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What You Should Know About Vehicle History Reports

By: Jack NeradPublished July 7, 2021

One of the most useful areas of information provided by a vehicle history report concerns accidents. If a car has been in a crash, it should be reflected in the report, since the report provider typically draws information from a number of sources that track vehicle accidents, including insurance companies, law enforcement, and state motor vehicle departments. Should the report indicate the vehicle in question has been in an accident, it should raise a yellow flag that caution is in order. 

Vehicles that have been in accidents can be successfully repaired, but knowing the vehicle has been damaged should prompt additional scrutiny. And if the seller hasn't disclosed the accident, that is a bad sign. If the report indicates the car has endured severe structural damage or even that the airbags deployed in an accident, it might be better to look elsewhere.

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As some recent television commercials by insurance companies point out, vehicles can be damaged in many unusual ways. From a falling tree to a load dropped by another vehicle, cars can incur damage that might make them unsuitable for purchase. And, of course, there are the more typical occurrences that include flood, fire, and hail. Flood- and hail-damaged cars are especially common.

While it is possible to repair a hail-damaged car so that it won't have issues later, the same might not be true for cars damaged by floodwaters. Many water-damaged cars develop electrical problems or other issues that might crop up after they've been "repaired." Fired-damaged cars are even more problematic, and often they are "totaled" and taken out of service.

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There are two key indicators of a car's overall condition — its age as expressed by its model year, and its overall mileage. All vehicles are equipped with odometers to record mileage, and it is illegal to tamper with an odometer because of its "official" function. Odometer readings are often taken at various times over the course of a vehicle's lifespan, including at vehicle inspections.

The odometer readings should provide you with a good idea of whether the current odometer reading of the car you might buy is accurate. Changing odometer readings, though illegal, is still prevalent, and if you suspect the odometer reading in a car you’re considering is inaccurate, it is time to move on.

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A vehicle that has changed hands multiple times might well have issues. That is why it is helpful to know how many owners the car you're considering has had. Drawing from public records, the vehicle history report can typically tell you the number of owners your car has had and the type of owners — individuals, businesses, car rental fleets, etc. Some people shy away from vehicles that have been in car rental or governmental fleets, but others swear by them.

Typically, rental vehicles are examined by the company personnel several times a week, and issues are fixed quickly to avoid customer complaints. The ownership history might also surface ownership issues like liens on the car. For instance, if the car has a lien for non-payment, that lien must be cleared before you can take title to the vehicle.

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The National Insurance Crime Bureau is a national clearinghouse for information on stolen vehicles. A vehicle history report or a VIN check from the NICB can give you a good idea if the vehicle in question has been stolen.

 You shouldn't discount buying a vehicle that was stolen and then recovered, but check the dates when it was stolen and when it was recovered. If there is a big gap, the vehicle might have been abandoned and/or its condition is dubious. Should the vehicle be listed as stolen and not recovered, well, that's an issue for law enforcement. You want to take clear, undisputed title to the vehicle you buy.

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A vehicle's title can tell you a great deal about it if you know what to look for. One important term used in connection with the vehicle title is "branded." The term is not used in the common sense of a consumer product brand. Instead, it typically indicates a problem or issue with the vehicle. For example, a vehicle that was "totaled" by the insurance company after an accident could be repaired, refurbished, and put up for sale again, but its status should be indicated by a "salvage" brand on the title.

Some salvage-branded vehicles can actually be bargains if the buyer understands the risks and has had the vehicle thoroughly inspected. But the typical buyer should stay away from vehicles that are branded "salvage," "flood-damaged," "fire-damaged," or "public service-police use." Some people in the used car business move cars with branded titles from state to state with the hope the title brand will disappear along the way.

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Responding to recalls and getting the problem taken care of is an important part of responsible vehicle ownership. That said, many car owners don't make the effort to take their vehicles to the dealer for free recall work. Perhaps they don't even know about the recalls.

When cars change owners, it can be difficult for car manufacturers to get the recall notices to the right people. But a vehicle history report can reveal if the car has outstanding recalls and if previous recalls have been addressed. As with a salvage title brand, a car that has outstanding, unfixed recalls doesn't disqualify it as a potential purchase. But if the car you purchase has open recalls, you should be certain to get them fixed.

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Vehicle history reports are available from a number of different sources these days. The two biggest suppliers are Carfax and AutoCheck, the latter of which is a subsidiary of credit report source Experian. To obtain a single vehicle history report, you can go to the provider's website. There you will be asked to enter a vehicle identification number and pay a fee.

 A single AutoCheck report currently costs $24.99, while a Carfax report costs $39.99. Discounts are available if you want reports on more than one vehicle. Many car dealers now offer free Carfax or AutoCheck vehicle history reports on vehicles they have for sale. Some auto loan purveyors also provide the reports free of charge. Private sellers of used cars might obtain a vehicle history report on their own vehicle to give to prospective private buyers. If you are going to trade the vehicle in, don't bother to do so, because the dealer can usually obtain the report much less expensively as part of a subscription to the service.

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A vehicle history report is a valuable source of information about vehicles you might consider buying. But you can't assume that if a car has a clean report that's all you need to know. Typically, you should have a vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic in addition to reviewing a detailed vehicle history report.

The report can help guide the mechanic regarding potential issues, and then you can get a clean bill of health for the car. By using a vehicle history report, you can take a significant amount of guesswork out of the used car buying process.

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