Updated January 4, 2022 . AmFam Team
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 next car?
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 salespeople will let you look at the report on their desk computer.
If you’re thinking about buying a used car with a private seller, pay for a vehicle 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.
The National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (Opens in a new tab)gives you basic information about a vehicle's condition and history, as listed below.
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.
A car history report is 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.
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.
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.
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 car purchase.
Once you've found a car that fits your parameters, contact your insurance agent (Opens in a new tab)to make sure you have car insurance lined up so you're protected as soon as you get behind the wheel.
Did you find this article helpful? Check out our Car Buying Resource Hub for even more tips and articles to help you navigate the car-buying process.
This article is for informational purposes only and includes information widely available through different sources.