A number of 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 documented. 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.

They're Pricey, but You Can Get Them for Free

The reports from the biggest players — AutoCheck and Carfax — are expensive, ranging from $40 for one to multiple reports for $100. 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 If the dealer refuses to run a vehicle history report or provides an outdated report, it could be a red flag.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 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, dating back to the late 1980s, when it faxed the reports to its customers. However, it is also the most expensive. A single Carfax report costs $39.99. Three will cost you $79.99, and five sell for $99.99. AutoCheck sells 300 reports for that price.

Despite being the most expensive service, the Carfax report is the benchmark for all other vehicle history reports. We've found it to be the most detailed and user-friendly among the vehicle history reports we tested. If a vehicle has had multiple owners, that's clearly labeled and organized in different sections. Carfax is also the only report to show maintenance dates and records, provided the vehicle was taken to a repair facility that shares its data, which usually means a franchised dealership service department. 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.

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 — like 85 out of a range of 70-90. This shows how the vehicle compares to other similar cars built that year. It is meant to be a quick way to identify and eliminate vehicles that might have issues, ranging from high mileage to reported accidents.

The scale isn't zero to 100, which can be confusing. We ran a report on 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 number that matters is 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 a report on a 1992 Honda Prelude with a salvage title. It scored 25 out of a range of 31-53. Six points seems 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. This gives you access to 25 reports in 21 days. In the past, AutoCheck charged that for unlimited reports. Now, even the top plan limits you to 300 reports. As noted earlier, that costs $99.99.

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, this 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 ran a report on a 2012 Infiniti QX56 that spent most of its life in Florida. Carfax had 10 service reports, including one to replace the drive belts. That's an expensive repair and good to know about. AutoCheck did not have that information. And thanks to the fact that Carfax shows maintenance records, its report indicated approximately when the car arrived in California. AutoCheck's last recorded incident was from Florida in 2014. If you were only going by the AutoCheck report, you wouldn't know where the car had been over the past three years.
We 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. And it could protect you from buying a car with a checkered past.