Used car buying advice: How does a vehicle history report work?

Car dealers will always run a vehicle history report on your trade-in before they buy it from you, so why wouldn’t you do the same when buying used from them or a private party?


Before you purchase a used car, it’s essential that you get both a vehicle history report and a car inspection, even if the car is certified.   With a vehicle history report (also known as a used car history report), you’ll be able to tell if the car has been in a major accident, recalled, storm or flood damaged, in a fire, or stolen.

Finding out if the car has been misrepresented before you buy will save you major headaches and is well worth the small price of the report.  If you do find something wrong with the car but still want to buy it, you can use the vehicle history report to your advantage in negotiations.  Simply point out the flaws and demand the price be lowered.  Demand is a strong word, but warranted in this case because you've likely found a major defect that was covered up or overlooked and should be reflected in the price.

How does a Vehicle History Report Work?

Just enter a VIN number (the 17 digit number that’s unique for every car, like a fingerprint) and you'll get immediate access to a printable report that contains:

  • Whether an accident has ever been reported on the vehicle
  • Total number of previous owners
  • Any police reports available
  • Any major accidents
  • Recorded mileage when the vehicle has changed hands (to help detect odometer fraud)
  • If the car was ever reported as a lemon
  • Any manufacturer recalls
  • If the car was ever used as a fleet or rental car

Where do I get a Vehicle History Report and what's the cost?

You can quickly get one online. There are two main providers, CARFAX and Autocheck.  I suggest using Autocheck because they’re cheaper, have access to more car data than CARFAX, and give you an “Autocheck Score” which tells you how a particular car measures up to others of the same make and model.

For a single report on one car, it's:

  • $29.99 at Autocheck
  • $34.99 at CARFAX

For reports on multiple cars, it's:

  • $44.99 at Autocheck (for unlimited reports)
  • $44.99 at CARFAX (for 5 reports)

Here's a more detailed comparison between CARFAX and Autocheck.

In addition to a used car history report, it's also important to get a car inspected by a certified mechanic.  This will cost a little more, but will help you catch any other issues that were not reported.

Remember this used car buying advice:  Both a vehicle history report and inspection by a certified mechanic will significantly reduce your risk when buying a new car.

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