What Is a Vehicle History Report?

A vehicle history report is the key to a used car’s past: It gives you information about a car’s history before buying one.
Philip Reed
Funto Omojola
By Funto Omojola and  Philip Reed 
Edited by Julie Myhre-Nunes

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When you’re buying a house, you receive disclosures about the issues with the house that give you insight into the house’s history. A vehicle history report serves a similar purpose when you're buying a used car. It tells you everything a prospective buyer needs to know about a car’s past — like who owned it, its past record of accidents and even maintenance information — and it’s a must for smart shoppers. 

What’s on a vehicle history report?

The best-known vehicle history reports are sold by Carfax and AutoCheck, but you can get some limited background information for free from several sources. These reports are tied to a car’s vehicle identification number or VIN, and the data is collected over the life of the car. The vehicle history report pulls all the various records together in a single document.

Keep in mind, though, that the report doesn’t tell you the current mechanical condition of the car. Still, since it tells you how it’s been treated, you get a pretty good idea of the current condition, which will help you determine the value of the car before even going to physically inspect it.

Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the information that a vehicle history report provides:

  • Salvage title. If a car has been in a serious accident, fire or flood and was “totaled” by the insurance company (declared a total loss), it still might be drivable. However, the insurance company will issue a “salvage title” to alert future buyers. In most cases, you want to steer clear of vehicles with salvage titles because they kill the resale value and the cars might still have hidden problems. 

  • The number of owners and how it was used. It’s nice to think the car you’re interested in was driven sparingly by previous owners and incurred limited wear and tear. But maybe it was a leased car or even used as an Uber. A vehicle report lets you know how many times a car changed hands and whether its purpose was personal use.

  • Accidents. Serious accidents (and occasionally, minor accidents, as well) that are reported to the insurance company are typically on a vehicle’s history report. This can give you a general idea of how a car handles an accident.

  • Maintenance records. Sometimes service visits are listed on the vehicle history report, showing the routine maintenance or repairs performed by a mechanic. This is most likely if the car was serviced at a car dealership rather than an independent garage.

  • Odometer rollbacks. Shady car lots might spin the odometer back to lower the mileage and increase a vehicle's selling price. History reports alert you to this scam by making it easy for you to check for any odometer discrepancies. 

  • Recall information. Manufacturer recalls can happen if a manufacturer determines that a car or part of a car does not meet minimum safety standards. A vehicle history report can alert you to any potential problems that need to be addressed. You can also usually see if there are any open recalls for free online through the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, using your VIN. 

How to get a free vehicle history report

A free way to get very basic and limited information about a used car is to visit the National Insurance Crime Bureau. Through the website, you can enter the VIN of the car you want to buy and see if it has been issued a salvage title or if it was stolen. 

In some cases, you can also get free vehicle history reports through online classified car ads. These ads have links to free vehicle history reports from Carfax or AutoCheck, so you don’t even have to type in the unwieldy VIN. 

Many dealer websites also have links to free Carfax vehicle history reports on their online car listings. Plus, if you are used-car shopping in person, either at an independent used-car lot or a car dealership, you can simply ask the salesperson for a vehicle history report. Nearly all dealers have an ongoing subscription to one of the vehicle history report services and should provide the report for free. It’s a red flag if the salesperson refuses to show you the report or presents an outdated report.

If you’re unable to get a free report, you can buy individual vehicle history reports or a subscription for a limited time. Carfax charges $44.99 for a single report, or you get three reports for $64.99 and five reports for $99.99. AutoCheck is $24.99 for one report or $49.99 for five reports for 21 days.

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How accurate are vehicle history reports?

While the information on vehicle reports is usually accurate, there may be occasional errors. With so many reporting sources — insurance agencies, vehicle registries, dealership service centers, mechanics, etc. — mistakes can occur, or important information left out. Both AutoCheck and Carfax include "buyback" protections and guarantees, so if you bought a car based on flawed information, these companies will buy the car from you. But only some errors are covered, so it's important to read the fine print carefully.

A vehicle history report can let you peer into a car’s past and can be a good first step to take when deciding whether to buy a used car. But these reports won't give you all the information necessary to get the full picture of the vehicle in question. It is still important to see the car in person and to get a comprehensive inspection from a mechanic before making a purchase.

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