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How to Check a Car's History

Posted on by Dawna M. Roberts in LawSeptember 19, 2022

Finding your car's history is essential to buying or selling a vehicle for several reasons. Certain aspects of your vehicle history can determine your car's actual value, how much insurance you will pay each month, and whether or not a seller is attempting to scam you. Getting your vehicle history through a VIN number lookup can show you a wealth of data about your car, helping you make more informed decisions in the vehicle market. 

how to check a car's history

What is a Car’s History?

Basically, a car's history is everything to do with that vehicle's past, whether that was how it was manufactured, how it has been registered, or how it's been driven. Depending on the service or method you use, a car's history would include details like:

  • Mileage Information:Car history reports can show a vehicle's actual mileage, which you can compare with the number advertised by a seller. Mileage is one of the best indicators of a vehicle's level of wear and tear; if the mileage is incredibly high, it's far more likely the vehicle will need significant repairs in the near future. Odometer readings can also help you identify a common car scam, odometer rollback. If your report doesn't match what is currently displayed on the vehicle's odometer, the seller may be trying to illegally obscure the actual mileage.
  • Accident History:The accident history section of your report will show you any reported collisions that the vehicle has been involved in, including the associated damage that resulted from said accident. Depending on the service you choose, the damage the car experienced will be displayed system by system, including any interior or exterior components that were harmed during the incident. Accident history will also show you whether safety features like the airbags were deployed, as well as the operational status of the vehicle after the collision.
  • Recall Notices and Service History:If a vehicle has a defect due to an error made by the manufacturer, and they are made aware, they will usually issue a recall. A vehicle history report will show you what recalls have occurred on that make and model, along with any repairs that occurred as a result. Service history can also show you non-recall related maintenance that has happened with that car (when that information is available.)
  • Vehicle Liens and Title Information:A car history report can show you whether there are any active liens against the vehicle. If there are active liens, the seller must fully pay off that debt (or pass it on to you) before ownership can change hands. A report will also show you the title information and let you know if the car has a clean, salvage, or any other type of title brand applied to it before you finalize a purchase.

Why is Car History Important?

It's nearly impossible to know what has happened to a used car without getting an idea of its complete history. Unless you've owned the vehicle since it was brand new, it's unlikely that a seller will disclose everything the car has experienced, what repairs have been conducted, and how it was used during its lifetime. Getting a car's history also means avoiding common scams, like purchasing a lemon car (cars with undisclosed damage or defects) or the previously mentioned odometer rollback. Unscrupulous sellers will do everything possible to artificially increase a vehicle's price. By the time you discover the damage, it could be weeks or months after your purchase has been finalized.

3 Ways to Check a Car’s History

There are a few ways to check the history of a car, though each will have a different level of information they can retrieve and present. Here are three ways to get more information about your car's history.

1. Request Documents From a Seller

The most basic form of information retrieval can be simply asking a seller for all available documents about a vehicle. This means receipts from repairs, information about the previous owners, title documents, the original bill of sale, and anything else that may shed some light on the car's history. While this process can be completely free, it may be time-consuming. Sellers may take their time finding these documents or state they aren't comfortable sharing that information before a deposit is made. At the same time, some sellers may refuse to provide these documents. They can also provide unverified documents or forge certain pieces of information to help boost the selling price of the car. While this is an excellent first step, it's usually better to get a full report if you want to find the true history of a car.

how to check a car's history

2. The National Insurance Crime Bureau

The National Insurance Crime Bureau, or NICB, has a free checking tool that can provide some details about a car's history. These reports can show you whether a car has been salvaged, reported lost or stolen, or declared a total loss following an accident. The number of searches you can do with this service is limited, so if you plan to check a large number of car histories in a short time, it may not be the best choice. The information these searches also fail to provide the full scope of a vehicle's history and will usually only provide information directly related to its salvage, stolen, or total loss status.

3. Third-Party VIN Number Lookup

A third-party VIN number lookup offers all the available information about a car's history, far exceeding the abilities of simple document retrieval or free search services. The reports provided by these services can show you details like:

  • Vehicle Overview
  • Title History
  • Sales History
  • Location History
  • Pricing
  • Residual Values
  • Junk/Salvage Records
  • Insurer "Total Loss" Records
  • Auto Specs
  • Title Brands (Problem Checks)
  • Mileage Information
  • Awards and Accolades
  • NHTSA Crash Testing and Recall Data

The only downside to these services is that they charge a fee, which ranges from company to company. You'll want to choose a service that provides accurate and plentiful information for a reasonable fee.

Failing to Know a Car’s History Can Be Dangerous and Expensive

While it may be tempting to skip this step in car buying, getting a vehicle's history is essential. If you just ask a seller for the documents or use a free service, you may miss valuable information that can save you money down the road. Not only that but getting an incomplete report puts you at a higher risk of being scammed, which can cost you hundreds or thousands of dollars in future repairs.

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