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How to get a VIN check on a used vehicle

Avoid the surprise of a shoddy transmission or inaccurate odometer reading.

When you’re in the market for a used car, you can avoid any unwelcome surprises by running a vehicle identification number (VIN) check with a car vehicle history report. It can tell you if there’s money owed on it, whether it’s been stolen or if it’s ever been in a serious accident.

Where can I get a car history report?

There are lots of sites you can use to look up a car’s history by checking its VIN. If the car you’re looking at has a more complex service history, it may be worth checking two or three reports to confirm details.

CostBest for …How it works
Carfax$39.99Vehicles with a hard-to-find service historyCarfax has a database of over 17 billion vehicle history reports with details on everything from past sales, previous owners, maintenance records and more.
AutoCheck$24.99Easily checking that a car is in good shapeAutoCheck sells detailed vehicle history reports and ranks used cars by score based on similar cars with its make and model.
VehicleHistoryFreeLooking up details about vehicle recalls and price analysisVehicleHistory is a free way to get a less detailed report that lists any recalls, manufacturer warranties and details about the make and model.
National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB)FreeChecking basic details about a vehicleThe NICB is a government-based search to help you determine if a vehicle has been reported stolen, lost or has a salvage title.
Used car lotFreeChecking your history cheaply and convenientlyReputable used car dealerships should be able to provide a free vehicle history report from Carfax or AutoCheck.

What does a VIN check cover?

Doing a VIN history check — also known as a vehicle history or car history report — 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:

  • Vehicle history and information
  • Ownership history
  • Previous odometer readings
  • Maintenance and repair records
  • Previous sales history
  • Accident or flood damage
  • Recalls
  • Salvage check
  • Structural damage

Can I check a car’s history for free?

Yes, but if you’re getting the report yourself, more than likely it won’t have anything beyond the most basic information. The NICB will show you if your car has previously been issued a salvage title or been reported stolen — but accidents, maintenance records and other facts won’t show up. The same can be said of sources like VehicleHistory. While you’ll see a vehicle’s recalls and warranties, specific information is left out.

However, there are two ways you can get a more extensive vehicle history or car service report for free:

  1. Visit a dealership. Reputable dealerships should have a subscription to either Carfax or AutoCheck. When you’re interested in a specific car, ask to see its vehicle history or service history. Make sure the report is up to date, and if the salesperson refuses to let you see it, treat it like a red flag and shop elsewhere.
  2. Check the car ad. Many car ads — especially the ones posted by dealerships — will contain a link to the car’s vehicle history report. This allows you to check it quickly without having to type out a VIN or pay a high fee. But like with visiting a dealership, make sure it’s up to date before deciding on the car.

Why should I run a VIN check?

A VIN check can help you avoid scams and ensure your vehicle is in good shape. It’s useful any time you buy a used car, especially if you’re dealing with a private seller. Otherwise, you could end up paying more than your vehicle is worth — and potentially dealing with problems caused by previous damage or poor maintenance.

Is a vehicle history report accurate?

For the most part, these reports are accurate. But keep in mind that not every incident is listed on a car’s vehicle history or service history report. If it wasn’t submitted as a claim to the insurance company or the mechanic didn’t officially update any records, then there may be some gaps. Beyond that, there are quite a few different sources responsible for filing reports on vehicles, so there’s always a chance something was misreported.

However, both AutoCheck and Carfax have buyback guarantees: If you purchased a car based on inaccurate information on one of their reports, they’ll buy the car from you. Not everything is covered, so check their policies carefully before you commit to a car that seems like it may not have a full list of service dates or mechanical issues.

What if the car doesn’t have a vehicle history report?

If the car you’re interested in doesn’t have a vehicle history report, 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. This can sometimes happen with newer used cars that are being sold privately. But remember: You should still ask the previous owner about any unreported incidents. It can clue you in to hidden damage that might have an impact later on down the road.

4 red flags to look out for when buying a used car

Some things should be considered a deal-breaker — or at least warrant an enormous price reduction. Look out for these red flags when buying a used car:

  • Has the car been previously written off? This means it was decided that repairs would cost more than the car is worth. If a car has been written off or issued a salvage title, there’s a chance it has some invisible damage or shoddy repairs.
  • Is the car still under finance? If the car is still under finance, the seller should let you know. If you find it out through a car history report, you may want to dig deeper — or find a different car.
  • Has the odometer been rolled back? This is a telltale sign the seller is trying to rip you off. Even if the odometer appears tampered with, it might be in your best interest to walk away.
  • Is it poorly maintained? If the car has a poor vehicle history, then it’s a long way from good as new and will likely not be as reliable as other options out there.

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Bottom line

Looking at a used car’s vehicle history report can give you an idea of the condition its in and current value. Doing your research along with following a used car buying checklist can help ensure you get the most bang for your buck. And when you’re ready to buy, compare your used car loan options to find the best deal available to you.

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