Avoid the surprise of a shoddy transmission or an inaccurate odometer reading before you buy your next car by running a vehicle identification number (VIN) check on a vehicle’s history. This check will tell you if there’s money still owing on the car, if it’s been stolen or if it’s been in a serious accident.
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There are many sites that can check a car’s history by running it’s 17-digit alphanumeric VIN through a database of vehicle information. If you’re heavily considering buying a car and the seller has nothing to hide, he/she may just go ahead and front the cost of the report in order to make the sale.
When trying to look into the background of a vehicle you’re eyeballing, check with one of these car vehicle history providers:
How it works
$54.95 (gives you a report and lien check for 1 vehicle)
Vehicles with a hard-to-find history
Carfax has a database of over 17 billion history reports offering details on everything from sales history, previous owners, maintenance records and more.
$24.99 USD (for 1 vehicle)
Easily checking that your car is in good shape.
AutoCheck sells detailed vehicle history reports and ranks used cars by score based on similar cars with its make and a model. If your car gets an 88 but the average averages score for that make and model is 81 to 89, it’s in good shape.
$9.95 (for 1 vehicle)
Checking your history cheaply and conveniently
VehicleCheckCanada offers a less expensive package than other major VIN check companies, and the report you get is very detailed covering liens and ownership history, damage, import information, warranty information, structural damage and service history, among other things.
*Prices and information current as of May 16, 2019.
You might want to run a VIN check every time you buy a used car — especially if it’s from an individual. It can help you avoid scams and make sure that your vehicle is in as good a shape as the salesperson says it is. Otherwise, you could end up paying a lot more than your vehicle is worth.
What if the vehicle doesn’t have a VIN or I’m having trouble running a check?
If a car you’re interested in doesn’t have a vehicle history, you don’t have to write it off completely. Instead, bring it to a mechanic you trust and have them give the car a top-to-bottom inspection. If you’re having trouble running a VIN check for a vehicle that does have a VIN, try asking your auto insurance company to run the VIN check for you – often, this will get you the information you want.
What does a VIN check tell me?
Doing a VIN history check will tell you how the car has been taken care of by its previous owners. Details about any insurance claims or police reports will come up in the search, along with:
Some things should be considered a deal-breaker when buying a car — or they should at least warrant an enormous price reduction:
Has the car been previously written off? This means that it was decided that repairs would cost more than the car is worth. If a car has been previously written off, there’s a good chance it has some invisible damage or very shoddy repairs that might not be readily visible on the outside.
Is the car still under financing? If the car is still under financing, the seller probably shouldn’t be selling it, especially not without letting you know first.
Say you buy a car that still has a loan on it and the seller doesn’t use the money from the sale to completely pay off the car loan. If the seller defaults on the loan, then your car could be repossessed – even if you had nothing to do with the loan or the seller’s default!
Is it stolen? Buying a car from a thief is a good way to get robbed. See the info box below on how to run a free check to see if a car has been reported as stolen.
Has the odometer been rolled back? This is a tell-tale sign that the seller is trying to rip you off. Even if the odometer appears tampered with only slightly, it might be in your best interest to walk away.
Has the vehicle been poorly maintained? If the car has a poor service history, then it’s a long way from “good as new” and will likely not be the reliable vehicle you need.
Does the VIN physically printed on the vehicle match the description of the vehicle on the car report? If not, then the VIN on the vehicle you ran the check on has likely been swapped with the VIN on another vehicle.
VIN swapping is illegal and is usually done for 1 of 2 purposes: to hide bad information about a vehicle such as its accident history, flood damage or true odometre reading; or to hide the fact that the car was stolen.
Your seller may know this, or they may have purchased the car in ignorance themselves. If you notice such a discrepancy between the VIN listed on a car and the description of the car on a car report, you should report the matter to the local police and let them handle it. Even if there’s a reasonable explanation, you want to be sure that you’re not getting an unsafe or unreliable vehicle.
Does the VIN report show the car as being registered in another province or country? Is it showing a salvage or junk title? This may mean nothing of importance. Or it may mean that the car’s real VIN has been replaced with a new VIN that has been registered in your province using the identity of a similar car from somewhere else. Police have issued public warnings that thieves can steal a car, find a very similar car in another jurisdiction and incorporate that car’s VIN into a new VIN plate and federal standards decal that are then placed on the stolen car. Then they get an out-of-province inspection form and forge a bill of sale, both of which are taken to the provincial Registry Office to register the stolen car under its new VIN. At that point the vehicle has a new VIN with a matching vehicle description on its records, and no one knows that the car was actually stolen. Ask the seller more questions than you normally would if the car you’re looking at buying is from out-of-town.
Check the public VIN on the lower left dashboard compare it to the federal certification sticker on the driver’s door frame. The VIN should be identical and the sticker should not show any signs of peeling.
Did you know about the canadian police information centre?
Click here to be taken to the Canadian Police Information Centre where you can run a free search on any vehicle in order to see if it has been reported stolen. Simply enter the VIN number, read the terms and conditions, agree to them and then click to begin the search. If you get a positive result, contact your local police immediately, and do not proceed with the sale
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Finding out a car’s vehicle history can reveal its condition as well as its current value. Doing your research to get a comprehensive understanding of everything there is to know about a used car you’re interested in buying will help ensure that you get the most bang for your buck instead of getting stuck with a raw deal.
Frequently asked questions
It depends on how bad the accident is. Any accident that shows up in a vehicle history record is sure to decrease its value. However, sometimes pricey repairs don’t really indicate that a car has truly decreased in value – say, if a cosmetic paint repair to a large scratch on the body costs $1,800, that doesn’t necessarily mean the car is worth $1,800 less.
If you’re a seller, show the buyer pictures of the vehicle before the repairs so the buyer doesn’t assume the repairs were extreme. Also pull out service papers from the mechanic or body shop that performed the repairs and let the buyer read them in order to see where the cost of the repairs really went.
If you’re a buyer, don’t assume the value of a vehicle strictly by reading its damage information on a car report. Talk to the seller, ask to see other documentation (if available) regarding accidents or repairs listed on the report and then decide whether the value of those damages are actually a red flag or not.
No, unfortunately. Car reports are generated from information obtained through police records, title agencies, repair shops and other sources. These records may be incomplete or have the occasional error in them. For example, a car reports might say that the left side of the bumper was damaged when it was actually the right side.
On the whole, car reports are largely reliable, so you should concerned if you see any red flags in a vehicle’s records. But it’s important to remember that the companies producing these reports as well as their sources of information are not always complete or infallible.
It’s good to talk to your seller about any serious concerns you have regarding a car report in order to see if there’s any additional information they can give you. If in doubt, try getting a second report from a different company (other companies may collect information from different sources), or ask to view any documentation your seller has regarding the vehicle’s maintenance and history so you can review them yourself.
Since it depends on several different factors, there’s no definitive answer. However, a good place to start would be the Canadian Black Book or autoTRADER.ca to the see prices of similar cars.
The 17-digit alphanumeric VIN number can be located by opening the driver’s door and looking at the latch where it closes or by the corner of the driver’s side dashboard by the windshield. If you’re having trouble finding it, look at the vehicle’s ownership, insurance and service records. The VIN should be printed on those documents.
Stacie Hurst is an editor at Finder, specializing in loans, banking products and money transfers. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology and Writing, and she completed one year of law school in the United States before deciding to pursue a career in the publishing industry. When not working, she can usually be found messing around with games, photography or floral arrangements in memory of her former days as a flower shop assistant.
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