Finding the vehicle history is an important part of the used-car shopping process. A history of accidents, thefts, and previous owners can tell you a lot about the car’s past, which will help you decide its future.
The information in a Carfax report or other vehicle history report will tell you if a vehicle is safe, worth its price tag, and legally sold. However, Carfax reports aren’t free. Even if you’re willing to pay, there are advantages to checking other reports as well.
What’s In a Carfax Report?
Vehicle history reports include data on a car’s ownership history, accident and damage history, any manufacturer recalls, and any other relevant information linked to that particular vehicle and its title. These reports can also tell you if a vehicle has a branded title.
Branded titles mean that the vehicle has been declared a total loss by an insurance company, usually because it has been damaged to the point that repairs would be more expensive than the value of the car.
It is important to remember that all of this data has to come from somewhere, so it may not be the complete history. For example, if the car was involved in a minor fender-bender and the driver chose to forgo insurance claims and performed any repairs themselves, that damage would not appear on the vehicle history.
Typically, the most reliable information will come from repair shops and dealerships that regularly report on the vehicles they service. Vehicle history reports are most useful as a starting point for learning the car’s history.
How to Get a Vehicle History Report
When a car is manufactured, it is given a VIN. VIN stands for Vehicle Identification Number, and it functions similarly to a person’s social security number. Since 1981, all VINs are 17 characters long, including numbers and letters.
This number lets you look up a specific vehicle and its history, no matter how many times it’s changed hands. Additionally, any time something happens to the vehicle, the VIN will link the event to the car. That way, you only need to know one piece of information about a vehicle to find its full history.
At a used car lot or dealership, the dealership has the responsibility to provide and pay for vehicle histories. You may need to request it formally, but they will then give you a copy of the vehicle history based on the VIN.
When you shop privately, you are responsible for obtaining the vehicle history on your own. If you have the vehicle’s VIN, you can use it to search various VIN check sites to find as much information about a car as possible before you buy it.
Comparing VIN Check Sites
In the United States, data on specific vehicles is kept in the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System. This is a government-run database that pulls records from DMVs, police records, and insurance claims.
Every reputable VIN check site will pull the basic information from NMVTIS. There are numerous approved NMVTIS sites where you can access information on a vehicle. The site you choose will determine the level of detail you receive, as well as any data beyond the basics.
The basics include accident histories, title checks for branded or salvage titles, theft history, damage and repairs, and any taxi or police usage. The level of detail about each even may differ from site to site. Some sites will also provide data like odometer readings or flood damage risks.
While Carfax was the first reporting service of its kind, there are plenty of services similar to Carfax that you can use for a smaller fee.
Carfax the largest paid VIN check site. One Carfax VIN check costs nearly $40.
A handful of other paid NMVTIS sites are cheaper, but they tend to provide significantly less information than Carfax and AutoCheck, for example.
There are tons of free alternatives to Carfax. These VIN check sites offer the same information as Carfax without the charge. Some sites have very specific information that they give for free, rather than the whole report.
For example, when you check a VIN for free with the National Insurance Crime Bureau, the report will only tell you about the vehicle’s theft history and if it has a branded title. This is because the NCIB is focused on insurance crimes rather than total vehicle histories.
Sites like EpicVIN offer a more complete vehicle history report similar to Carfax. EpicVIN provides odometer warnings, safety recalls, previous owners, accident histories, sale histories, and any information that was available the last time the car was sold, such as photographs of the car.
VINinspect is another thorough vehicle history report site that is free to use. It provides the same categories of information as EpicVIN and Carfax. This may seem redundant, but it can actually be useful to view multiple reports.
The Benefit of Checking Multiple VIN Check Sites
Doing a Carfax VIN check will tell you a lot about a car, but comparing VIN checks from multiple sources will give you a more complete picture of the car’s history.
Even if two sites offer data in the same categories, a comparison between them can show you more about the car than just one report. If multiple reports issue the same information, that information will be more reliable.
Drive With Confidence
No matter where you check a vehicle’s history, you should follow up with a mechanic. A trained mechanic can look for any damage or issues that a Carfax report might have missed.
But before you get that far, take a minute to check the VIN with a reliable vehicle history service. That way, you’ll be ready to drive your new car with confidence.