Which Vehicle History Report Is Best for You? -- Edmunds.com

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Which Vehicle History Report Is Right for You?

The Vehicle History Report Is the DNA of a Used Car


You're shopping for a used car and you think you've hit pay dirt. The car is only five years old, with low miles and a great price. You're about to make an offer when you have a troubling thought: Is the seller hiding any problems? Was the car ever in an accident? Who owned it before this seller?

Years ago buyers could only judge a used car by inspecting its mechanical condition and maybe leafing through the owner's file of service records. But thanks to improved record collection combined with the power of the Internet, the vehicle identification number (VIN) can reveal if a used car has a checkered past. Experts describe the VIN as a car's DNA.

Car buyers can purchase vehicle history reports from a number of different companies, some of which even concentrate on specialty markets such as trucks. 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.

NMVTIS provides title information drawn from participating state motor vehicle registries. At this point, 88 percent of U.S. DMV data is represented. Run by the federal Department of Justice, the system is the only one that's publicly available in the U.S. to which all insurance carriers, auto recyclers, junk yards and salvage yards are required under federal law to report on a regular basis.

However, companies such as AutoCheck, which is owned by Experian, and Carfax, which pioneered the process in 1986 by faxing reports to customers, provide more detailed reports.

Most vehicle history report companies work in a similar way. A used-car shopper types a VIN into the company's Web site and immediately receives a report on the vehicle's history. Most companies sell either a single report for a set fee or, for a higher price, a subscription to run multiple reports for a limited time, which is usually a month.

A vehicle history report provides information drawn from an ever-expanding variety of databases. Most importantly, the report tells shoppers if a car has a "branded" title. Branding means an insurance company has declared the vehicle a total loss and given it a salvage title because of an accident, flood damage or other catastrophic event.

Typically, the information on a vehicle history report includes a summary and an overall evaluation of the vehicle supported with details, dates and locations. The report makes it easy to see if the car has been registered in numerous states. Other information can include a description of the vehicle, number of previous owners, accident information, verification of recent mileage (which could include an alert for odometer rollback) and lemon and recall checks.

Some vehicle history report companies provide additional features or information. For example, AutoCheck provides a vehicle "score" — a number and a range — like 85 out of a range of 60-90. This shows how the vehicle compares to other similar cars built that year. Carfax reports sometimes have information other vehicle history reports don't list, such as service department records.

The mileage verification that a vehicle history report provides is especially important for buyers. Mechanics record the mileage each time there is a smog check, change of registration or other event in the vehicle's history. If the mileage recordings are not sequential, meaning that they get higher each time, it could mean someone rolled back the odometer.

Although it's illegal, a quick trip to a "spinner," who is someone who turns back odometers, could be worthwhile for an unethical seller. Turning back an odometer 10,000 miles can increase the sale price of a typical car by at least $600. And contrary to popular belief, it's easier to roll back a digital odometer than it is a mechanical one.

Test-Driving Vehicle History Reports
The editors at Edmunds.com have extensive experience using vehicle history reports. That's because we steadily buy used cars for our long-term test fleet. Additionally, as a test, the editors run vehicle history reports on cars known to have salvage titles to see what comes up. In nearly all cases, vehicle history reports from AutoCheck and Carfax have caught those problems and flagged the pertinent information. (NMVTIS wasn't fully up and running at the time of our tests.)

For example, we entered the VIN for a 1998 Corvette, which we knew had a lemon title. Sure enough, the vehicle history reports clearly flagged the problem by stating: "LEMON LAW VEHICLE. Repurchased by manufacturer."

In another case, an Edmunds employee's husband was about to buy a 1995 Acura. He test-drove the car and felt it was in good mechanical condition. However, a vehicle history report showed the car received a salvage title in 1996. When the seller was confronted with this information, he said, "Oh yeah, I thought I told you about that."

In yet another case, a vehicle history report for a test car listed an "accident involving left side impact with another motor vehicle." Apparently the accident was serious enough to report to authorities, but did not result in a salvage title. However, the report would show potential buyers that the car was in an accident. They could then check to see if the owner had properly repaired the damage.

As our informal tests showed, there are few major title or damage problems that slip through the vehicle history net.

"Occasionally, we do hear of a false positive on a vehicle history report, but it is rarely a problem," says John Van Alst, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center, a nonprofit organization specializing in consumer issues. A false positive is when the report came back clean when, in fact, there was an accident or the omission of other pertinent information. Some vehicle history report services will buy back a car or provide a guarantee in such cases.

However, there is a time lag between when an event such as an accident occurs and when it is reported, Van Alst says. While going to NMVTIS is an "excellent first step," Van Alst still recommends car buyers take a vehicle to a mechanic and a body shop for inspection.

How To Use Vehicle History Reports
Vehicle history reports alert buyers to hidden problems with used cars for sale and can save them time when they're shopping, too. Edmunds.com 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. In most cases, online car ads will include the vehicle's VIN. Sometimes an advertised car will come with free access to its vehicle history report.

Also, keep in mind that dealers have subscriptions to the large vehicle history report services — usually either AutoCheck or Carfax — and will run a report for interested buyers. This becomes a valuable source of third-party information. If the dealer refuses to run a vehicle history report, or provides an outdated report, this could be a red flag.

Finally, keep in mind that a vehicle history report is only one step in the used-car buying process. A mechanical inspection is still a good idea. But running a report is a valuable first step that will save you time and money. And it could protect you from buying a car with a checkered past.

To find a dealership that knows how to treat shoppers right, please visit Edmunds.com's Dealer Ratings and Reviews.



  • aalert aalert Posts:

    Nice article comparing AutoCheck and Carfax. During a recent e-Bay search I was provided an AutoCheck report indicating the car had no reported lease/rental history. The Carfax for the same vehicle reported lease/rental history. Putting the slight cost difference for the two services aside and based on my recent experience, I am more inclined to use Carfax over AutoCheck.

  • jack98012 jack98012 Posts:

    I got a AutoCheck Vehicle History Report on a 09 Pontiac G-5 on 10/ 10/2009 which stated no problems found in on 2/23/2011 I had a over heating problem and since I only have about 28,000 Miles I took it to a dealer fo warrantee repairs the dealer ask if the car had been in a acciden as the radiator and AC condenser were damaged from a collision so It cost me over $1,500 for repairs. I have decided to trade this car in and the dealer ran a Carfax which showed this car was involved in a collision the damage report was about 1 1/2 months before the AutoCheck so you can see the AutoCheck was a waste of my money

  • stu132u stu132u Posts:

    With regards to CarFax, I have this simple thing to say: Caveat Emptor - "let the buyer beware". I personally found out that CarFax is not the best investment. Back in 2009 I purchased a 2008 Honda Civic from a car dealer with a "clean CarFax". Jump to July 2010 and while at the dealership in Orlando, FL I was having a couple of warranty items fixed, and I wanted to see what the car's current value is. They ran an AutoCheck (like CarFax BUT more thorough - from the company Experian, the credit reporting company), and it shows that the car had "significant unibody frame damage". I contacted CarFax and their "guarantee" - you have to pull another CarFax within the next 12 months or this doesn't apply. They neglect to tell you this when you agree to purchase CarFax. This dropped the value by over $2000 on the car. I threatened action if the dealer didn't help out - they agreed to take the car back; I got back more than half - not as much as I should have, but I didn't want to deal with the lawsuits and traveling up to Atlanta, GA. Bottom line, don't trust CarFax. As for the Carchex, get in writing what their warranty is, and what they actually do for the money. Find a local mechanic that you can trust, and that knows what they are doing. Good luck in your search! Stuart

  • Learn from the mistakes of novice car buyers. Never, ever take anyone's word regarding a pre-owned vehicle's history or condition especially the seller!

  • franksouza franksouza Posts:

    I used VehicleHistory to get info on a car that was for sale on Craigslist. The report indicated nothing about the car being in a significant accident several months earlier. Apparently Vehicle History uses NMVTIS or VehicleHistory.gov as it's database. For some reason, this accident was not reported. Does anybody know why?

  • etostenrud etostenrud Posts:

    I believer Carfax to be a scam. I don't know about the other services, but I've used Carfax about five our six times and out of those five or six reports, two of the reports failed to report significant accidents. The first time I noticed this was on a car we were selling. Our car had been rear ended right after we purchased it resulting in about $6K worth of damage. The bumper had to be replaced and the damage was not serious, but it should have been reported. The second time Carfax failed to report a significant accident was on a car we purchased. We ran a Carfax report and it showed no accidents but when we tried to insure the car our insurance company told us that the car had been in an accident right before we purchased it which resulted in over $11k worth of damage. We would not have purchased the car had the Carfax report been complete. The accident information must have been reported and readily available since our insurance agent was able to pick it up so quickly. We are very disappointed in Carfax as a result of our two experiences with them.

  • hb29783 hb29783 Posts:

    So... where do these companies get their info from?? That is what the NY DMV asked me when my vehicle was erroneously listed as a salvage or reconstructed title from Autocheck. (NOTE: Carfax is clean) The original NY title was in my hand when I went to the Mass registry to re-title the vehicle in my name and it clearly isn't a salvage or reconstructed title (And as proven by a dealership who completely went through the vehicle for me and checked everything out). Someone somewhere listed the title as salvage or reconstructed in whatever database these people use. I recently went to trade in my vehicle and the dealership I went to uses Autocheck. I was told that the vehicle was salvage or reconstructed. I notified Autocheck and provided them with the previous NY title #, and the number to the NY DMV. Autocheck told me flat out that they refuse to call or fix the error because of privacy issues.. I explained that this isn't credit we are talking about and they could call just like I did and talk to a real person in the NY DMV who could confirm that Autoheck has the info listed wrong. No go.... They said that I have to provide them with written evidence from the NY DMV. They aren't going to do a thing about it and basically blew me off. I said I could send the Mass title to them but they don'y want that. They want me to get a letter from the NY DMV (the NY DMV thought that was crazy when I talked to them.. they were baffled All i had to do was prvide the DMV with is a VIN# and no personal info was exchanged) Now I have to fill out a NY MV-15 form and send $10 for a NY title record search and it takes about 2 weeks to get that. Then I have to send it to Experian and wait for them to fix it and who knows how long that will take based on this experience... So don't trust all these sites as far as being accurate. All it takes is one keystroke to ruin your day.

  • fherrick fherrick Posts:

    We'd checked out a local dealerships offer for sale of a Ford Lighting with Carfax and got the facts. I had the bright (NOT) idea to check carfax thru looking at Autocheck boy howy they had 29 hits to report. Blowing the other report out of the water, once again (NOT), they HAD NOTHING WORTH REPORTING AND RECOMMENDED THE DEAL. Good ole Car Fax reported the accident that had occurred Apr. of this year. I visited to the local Fiat dealer who is selling the truck I'd investigated. They wanted top dollar and would not deal. Looking at the truck it was obvious enough to see the repair cosmetics, no idea how serious the damage was to the frame and drive gear. Thank goodness for Carfax and Craigs list found one two years younger with clean history in great shape

  • troytancn troytancn Posts:

    This is not a joke, i actually have a BBB case lodged for this just now. Stay away from AutoCheck, use CARFAX. I thought they are the same, but they are not. I bought the 'ultimate' subscription with AutoCheck and used it to run the report for the few used cars that I was considering to buy from. The report shows the score of 93 out of the 100, where the 90 consider to be the great band. The history seems clean and no accidents was reported at all. Time comes to purchase at the deal ship, right before sign up on the paper work, the deal says, hey by the way, you did read the car report beforehand right, yes - of cause i did, i have autocheck, it looks clean; - wait, it does not bother to mention the accident it had last month? the front was crushed ant air bags pop out, we had to go through to replace all of those, including the roof top and all its 4 wheels because they were out of shape. in fact we just got it back from the workshop today so congratulations you got the whole deal almost brand new out right! - wait, what, you didn't know? the accident was clearly listed in the CARFAX report that hang off on our website, for free... hence my request to AutoCheck, can i please cancel and get my money back, the information you sold me wasn't really intellegence... what? I can't? It's has been 3 days into the subscription? what, i have ran the report more than one vehicle already? but wait, i thought by definition, the 'comparing' part involves more than 1 vehicle right? what, you don't care but it's the AutoCheck policy... Ok, stay away from AutoCheck, use CARFAX.

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