How Can I Check a Car's Vehicle History Report?

A vehicle history report can help you make a smart used car purchase. Here's how to get the most out of this vital tool.


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A used car purchase can be tricky. What if the vehicle you buy has hidden problems that diminish its reliability? You can dramatically increase your satisfaction odds by doing the right research—including reviewing a vehicle history report that can provide the insight you need to make a smart car purchase. Here's some guidance to help you make this report work for you as you search for a trustworthy used car.

What Is a Vehicle History Report?

A vehicle history report is a resource that provides information regarding a used car's background, including who owned the vehicle and whether it has any open recalls. This report can tell you if a car was in a major accident. It sometimes provides data you can use to determine whether a vehicle was diligently maintained by including the dates of service and the type of service performed.

Reliability can be a key concern when buying a used car. A vehicle serviced according to the automaker's recommendations that has avoided major accidents is well-positioned to perform reliably. A car's history report can help you identify vehicles with this type of background.

What Does This Report Tell Me About a Used Car?

A car's history report provides the following information:

Previous owners and vehicle usage–Did a used car have one or multiple owners? This report provides that information. Additionally, it sheds light on whether the owner drove the vehicle for personal or commercial use. A vehicle used commercially as a rental car may have more wear than one driven for personal use.

Accident history and damage–A car that was in one or more significant accidents may suffer long-lasting damage, even after repairs. Also, accidents aren't the only events that can negatively impact a car; for example, flood damage can leave permanent problems. A history report lists this type of damage and can help you weed out these vehicles.

Title history–If a car is declared a total loss due to theft, fire, flood, or accident, it's given a salvage title. A car with a salvage title suffered damage that makes it more likely to experience reliability problems. You can use a history report to see if it has a salvage title. Additionally, this report can help you determine if there's a lien on the vehicle. A lien gives the holder of that lien (typically a lending institution) an ownership interest in the car until a loan is paid off. If a lien exists, it could mean that the person selling the car still owes a balance to the lender that financed the vehicle. If this is the case, the seller may need to pay off the loan before the sale to provide you with the title.

Odometer readings–Some unscrupulous sellers will alter a car's odometer reading to reduce the mileage shown. If this happens, you could wind up buying a car with more mileage and wear than you prefer. A car's history report typically includes recent odometer readings. You can compare this information to the mileage shown on the odometer to determine if the odometer reading is accurate.

Recalls and service history–A vehicle history report also tells you if the car has open recalls that have yet to be addressed. It provides details regarding the vehicle's service history. You can use these details to determine if the seller maintained the car according to the automaker's recommendations. 

This report can help you focus your search on the used cars with the background criteria you most desire.

How to Access a Vehicle History Report

There are free and paid ways to access a vehicle history report. One free way to get some of a car's history is through the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB). By inputting the car's vehicle identification number (VIN), you'll be able to access data that shows whether the car has a salvage title or if someone reported it as stolen. NICB allows a maximum of five searches within 24 hours for a single IP address.

You may also be able to access a car's history for free by purchasing your used vehicle from a dealer. Many used car dealers provide a free history report to shoppers interested in making a purchase.

Companies including Carfax and Autocheck can provide you with a history report for a fee once you provide the car's VIN. The cost may run between $25 and $40 per report; or, you can buy a subscription that allows you to purchase multiple reports at a discounted rate during your search for a used car. If you're buying a used car from a private seller, it may be wise to invest in this report before committing to a purchase.

Bottom Line

A vehicle history report is a key piece of research during your used-car search. It provides data that can help you make an informed purchase, and can give you valuable peace of mind.

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Warren Clarke
A car purchase is a big decision. And once you've made the purchase, you'll be faced with countless other choices that will affect your ownership experience one way or another. Throughout my career in the automotive industry, I've written everything from vehicle reviews to articles covering topics such as car insurance and leasing. My mission is to help you make the best decisions regarding your vehicle.