Every car buying expert will tell you the same thing. Don’t buy a used car without reading its vehicle history report thoroughly and carefully.

It’s good advice. Unless the used car in question has always belonged to your uncle Harry, a vehicle history report is the only way for you to learn about the life it has led. A vehicle history report lists the car’s prior maintenance, repairs, accidents, owners, and locations. It’s part report card, part biography, and part memoir. It can tell you if that SUV is a lemon, if that pickup truck has had an airbag deployment, or if that little red convertible has really lived a pampered life by the beach.

There are two major brands of vehicle history reports out there, Autocheck and CARFAX. However, CARFAX is the most well known and by far the most popular. CARFAX reports are also the most comprehensive, and it’s the brand used by the vast majority of America’s used car dealers, both big and small, as well as most private used car sellers. CARFAX vehicle history reports are used so universally that the name has become synonymous with any vehicle history report, like Kleenex is for a facial tissue or Xerox for copiers.

But what should you look for when reading a vehicle history report? And how do you to scrutinize the info to ensure the seller is being honest? We’ll answer those questions and more, but first let’s cover the basics.

How to Obtain a Vehicle History Report

If you’re shopping for a used car at a dealership, large or small, the salesperson will typically give you the vehicle history report for free. And they should have it handy the moment you ask for it. If a dealer wants to charge you for the report or claims not to have one, your red flag meter should peg its needle. There may be something wrong with the car that they don’t want you to see.

A private seller confident in the condition of the car may also have a recent vehicle history report on hand and ready to for review by perspective buyers. If that’s not the case, ask them to buy one and share it. It takes just a few minutes, and they’re very affordable.

Even if you have to pay for a report yourself, it’s worth it for the detailed information it provides.

A single CARFAX report costs $40. However, if you’re actively shopping used cars from multiple private sellers, it probably makes more sense to buy one of their package deals, either 3 reports for $60 or 6 for $100. Autocheck reports are less expensive, but as we mentioned, they usually don’t provide the same level of detail. Each costs $25, or you can pay $50 for 25 reports within 21 days.

The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN)

Each vehicle history report is tied to a car’s 17-character VIN. VIN stands for vehicle identification number, which serves as a unique identifier for a specific vehicle. It’s usually located at the base of the windshield on the dashboard just ahead of the driver, but it can also be found on the car’s registration or insurance paperwork. If you don’t have access to the VIN, you can also get a history report by using the vehicle’s license plate number.

If you’re handed a vehicle history report from a seller, the first thing you should do is make sure the VIN on the report matches the VIN of the vehicle. If it doesn’t, it’s the history report of another vehicle. Other basic information you should confirm includes the correct year, make, and model of the vehicle, as well as a proper description of the car and its engine. If these don’t match the car in front of you, then it’s time to start looking for a different seller.

Avoid Vehicles with Serious Issues

When you’re reading a vehicle history report, it’s always a good idea to check for severe accident damage first. Let’s face it, if the car has been in a major accident with airbag deployments and structural damage, does it really matter if its oil has been changed regularly? Of course not.

Remember, a shiny coat of paint can hide major repairs, and a car that’s been in a major accident may not be as reliable or as safe as when it was new. This is why you want to see two things at the very top of a CARFAX report:

  • No accidents reported to CARFAX
  • No damage reported to CARFAX

You also want to see check marks next to:

  • No total loss
  • No structural damage
  • No airbag deployment
  • No indication of odometer rollback
  • No accidents or damage
  • No open recalls

Next, check the area marked “Title History.” It’ll tell you if the car has a salvage title, if it has been damaged by fire, flood, or hail, or if it has been marked a lemon.

If you find any issues like these in the vehicle’s history, we recommend walking away from the purchase. There are plenty of other examples out there without problematic histories.

The image below shows an example of what you want to see when you check the title history:

Check the Ownership and Maintenance History

A complete vehicle history report documents when the car was originally sold, including the date, dealer, and mileage of the vehicle at the time of that transaction. It will also list any changes in ownership or other modifications to its DMV registrations over its life, including moves to new cities or states.

Make sure this all lines up with the details provided by the seller. If it’s advertised as a “one owner” car that never left the state, the history report should back that up. Otherwise, it’s time to start looking elsewhere.

Also, a “clean” vehicle history report doesn’t just mean that the report shows no major accidents or trauma like fire or flood damage. It should also show a complete list of scheduled maintenance, including oil and filter changes performed on time throughout the life of the car or truck.

Most cars sold over the last ten years require such scheduled service every 7500 or 10,000 miles, or once per year (whichever comes first). If you’re not sure about the interval, you can look it up by plugging the year, make, and model into online tools like Edmunds’ Car Maintenance Guide. With that information, you’ll know what to look for.

It will all be listed chronologically, and the maintenance records will include the name of the dealership or shop that performed the service, complete with contact information. The date of that service and the car’s mileage at the time will also be listed, often with details of the maintenance performed and any repairs made.

The image below shows an example of how this information appears in the report:

Don’t forget to check the cadence of the information. Was there a service performed at 10,000, 20,000, 30,000 miles, etc., or at least once per year, as the vehicle requires? If not, it’s possible that the owner used a shop that does not make its data available to companies like CARFAX. In that case, you should ask the owner to provide paper records documenting the car’s proper care.

Other Potential Problems to Look For

Listen to your gut. Make sure the information rings true, and there are no extensive gaps between services. If there is, a previous owner may have skipped a required service to save money. That’s not a good thing.

You should also know what’s coming. Does the car with 79,000 miles on it require an expensive scheduled maintenance at 80,000 miles that the seller is trying to avoid? Maybe. That’s not a big deal, but be aware and negotiate the cost of that impending service when you’re haggling the price of the vehicle.

Another red flag in a vehicle history report is a major gap in mileage accumulation. Cars that sit un-driven for a year or more at a time may have persistent issues that have sidelined them. And dormancy itself can cause problems. Old gasoline can clog fuel lines and injectors, rubber parts like hoses and belts can dry out, crack, and become brittle, and moisture can accelerate the aging of other parts and systems.

Repeat repairs for the same problem should also trigger skepticism. Recently, while shopping for a used car, I came across a 2012 VW Tiguan in excellent condition. The car’s vehicle history report showed a complete and on-schedule maintenance history, no accidents, and its mileage was low for its age. But then I noticed that its camshaft position sensor had been replaced twice in the last two years. A camshaft position sensor is very important; the car will not run without it.

I bought the car anyway, hoping for the best. But a few months later it stopped running. I immediately knew the problem had returned. I had the car towed to the local VW dealer, and sure enough the camshaft position sensor had failed again.

A car with lots of prior owners can also be problematic. As vehicles age and depreciate, they change hands for fewer dollars at each transaction. And subsequent owners, having much less invested in the car than its original owner, may be less inclined to spend money servicing and repairing the vehicle as often or to as high a standard. Likewise, unusually short ownership intervals — less than a year, for instance — can signal that there’s an issue the current owner would rather pass on to the next guy than address himself. This makes used cars with just one or two longtime owners far more desirable.

How to Verify the Information

Most used car buyers never verify any of the information on a CARFAX or other vehicle history report. But if you’re serious about the purchase, it’s worth the time and effort to do so.

Calling or visiting the dealership and/or shops that performed the work and asking for verification of the repairs is possible, but it’s rare that you’ll learn anything new about the vehicle. There are exceptions, however, and discussing the car’s vehicle history report with the local mechanic that has serviced and repaired the car is never a bad idea.

The other way to verify some of the information is to have the car inspected by a mechanic you know and trust. This is known as a pre-purchase inspection (PPI) and usually runs $150 to $250 for a thorough job. Most used car dealers will be prepared for a PPI request and make the car available. Some private sellers may squawk, however, especially if the inspection is geographically undesirable for their convenience.

Such an inspection should include an examination of the car’s chassis, which will have to be performed on a lift. The mechanic can then properly check for leaks and other issues as well as more easily verify repairs listed on the vehicle history report, things like new brakes or a recent water pump replacement.

Once underneath the car, a skilled mechanic will also be able to spot crash or other damage that may not be listed on the report. Yes, this is possible. There’s even a disclaimer on CARFAX’s website that reads: “Not every accident is reported to CARFAX. As details about the accident become available, those additional details are added to the CARFAX Vehicle History Report. CARFAX recommends that you have this vehicle inspected by a qualified mechanic.”

Another disclaimer on the CARFAX website reads: “Other information about this vehicle, including problems, may not have been reported to CARFAX. Use this report as one important tool, along with a vehicle inspection and test drive, to make a better decision about your next used car.”

The Bottom Line

Once again, you should never buy a used car without first giving its vehicle history report a thorough examination. It’s a great tool for weeding out less desirable cars — not to mention less desirable sellers.

But don’t stop there. You should also understand that vehicle history reports are not always complete. They don’t always tell the whole story. It’s always up to you, the buyer, to read between the lines and fill in the blanks.

As always, when you’re on the hunt for the perfect used car, don’t forget to utilize Klipnik’s community of experts, who are always ready to help scout out the best listings, answer questions, and offer guidance throughout the entire purchase process.


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About Scott Oldham

Scott Oldham is an award-winning automotive journalist with over 25 years of experience. In addition to Klipnik, he has written for Car and Driver, Autoweek, Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds.com, Popular Mechanics, and Autoblog.

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Car Buying Tips