Buying a used car typically requires a bit more research than buying a new one. After all, there’s only so much you can learn about a car by looking at it. To make an informed decision, it often helps to gather additional information about the vehicle before you commit to a purchase. This is where a vehicle history report comes into play.
Vehicle history report: An overview
A vehicle history report is a collection of records about a car’s history. Companies that issue these reports gather information from insurance companies, repair shops, motor vehicle departments and law enforcement agencies. The reports they produce paint a picture of events across a car's lifetime. This often includes changes in ownership, service history, major accidents or repairs and more.
While vehicle history reports won’t tell you everything, they’re generally a good starting point. For buyers, they may help make a more informed purchase, bringing potential red flags to light. For sellers, having such records on hand may be helpful in persuading potential buyers of a car’s roadworthiness.
What’s included in a vehicle history report?
The amount of detail in a vehicle history report, also known as a car history report, depends on the reporting service used and the records available. However, these reports typically include the following:
- Title history: A car’s title history indicates how many owners the car has had, as well as when and where the car was sold. It won’t tell you the names of previous owners, but it will let you know the state (or states) the vehicle was titled in. If you see a car’s title moving frequently across state lines, this may raise questions about the ownership of the vehicle.
- Salvage title: A salvage title is issued by states to vehicles that were previously totaled by an insurance company and may have been subsequently repaired and rebuilt. A totaled car is one in which the estimated cost of repairing the damage exceeds a set percentage of the assessed value of the car. If a car holds a salvage title, that’s a clear indication of serious damage in the past, whether from a major accident or other cause.
- Indication of major accidents: Car history reports often contain information about any major accidents the car has been involved in, as well as major repairs undertaken. Some reports include instances of airbag deployment. They may also give an indication of the seriousness of the collision, including details of the impact area and which side of the vehicle sustained most damage. Even if a car has no visible exterior damage, vehicles that have undergone damage in the past may be more likely to experience structural, mechanical or electrical problems in the future.
- Natural weather events: The report may indicate sources of damage not due to collisions but adverse events such as flooding, hail or fire. It’s generally safer to be wary of vehicles that have previously been damaged by fire or flooding.
- Service history: Vehicle history reports typically include key details from the car's service history, such as oil changes, annual inspections and routine checks. They may also offer information about any warranties associated with the car at different times.
- Mileage: A car history report will usually include information about the vehicle’s mileage as captured at various points during its lifetime. If the mileage on a previous entry is higher than the current odometer reading, this is an obvious red flag.
- Recalls: Reports may also contain information about any car recalls associated with the vehicle and issued by the manufacturer.
Limitations of vehicle history reports
While a car history check can yield a lot of information, it's not the full story. For example, while the title history may reveal how many owners the car has had, it won’t shed any light on exactly how previous owners used the car. The report may specify, however, whether the vehicle was licensed for personal use as opposed to work, rental or law enforcement purposes, for example.
Another limitation is the accuracy of the data itself. The information is only as good as the sources it draws from. Not everything is reported in the publicly available record. A car’s accident history, for example, won’t reveal whether the car got into an accident that went unreported. Relatively minor damage, such as fender benders or other dents, may be missing from the report.
Finally, vehicle history reports don’t typically provide information about the current condition of the vehicle. If you want to know about the state of its tire tread or other wear and tear, your eyes are probably your best friends.
In addition to consulting a vehicle history report when researching a used car, you might consider hiring a mechanic to carry out a pre-purchase inspection. The cost of a mechanic’s inspection is relatively inexpensive compared with the cost of carrying out unforeseen repairs after you’ve bought the vehicle. Plus, if you can provide your mechanic with a copy of the car history report in advance of the inspection, it may give them a better sense of what to look for.
When to get a vehicle history report
The question of when, or whether, to request a vehicle history report depends on the circumstances of your potential purchase and your attitude to risk. However, given the relatively low cost of these reports and the additional information they offer, it’s often a good move to consider purchasing one once you become seriously interested in a car.
Keep in mind that vehicle history reports can prove helpful for both buyers and sellers alike. For buyers, car history checks may provide peace of mind by helping you steer clear of cars with conspicuous red flags. The report also contains information that may help when negotiating a price.
Sellers may also find car history reports useful. They provide an opportunity to give potential buyers proof that the vehicle being sold is free from known major problems. Some used car dealerships offer vehicle history reports as a standard part of the car buying experience.
Where to get a vehicle history report
If a seller doesn't have a vehicle inspection report on hand, there are several ways to obtain one. But first, you need to locate the car's vehicle identification number, or “VIN.” This 17-character sequence is typically found on the corner of the driver’s side window. It may also be located on the frame of the driver’s door, as well as in other places such as on insurance documentation.
The next step is to order the car report by VIN. There are several services available online that offer reports. They may even let you know how many documents the car history check turns up, after which you can decide whether to purchase the report.
Some of the information found in car history reports can be found by other means. The U.S. Department of Transportation runs a database of recalls, and the National Insurance Crime Bureau lets you find whether a car has been reported as stolen. As with car history reports, you will usually need the VIN of the car in question.
Cost of a vehicle history report
While the cost of a vehicle history report will depend on the company which issues it, these reports are typically inexpensive and usually fall below $50. Note that some companies may offer discounts if you order a check on multiple cars.
When buying a car, it’s best to avoid a risky purchase. When selling a car, you want to convince buyers that the vehicle is reliable and functional. In both scenarios, a vehicle history report can help. By providing a range of information from diverse sources, a vehicle history report can help piece together a fuller picture of what might just be your next set of wheels.