Vehicle history reports shed light on car’s past life

Tamara E. Holmes

Before buying a used car, you want to know as much about its past as possible. Thanks to vehicle history reports, this task is relatively easy, as you can find out about accidents, service visits and whether a vehicle is truly worth the money you’ll be spending to buy and insure it.

“Anybody that’s buying a used car should make sure they’re educated about the vehicle that they’re getting ready to buy,” says Chris Basso, a spokesman for vehicle history provider Carfax.

Such education can come from an array of sources, including state motor vehicle departments, car insurance companies, car repair shops and law enforcement agencies. While it would be an arduous task to check in with all of those places to see whether they have information about a particular car, a vehicle history report can do the legwork for you.

The type of information that can be gleaned ranges from how often a vehicle was damaged in car accidents to how often a vehicle was maintained. Vehicle history reports also can alert you to serious problems such whether there are liens on a vehicle, whether the car has structural damage or whether it ever it has been stolen. They also can tell you about problems that have yet to be fixed. For example, Carfax’s vehicle history reports will tell you whether a recall has been issued for a vehicle but the problem hasn’t been fixed yet, Basso says.

One size does not fit all

But all vehicle history reports are not the same. According to a study done by Edmunds.com senior consumer advice editor Philip Reed, vehicle history reports vary significantly in what they offer.

To get the most information possible, you might consider buying several reports for one vehicle. For example, the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators offers the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System history report, which tracks the titles of cars across the country. Yet the association suggests that consumers also check other vehicle history reports, as they yield additional information. Consumers can purchase a National Motor Vehicle Title Information System report from the association's partners; prices vary by provider, with some costing as little as $3.50 for one report.

Carfax, perhaps the most well-known in the vehicle history report industry, has been collecting data for more than 25 years; the company obtains information from 34,000 sources. One feature that is unique to the Carfax vehicle history report is its buyback guarantee; the company will buy back your vehicle if it turns out that the vehicle had major problems such as flood damage and that information was not included in the report, Basso says. While consumers can buy one Carfax report for $34.99 and five reports for $44.99, you can get one for free if you're considering a purchase at one of 30,000 dealers across the country.

Experian Automotive's AutoCheck vehicle history reports are another option. Reports range in price from $29.99 to $59.99, depending upon the type you’re getting. The Experian reports include such information as whether a vehicle sustained fire damage, was rebuilt or was issued a salvage title, which happens when a car insurance company declares a vehicle a total loss.

Typically, vehicle history reports are straightforward any may include the number of title holders, as well as snippets of information about problems reported, dates that services were performed on the car and an odometer reading for each incident.

Factors affecting insurance

The vehicle report can provide information that affects your car insurance.

When a salvage title is issued, consumers can still buy that car, but they should be aware that it may have major safety issues. Some people buy salvage cars for the parts while others have them repaired and continue to drive them.

When it comes to insurance, some insurers may first inspect a vehicle that has a salvage title to make sure it’s been safely repaired before offering a policy, according to Pete Moraga, a spokesman for the Insurance Information Network of California. Other insurers may refuse to provide optional collision or comprehensive coverage for a badly damaged vehicle.

Even if you’re able to get a vehicle insured, a vehicle history report that highlights major safety problems could be a preview of higher insurance rates over time, if that vehicle is more susceptible to accidents, for example.

As helpful as a vehicle history report may be, it includes only that information that's been reported about the vehicle. It’s always possible for a problem to slip through the cracks, so a consumer should have a trusted mechanic take a look before a purchase is made, Carfax’s Basso suggests.

“It’s your money. Make sure you’re doing all the homework that you feel is necessary before you lay it down,” Basso says.

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