Vehicle history reports have become an integral part of any used-car purchase. They are one of the best ways to learn about a given vehicle's past and help make your search for a used car much easier. 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.
The car's vehicle identification number (VIN) is the key to the vehicle history report. The 17-digit VIN is like the car's Social Security number: It's used to note nearly every major event in a vehicle's lifetime. 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, the number of previous owners, accident information, verification of recent mileage (which could include an alert for an odometer rollback), and lemon-law and recall checks. For definitive information on recalls for any used car that you're considering, use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's free VIN look-up tool.
Several companies sell vehicle history reports, promising to reveal the past of any given vehicle. Keep in mind no report is perfect. It's only as good as the incidents that have been reported to the database. If, for example, someone gets into a minor accident and decides to repair the car without involving an insurance company for fear of rates going up, the accident will not be reflected in the report. Similarly, if the body shop handling the repairs does not share its data with the vehicle history companies, it will not appear on a report either. So a vehicle could have frame damage and you would not know it by just reading the report. That said, we still recommend running a vehicle history report before driving across town to see a car in person.