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What to look for in a vehicle history report

No matter how you buy a used car, it’s always a good idea to get a vehicle history report. This vital document reveals the history of a car, including critical information such as any accidents, recalls, and the current odometer reading. Also known as a VIN check, a vehicle history report [1] can give you an idea of what to expect with a car when you go to buy. With Carvana, a free vehicle history report comes with every vehicle in our inventory and is only a click away, thanks to our partnership with Experian AutoCheck.

Below we take an in-depth look at the kinds of information you can expect find on your standard vehicle history report, as well as the other ways you can obtain a vehicle history report.

Contents of a vehicle history report

A vehicle history report essentially gives you the life history of a vehicle. Knowing what to look for in the vehicle history report can help you make a good car buying decision. VIN checks contain the following information.

Past ownership information: It’s helpful to know who owned your vehicle prior to you and where the person lived. If a car has passed through multiple owners, this could be a sign that the vehicle has problems.

Prior accidents: Depending on the nature of the accidents and the number of collisions, this could sway you against buying a car that may have residual damage. On the other hand, if the car hasn’t been in any accidents, that’s good news. The report will also inform you if the car’s airbags have ever deployed.

Flood or fire damage: Cars involved in flooding or fire may have sustained long-lasting damage to the engine. Check to see the nature of the damage and what repairs, if any, were made.

Total loss/salvage history: Vehicles declared a total loss or salvaged are obviously of questionable integrity. Whereas a total loss generally means the car is hazardous and shouldn’t be purchased, a car with a salvage history may still be safe to drive. Check to see the extent of the damage and if the salvaged vehicle has been repaired. Have salvaged vehicles carefully inspected prior to buying.

Liens: A lien shouldn’t appear on a VIN check if you buy from a reputable auto dealer. A lien on a private sale vehicle is a real problem. It means the seller doesn’t fully own the car. With a lien on a car that you buy, you won’t be able to obtain a loan for the purchase, transfer the title to your name, or register or insure the vehicle. In such circumstances, it’s generally best to have the owner get the lien released [2] prior to you buying the car.

Maintenance history: Seeing the service history for the car lets you know what’s been repaired or replaced. This information will help you budget for future maintenance. The repair history can also help you during price negotiations. For instance, if the car will soon be due [3] for new tires and a battery, you might be able to negotiate a lower price.

Recalls: It’s always good to know if the car you’re considering buying has any recalls [4], and if those repairs were made.

Odometer reading: This will tell you how many miles the car has been driven. If the car has high mileage, this may enable you to bargain for a lower price. The vehicle history report will also alert you if it appears that someone has tampered with the mileage.

Failed emissions test: If you live in an area that requires smog checks, and the car has failed such tests, this could mean costly repairs for you.

Stolen vehicle check: A car history report alerts you to any potential problems that could point to the auto being stolen. If the car has ever been stolen and returned, this will also show up on the report.

How to obtain a vehicle history report

While there are free vehicle reports available online, they tend to be limited in scope. For a thorough report, you’ll have to pay a fee. Currently, the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System [5] provides reports for cars titled in 96% of the states. The fee is nominal. There are other companies that perform the reports for a fee, as well.

Though it takes a few extra steps to get a vehicle history report, doing so is well worth the effort. Discovering that a car is a lemon prior to you buying it will save you a lot of money and headaches. On the other hand, finding out that a vehicle has a trouble-free history will confirm your excellent choice in used autos.