Car History Reports
Chances are you’ve heard of the myriad of companies that provide car history reports. But do you understand how to use them to help you find your dream car?
Is a Report Free or not?
Car dealerships often provide a free link to a private company’s history report on a vehicle because they have a relationship with the provider. If not, sometimes sales people will let you look at the report on their desk computer.
If you’re researching a used car with a private seller, pay for a report (or for multiple reports during a certain period). Do your own research rather than rely on a report the seller provides to be sure it’s accurate and up to date.
Is There a Public Site With Car Histories?
The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System gives you basic information about a vehicle's condition and history, as listed below.
- Current title, including brand history (brands are a permanent label when reported as junk, salvage and flood vehicles by an insurance company or motor vehicle department)
- The latest reported odometer reading
- Reports of the vehicle being transferred or sold to an auto recycler, junk yard, or salvage yard
Where Do Private Companies Get Their Facts?
They buy information from motor vehicle titling agencies, insurance companies, dealerships, police and fire departments, collision shops, rental and fleet management agencies and auto auctions. If your car is model year 1981 or later, they should have at least some information.
These reports are helpful, but as a buyer, remember—the information is only as good as the data that’s available. Not all police and fire agencies, repair shops and auctions report information to these services, and some report to one but not the other. However, as more data is provided, these reports become more and more accurate.
As always, the more you research your potential used car purchase, the better. It’s a good idea to get a report from several providers before buying.
What Information is Most Useful?
Engine information. You can confirm whether the seller is sharing accurate information about the vehicle’s engine.
Standard equipment/safety options. Again, it tells you what should have come with the car. (Note: it won’t show non-manufacturer add-ons.)
Safety and reliability report. This information comes from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute.
Ownership history. It tells you where the vehicle has been titled and how many owners it’s had.
Type of owner. It’ll tell you if it’s been a fleet vehicle or driven for personal use.
Last reported odometer reading. Use this information to calculate whether the most recent owner is reporting accurate mileage.
Are Damage Reports Accurate?
The short answer is: maybe.
Reports might indicate that the vehicle has been in an accident, fire or flood and whether the airbag was deployed. It might also tell you if the vehicle has had hail or frame damage, if it was a buyback/lemon or if it was a total loss.
Note: If the vehicle report doesn’t include damage, it doesn’t mean it didn’t have any. As stated above, not every repair shop, fire and police department and body shop reports this type of damage. In addition, some insurance companies don’t report accidents to protect their policyholders’ privacy.
How do I Protect Myself?
Always take the vehicle in question – even those at dealerships – to your own mechanic to look it over and provide a trusted opinion.
A car history report is always a good idea. Just remember that they might be missing details, so do your own research as well. By empowering yourself with the full picture, you can be confident in your purchase – and know that you have a car worthy of wherever your dreams take you.