Why a vehicle history report isn’t enough

On October 11, 2011, in articles, by timothy

The vehicle history report is becoming an increasingly popular tool for the used car buyer.  For a long time the only car company offering reports was CARFAX, who started out faxing vehicle history information to customers as early as 1986.  Now there are several options for vehicle history reports, but this may just make your task of finding a quality vehicle more complicated.  In this article we will discuss the questions of which report you should get, what information you can get from a vehicle history report, and what a vehicle history report doesn’t cover.

Which vehicle history report should you purchase?

Right now there are four main options to choose from: paid options from CARFAX and AutoCheck, a reduced price option through various data providers for the National Motor Vehicle Title Information System (NMVTIS), and a free version from the National Insurance Crime Bureau (NICB).

In a comparison of these services, Consumer Reports found that the paid services were a bit more reliable than the free and reduced price services in what content they included.  They found instances where CARFAX had information AutoCheck was missing, and instances where AutoCheck had information CARFAX was missing, so there is not significant reason to select one over the other in terms of the information they contain.

We suggest to start with using the free services to check the VIN for the vehicle.  Then, we suggest using the free AutoCheck VIN check and the free CarFax lemon check.  Both tools list the number of records on file with each agency, and the CARFAX tool will additionally tell you if the car was ever declared a lemon.  If all those checks come back clean, we suggest using one or both of the paid vehicle history report services to check the car’s history.

What information should you expect to find in a vehicle history report?

CARFAX states on their website that records in their vehicle history reports can provide information on: prior salvage, flood, or total loss reported to CARFAX; accidents reported to CARFAX; number of owners; odometer readings; service records; and registration and title information. Similarly, AutoCheck lists four general categories of information covered by their vehicle history reports: title check (salvaged, rebuilt, fire damage and other damage), problem check (frame damage, lemon, salvage auction, water damage), odometer check (rolled back, broken, exceeds limits, suspect miles), and use and event check (accidents, theft, police/taxi use, fleet car).

One major problem to look out for in a vehicle history report is odometer tampering.  If the mileage listed in the report goes backwards (i.e., less mileage in a later period) or does not change very much, it could be a sign of tampering or damage.  There is a strong economic incentive for odometer tampering as the price of a used car is closely tied to it’s mileage.  Edmunds notes that up to 40% of lease cars have been involved in some sort of tampering, and one mobile vehicle inspection company reports a 30% increase in odometer tampering in the past year.  Since mileage is recorded periodically for emissions inspections and some other types of routine repair work, these records can be used as markers to spot instances of odometer problems.

Generally severe problems with odometer readings or other issues will be highlighted on the vehicle history report, but it is best to know what to look out for because this is not always the case.  I personally purchased a car with a broken odometer, but the information was not flagged in the vehicle history report because the odometer was still advancing slowly.  Autotrader provides a short guide to understanding vehicle history reports which suggest looking at the number of owners, location, name and description, and suspicious markings will allow you to get the most out of your report.

What do vehicle history reports not cover?

First it is important to understand how information gets onto a vehicle history report.  Both AutoCheck and CARFAX get this information by purchasing it from insurance companies, car dealers, law enforcement, car manufacturers and many other sources.  Not all sources of information will sell their data, and not all state and local governments mandate reporting information to the relevant agencies when repair work is done.  Because of this, information can slip through the cracks, and it is not uncommon for vehicle history reports to miss even fairly major events such as accidents and title branding.

Vehicle history reports are just that: a record of a vehicle’s history, and an imperfect one at that.  Even with their issues they are very useful in understanding where a car has been, but the current status of a car can only be assessed by an in-person evaluation.  The evaluation of vehicle history reports by Consumer Reports reached the same conclusion.  They suggest having the vehicle inspected by a well-qualified independent and unbiased mechanic.

Here at OnPoint we couldn’t agree more.  We provide the free OnPoint Inspection form for you to use when having a car inspected to ensure that all the most important points are covered in your vehicle inspection.

What are your thoughts on the merits of vehicle history reports?  Have you had an experience where a vehicle history report has really helped you?  One where it let you down?  Let us know by leaving is a message here or on Facebook – thanks!

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