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AutoCheck vs Carfax: Which Vehicle History Report Is Best for You?

See what the full report says about your car's history


Vehicle history reports, such as those from AutoCheck or Carfax, have become an integral part of any used car purchase. They are one of the best ways to learn about a given vehicle's history and help make your search for a used car much easier. Most importantly, the report tells shoppers if a car has been in an accident and or given 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 an auto'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 lookup 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.

Vehicle history reports list salvage titles and other potential problems with used vehicles. The information is a good first step for used-car buyers, but it's critical to have a mechanic inspect the car, too.

Vehicle history reports list salvage titles and other potential problems with used vehicles. The information is a good first step for used-car buyers, but it's critical to have a mechanic inspect the car, too.

Can you get a free vehicle history or title report?

The reports from the biggest players — AutoCheck and Carfax — are expensive, ranging from $25 for one report to $100 for six. And if you're shopping for a used car on the private-party market, you'll likely be the one paying for the reports. But if you're shopping at car dealerships, it's a different story. Most major used car dealers and some car-selling sites will provide a free Carfax report or AutoCheck report. You can find many of these vehicles on the Edmunds used car inventory page or on dealership websites.

If you find yourself on the used car lot and want to know the history of a particular vehicle, just ask for a report. All dealers have vehicle history report subscriptions, usually for either AutoCheck or Carfax, and will run a free report for interested buyers. This report becomes a valuable source of third-party information. If the dealer refuses to run a vehicle history report or provides an outdated report, it could be a red flag.

No matter whether you're shopping private-party sellers or at a dealership, it's good to know what you'll get — and what you won't — in these reports. Here's a look at AutoCheck versus Carfax, along with some other providers, and our experience in how they stack up.



Carfax

Carfax is the most well-known provider of vehicle history reports. It dates back to the late 1980s when it faxed reports to its customers. It is also the most expensive. A single Carfax report costs $39.99. Three will cost you $59.99, and six sell for $99.99.

The Carfax report is the benchmark for all other vehicle history reports. If a vehicle has had multiple owners, it is clearly labeled and organized in different sections. Carfax also has more detailed maintenance records. This information can serve as a guide to what issues the vehicle might have had. It also is an indicator that a prior owner took good care of the vehicle.

We ran a report on a 2008 Lexus ES 350 that spent its life in Texas. Carfax had 25 service records, including one to replace the drive belts. That's an expensive repair and good to know about as a buyer. AutoCheck only had four service records and did not have the information on the drive belts.

Our opinion: Carfax is pricey but worth it given that it has the most detailed and user-friendly reports. For many, a clean Carfax report is the first step in getting a good used car.

AutoCheck

AutoCheck, owned by Experian, is notable for providing a vehicle "score" — a number and a range — such as 85 out of a range of 70-90. The company says that this score is a number that helps you forecast the predicted reliability of a vehicle at a glance. It is meant to be a quick way to identify and eliminate vehicles that might have issues, ranging from high mileage to reported accidents.

AutoCheck's scale isn't zero to 100, which can be confusing. We ran the VIN of a 2015 Honda Civic, and it received a score of 82. Sounds like a good car, doesn't it? But this Civic was in a major accident, declared a total loss and issued a salvage title, according to the report. The numbers that matter are the range and, from there, where the particular car scores. In this case, the range for similar Civics was 88-93. The one we were checking, with a score of 82, was 6 points below the bottom of the range — not a great bet for a used car, in other words. We also ran the VIN of a 1992 Honda Prelude with a salvage title. It scored 25 out of a range of 31-53. Six points seemed to be the deduction for having a salvage title, but the numbers weren't clearly explained.

AutoCheck charges $24.99 for a single report. But few people consider only one used car when they're shopping, so you'd likely opt for the higher-tier plan at $49.99, which gives you access to 25 reports in 21 days.

Our opinion: Although it doesn't quite have the name recognition of Carfax, AutoCheck is worth a look. It's a less expensive alternative for shoppers who plan on running numerous reports. The vehicle score is nice as a quick reference, but don't put too much stock in it.

National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS)

The title information in the NMVTIS comes from participating state motor vehicle registries. 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, junkyards and salvage yards must, by law, report on a regular basis. The NMVTIS web page has a list of third-party companies that provide history reports. The prices range from free to about $10. It is a less expensive alternative, but based on our experience, you get what you pay for.

You won't find any fancy scores or detailed entries of any type in these history reports. These sites should only be used to determine when and where the vehicle was registered and to find out if a branded title was issued.

Our opinion: We would only recommend using this resource to determine if the car you're interested in has a branded title. And even then, it is best used as a secondary check. Save your money for a report from AutoCheck or Carfax.

Test-driving the reports

We tested more than a dozen vehicles to see if we could spot any differences and comment on which was the easiest to use. Here's what we found:

In our checks, AutoCheck's data was less comprehensive and detailed than Carfax's. For example: We ran a report on a 2015 Kia Optima with a salvage title. AutoCheck showed that it had two owners. Carfax listed three owners and caught an accident that hadn't appeared on the AutoCheck report. In comparing the two reports side by side, the AutoCheck report did record the DMV event that began the third owner's tenure, but the report hadn't yet factored that into its at-a-glance owner count. We found it difficult to determine when and for how long each person owned the vehicle on the AutoCheck report.

We also tried out two of the NMVTIS vehicle history reports with our test VINs and came away largely disappointed. Neither the free nor the $7 reports told us anything beyond whether the vehicle had a branded title and how often it was issued a title, presumably to a new owner. These reports do little to flesh out the actual backstory of a car.

A good start for used car shopping

A vehicle history report isn't going to guarantee you're getting a good used car. A mechanical inspection is still a good idea. And if you suspect structural damage, a body shop visit could save you from making an expensive mistake. But running a report is a valuable first step that will save you time and money. It could also protect you from buying a car with a checkered past.