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Vehicle History

Learn how to get the scoop on vehicle history.

Consumers seeking information about a used car can request a detailed vehicle history report from car dealers or from private companies that sell them for a fee. [©Jupiter Images, 2009]
©Jupiter Images, 2009
Consumers seeking information about a used car can request a detailed vehicle history report from car dealers or from private companies that sell them for a fee.

Before purchasing a used vehicle, it's a good idea for buyers to research the vehicle history. This can be done by obtaining a vehicle history report. Consumer Reports suggests that owners obtain a vehicle history report to protect themselves from unsavory used-car sales practices. The reports can supply consumers with information about the vehicle that a dishonest salesperson might omit.

Consumers interested in gathering as much information as possible about a used car can request a detailed vehicle history report from car dealers or from private companies that sell them for a fee, according to the Federal Citizen Information Center. Edmunds.com provides consumers with a detailed breakdown of private companies that offer vehicle history reports.

The U.S. Department of Justice advises consumers that they can also obtain a history of the vehicle's title from their state motor vehicle department; however, these reports are not as detailed as the reports furnished by private companies for a fee. The more detailed vehicle history reports contain information such as the odometer reading and the salvage, fire and accident histories. Fee-based vehicle history reports may also indicate whether a vehicle suffered flood damage. According to Edmonds.com, the reports can be particularly useful to check for odometer fraud, as the number of miles on a car's odometer plays a major role in vehicle price. Vehicle history reports also protect consumers against "title washing," the process of moving a title across state lines to prevent a consumer from learning about negative factors in the vehicle history.

How Vehicle History Is Recorded

Vehicle history is tracked through the vehicle identification number, known as the VIN. This number can be seen through the windshield on the driver's side of a vehicle. When consumers want to order a vehicle history report, they need to know the VIN of the vehicle in question. When assembling reports, private companies study multiple data sources, including police and government agencies as well as salvage yard records.

Where to Obtain a Vehicle History Report

Consumers should request a free vehicle history report from their vehicle dealer. The report should alert the consumer about key information such as whether the vehicle was rebuilt or significantly damaged. The vehicle history report may provide additional information about the vehicle, such as odometer history and whether the vehicle was used as a police vehicle or rental.

Sometimes a dealer will refuse to provide a vehicle history report. In these instances, consumers can obtain vehicle history reports from private companies. Under no circumstance should a consumer accept the dealer's word about a vehicle's condition without a report. Dealers should be able to obtain information about recall history, and they should provide that information to the purchaser at no cost. If in doubt, a consumer should contact a different dealer of the same brand of vehicle and inquire about recall information.

State authorities often direct consumers to Carfax and Experian as well-known private companies that offer vehicle history reports. However, consumers should be aware that complaints about private companies have been reported in the past. Some private companies advertise limited vehicle history reports as free. They then charge a fee for a complete vehicle history. Free reports contain only the most basic information. Some companies allow free lemon checks (checks to see if a vehicle has been designated as a manufacturer buyback) and free recall checks (checks to see if a recall has been issued for a vehicle).

Limitations of Vehicle History Reports

According to the Wall Street Journal, consumers may have difficulty obtaining a complete vehicle history for vehicles produced before 1981 because the VIN system was not yet standardized. Furthermore, federal privacy laws restrict the amount of information state motor vehicle departments can provide to consumers. This is why consumers often need to look outside government offices when attempting to obtain information about used vehicles .

Vehicle history reports should not replace a mechanic's inspection. Consumers are advised to have a mechanic inspect vehicles before purchase. The New Mexico attorney general's office warns that some damage to a vehicle may not be reported, and thus would not be included in the vehicle history report.

Vehicle history reports can be an important tool for consumers. However, consumers can obtain additional information about used vehicles through a mechanic's inspection, the state title history and vehicle repair history.

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