, or some other paid or free vehicle history report, it is important to remember that it only lists things as they occur. Things that happen to the car between the last event that is reported and when you get the history won’t be shown. It is possible that a vehicle could be in a major collision, be rebuilt, and sold before any notice of the crash or repairs makes it into the databases the reporting companies use. While the companies that provide history reports strive to keep them up-to-date, they won’t always capture the newest information about every vehicle.

The report won’t show the mechanical condition of the car, or whether parts are worn, light bulbs are burned out, or some components of that model are prone to early failure.

Because of privacy concerns, the names of individual owners are not shown. Unfortunately, you won’t be able to see if the seller is telling you the truth when they say the car was driven ever-so-gently by a kind-hearted grandma.

Why Doesn’t a Vehicle History Report Replace an Inspection?

No matter how much great information you get from an AutoCheck or Carfax report, you still need to get a pre-purchase inspection from an independent mechanic. If possible, you’ll want to provide them with a copy of your history report so they can focus their inspections on areas of concern from the document. A qualified mechanic will know what systems need to be checked out and where different cars tend to have problems. They will also have the tools to check the car’s various systems properly.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re buying the car from a private party, an independent used car lot, or a franchised new car dealer. Getting a thorough inspection is a good value, as it can save you from making the expensive mistake of buying a damaged, unsafe, or unreliable automobile. The only time it is OK to forgo an inspection is if the vehicle is a certified pre-owned car. CPO cars are inspected at the dealership and held to high standards in order to gain factory-backed warranty coverage. Click here to see the Best CPO Programs.

More Shopping Tools From U.S. News & World Report

Buying a used car can be a challenge. It is much easier if you arm yourself with information before you start your car-buying process. The experts at U.S. News Best Cars provide resources to help you with every step along the way. Our used car rankings and reviews are based on the consensus opinion of the country’s top automotive journalists, blended with quantifiable data about safety, predicted reliability, and ownership costs.

Our used car listings can help you narrow your search by showing you vehicles that are available to buy in your area.

Our car buying advice includes articles on how to buy a used car, how to finance your purchase, and how to negotiate a great price. We offer free calculators to help you figure out how much car you can afford and compute your monthly car payment. In addition to savings off MSRP, getting the best interest rate on your car loan can save you thousands as well. Compare rates from up to four lenders with MyAutoloan to get the best deal.

Getting the right auto insurance is an essential part of car ownership. Our car insurance hub explains the various types of coverage and how to get insurance discounts to make your policy more affordable.

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